As we all know, living through Minnesota winters can be somewhat challenging due to the cold and snow (or wet as we've seen this year). And our horses often experience more of Mother Nature’s wrath from being outside more than we are. To keep our horses warm and dry we often bundle them up in a turnout blanket. There are many factors, however, to consider when deciding whether to blanket your horse or not. Certain horses under certain conditions may benefit from the additional protection that a blanket can provide.
Choosing the right type of blanket for your horse can be equated to finding the perfect fit jeans. You want them to be not too tight, not too long or short, and with just enough give to move around comfortably (as well as the ever concerning question of how big your butt looks). Fortunately our horses are not concerned with the size their rumps, so we will focus on how to choose the best overall blanket fit for your horse.
The biggest area of concern when fitting a blanket to your horse is the withers. The withers are the dorsal spinous processes of the third through eighth thoracic vertebra. There is no significant muscle or fat surrounding the wither area to act as protection, so it is important to find a blanket that will not put pressure on them. Pressure in this area can lead to blood flow restriction, specifically in the small capillaries, which in turn blocks the proper flow of nutrients to that area and does not allow for the removal of waste. Over time this can lead to deterioration of the surrounding tissue, and we end up with pressure sores. The factors that affect the development of pressure sores are the length of time the pressure is applied and the total amount of pressure present. Therefore, pressure sores could develop from a light amount of pressure over a longer period of time, or conversely a high amount of pressure delivered over a short time frame.
To avoid the potential for pressure sores on the withers there are three main blanket styles that must be taken into consideration.
- The Straight-Cut: The straight-cut, or Euro style, blanket style has no seam over the horse’s back which is a popular choice to avoid moisture seeping through to a horse’s skin. The drawback, however, is that there is no contouring of the blanket to accommodate the natural peaks and valleys of a horse’s back and hindquarters.
- The Cutback: The cutback style of blanket has a U-shaped cutout in the wither area to remove the potential of pressure on the highest point of the withers. There is also often a layer of cushion, like sheepskin or fleece, to add extra protection around the cut-out area. The potential problem with this blanket is that although the cut-out removes pressure from the most prominent portion of the withers it may add more pressure at the base of the withers.
- The V-Free Insert: The V-Free, or Wither Relief, blankets have upright shoulder designs and darts over the haunches of the horse to create a better topline fit. There are v-shaped inserts on either side of the withers to accommodate their height. The neck opening is generally smaller and covers part of the mane.
In a study performed by Dr. Hilary Clayton at Michigan State University it was found that among the three above mentioned styles of blankets the V-Free blanket had the lowest total force and the smallest area of high pressure on the withers while both standing and walking. This was despite the fact that it was the heaviest blanket of the study. The straight-cut blanket produced the highest total pressure and the largest area of pressure. With this style, the greatest amount of pressure was located at the highest part of the withers. The blanket with cutback withers produced force and pressure halfway between the other two styles, and the greatest pressure was concentrated at the back of the withers. This study proves the style of blanket affects the amount and distribution of pressure on a horse’s withers, and it is essential to select a blanket that provides relief of pressure over the withers.
You can easily gauge the amount of pressure upon the withers of your horse with a visual and manual assessment of both your horse and its blanket. It is best to perform this assessment after the blanket has been on your horse for a while and the horse has been allowed to move about freely. This gives the blanket time to shift and settle into the position it is likely to be in most of the time. While standing next to your horse, and keeping sure to not shift the blanket, slowly slide your hand into the space between the blanket and your horse’s withers. Then slide your fingers up and over the spinous processes of the withers at their highest point. Optimally, there should be enough room for you to move your fingers around the withers without feeling pinched or restricted by the blanket. If your fingers feel squeezed by the blanket, then it is probable that your horse feels the same in its withers with the blanket on and there may be too much pressure being applied to that area. Next, take the blanket off your horse and visually inspect the wither area. Look for any areas where the hair is disturbed or the hair itself is damaged. Also feel for areas of increased heat or palpable swelling or thickened skin. Sensitivity when palpating this area, such as twitching, pinning ears, or shaking head or tail, might also be a sign of a potential problem. These could all be signs that the blanket is exerting too much pressure in the wither area and your horse may be uncomfortable.
If you would like to read the study by Dr. Hilary Clayton for yourself the link is provided below. And as always, Dr. Kyla or Dr. Maya would be happy to help you determine if your current or new blanket is the right fit for your horse.
Thanks for reading!