Horse Winter Blankets: How much damage can they do?

When blanketing our horses during cold winter months, we have the best intention of keeping him warm and protected from the elements. But the design and fit of many blankets can potentially harm your horse and – in extreme cases – cause major structural problems. A first sign that the edge of your blanket is cutting into the crest and the nuchal ligament of the horse, is the so called ‘blanket-dip’, an indentation right in front of the withers.

Indentation in horse's crest from winter blanket
Horse's crest indented by ill fitting winter blanket

A first sign that something is not quite right, is usually a slight indentation right in front of the withers, often coupled with hairloss, coldness to touch (lack of circulation) and possibly stiffness and soreness in the horse. It’s hard to put two and two together. We blanket our horse to keep him warm and protected from the elements and often don’t think that such a relatively light piece of equipment such as a blanket can do damage to our horse.

But indeed, most blankets – even though available in many different sizes – are still not customized enough to fit every horse. The blanket pulls down on the front edge and causes the so called ‘blanket-dip’.

What this means to the horse’s anatomy:

The blanket edge presses on the fatty tissue of the crest and the underlying nuchal ligament. The nuchal ligament starts at the poll and attaches at the withers, making it an elementary component of equine biomechanics. This ligament – together with the supraspinous ligament – serves as the ‘string’ in the ‘suspension bridge’ of the horse’s back.

nuchal ligament
nuchal ligament, image borrowed from

Dr. Gerd Heuschmann: “When the horse stretches his neck forward, the nuchal ligament is put in traction, pulling on the
withers’ spinous processes, causing them to rise. This effect extends all along the horse’s back – the traction is transmitted to the tendon-like supraspinous ligament, which, as a direct continuation of the nuchal ligament, connects all of the back’s
spinous processes.” And: “’s mainly the nuchal ligament that helps the horse lift his back by stretching it forward.”

Impeding or even damaging this important ligament can lead to anything from minor discomfort and restriction to major loss of soundness, requiring lengthy rehabilitation. Stiffness, choppy strides, disjointed movement can be first pointers that something is causing damage or restriction to this ligament.

If you are blanketing your horse, investigate carefully whether the blanket is restricting the nuchal ligament. If you find a dip, coldness to touch or loss of hair, you will want to make changes. Having a knowledgeable tailor make custom changes to your blanket or buying a blanket that has a different design, such as the “Rambo Wug” or “Rhino Wug” by Horseware Ireland may be a good idea, if your horse cannot go without blanket.

What Lies Beneath the Rider’s Seat: The Horse’s Psoas Muscles!

I remember a certain television show for children that explained ‘how things work’. I always found this type of information fascinating and encouraged my kids to watch this show (with me… ). This resulted in my son’s obsession with taking apart everything from  lawn mowers over radios to kitchen appliances and requiring his own workshop at age 10. But we won’t go there…

When looking at the horse, it’s good to develop that type of curiosity as well. Understanding how the horse works can help enable us to better understand what the horse needs, in order to do the job we ask him to do or – and this is a whole topic on its own – how we unintentionally prevent him from doing what we are asking our horse to do.

horse running

It’s always fascinating to me – in life in general – who is behind it all, who pulls the strings? One of those little ‘string pullers’ the equine (and human) anatomy cannot do without, is the psoas muscle or rather muscles. Before we get into where it is and how we can help it do its job well, let’s see what the psoas muscle does:

Have you ever asked your horse to

  • Step under
  • Round the back
  • Lower the pelvis
  • Brace the spine
  • Develop impulsion

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above, you have had a direct request line to the psoas muscles. They pull the strings in all of the above. However, the tricky part is, you cannot see or feel them on the horse. There is no way to palpate them to see whether they are tense or hardened or reactive. Therefore, massaging  them for example, is not an option.

Dr. Joyce Harmann: “The psoas muscle flexes the hip joint; you cannot reach this muscle to treat it or massage it, because it is too deep within the body. “ (From Good Horse Keeping article)

Where exactly are these elusive psoas muscles located?

As Dr. Harmann describes “The psoas muscles [pronounced so-as] connects to the front of the femur and travels across the hip to the bottom of the ribs as far as the 14th thoracic vertebrae underneath the center of the rider’s seat.”

psoas muscles
The psoas muscles are deep inside the horse's anatomy.

What happens when these muscles are rigid, permanently contracted, restricted?

  • Horse has difficulty stepping under and rounding the back
  • Horse develops rigidity in the back
  • Horse loses impulsion
  • Horse is unable or reluctant to lift hind leg for cleaning or for farrier
  • Horse develops back pain
    “The psoas muscle in the hind end is a particularly important muscle in dealing with back pain.  A downward pull on this muscle … creates pain in the back directly under the rearmost area of the saddle.”
    (Dr. Joyce Harmann)

So we see from this very small glimpse at the complicated world of the equine psoas muscles, that they are incredibly important to the functionality of the horse’s anatomy and his ability to perform the tasks we ask of him.

What can we do to keep this muscle supple?

The first and foremost  aspect surely must be proper gymnastistizing. If this element is neglected, all other efforts will be rewarded by only temporary results. There are good books, DVDs and instruction available around the topic of gymnasticizing, from the classic “Gymnasium of the Horse” to books and videos by Klaus Ferndinand Hempfling, Mark Russell and others. I don’t want to present any gymnasticizing techniques in this article, but encourage you to explore the topic further.

The second aspect is eliminating everything that can impede the free range of motion of the horse, such as improperly fitting tack (especially ill fitting saddles), improper angles of limbs resulting from improper angles in the coffin bone due to inappropriate hoof trimming (see this article) and the influence of unbalanced riding.

Proper trimming and hoof care is also important, since a faulty angle can put a strain on the psoas muscles.

What to do, if the psoas muscles are restricted?

As Dr. Harmann explained above, massage is not an option, since one cannot reach these muscles deep inside the horse’s body. The only way to release tension there, is to have the horse actively release it. Jim Masterson, equine massage therapist for the US equestrian team (endurance),  has developed a bodywork technique that engages the horse’s help and cooperation in releasing tension in deeper junctions of the horse’s anatomy, such as the psoas muscles. This method of bodywork is called the Masterson Method™ (Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork™). Here, the practitioner or horse owner learns to engage the horse in a series of exercises, that release tensions deep inside the horse’s body.

Every time I teach a Masterson Method™ student how to release tension in the hind end, I see my son’s face when he used to figure out how things work. It’s one thing to read a book about it, it’s another to actually take the alarm clock apart! Feeling tension dissolve under your hands is an incredibly rewarding experience.

The equine body is a complicated machine, but the principals under which it operates and functions can be easily learned and so can techniques to restore suppleness and performance to horses that suffer from muscular restrictions.

The first step is curiosity to learn what it’s all about. I hope I could get you a little curious…

To learn more about Masterson Method™ or Hands-On Horse Mechanics™ seminars go here.

A Horse named Yogi: Of Course He’s Calm!

“Police horses have to go through a lot of excitement to get to be a certified police mount”, Yogi thought while bravely navigating the obstacles course placed in the large indoor arena of The Horse First Farm in Brooklyn on January 23rd. Handled by Lisa Wolters, a freshly baked horse enthusiast, Yogi was the personification of calm and serenity while carefully checking out each obstacle before bravely tackling it. 

Yankee and Yogi at the Despooking clinic
Yogi and Lisa and Yankee and Stefanie at the Despooking clinic

The Madison Mounted Police Unit conducted a ‘Despooking Clinic’ at The Horse First Farm to provide civilians the opportunity to learn basic desensitizing skills that are part of the training program for horses that patrol Madison’s busy inner city streets. Piles of trash (very clean trash, I might add…), tarps, tires, an inflatable snowman, sources of sounds, smoke and loud noises and many more scary sensory items confronted horses and owners with their skills or lack hereof. After a brief introduction of desensitizing strategies presented by retired Mounted Police Officer Jill Klubertanz, horses and riders went on to get some basic Natural Horsemanship instruction from trainer Gretchen Arndt and then went on to maneuver the obstacles course to the best of their abilities. For some horses – like my horse Yankee, a newcomer to both Natural Horsemanship, traveling ‘abroad’ and spending time with lots of strange people, horses and scary stuff – it was asked a lot. Yogi, though, had fun with it. “Don’t worry, Lisa,” he seemed to say. “I know you are more concerned than I am right now. I won’t let you down.” The Madison Mounted Police Despooking Clinic was a great experience for all of us. Lisa was beaming, Yogi was calm as ever, Yankee finally calmed down and then felt so good that he had to roll right on the spot and Stefanie learned about ‘thresholds’.

 What a day! And what a horse named Yogi!For more information about the next Madison Mounted Despooking Clinic or to host such a clinic at your facility please email

Yogi in the trailer
Yogi: "This was fun. But it's time to go home!"
despooking clinic
Horses and handlers navigating obstacles at the Madison Mounted De-Spooking Clinic on 1/23