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 http://www.scienceofmotion.com/documents/home.html

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: “..it’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.

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19 thoughts on “Horse Winter Blankets: How much damage can they do?

  1. Great article! I never thought that a blanket could cause that much damage. They way you explained it and the pictures really help to make clear what you’ve shared int he text. Thanks so much, I’ll be looking for new blankets for next year!

  2. Stefanie,

    What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge in such a clear fashion. This is the first time I have seen blankets addressed as a potential contributor to lameness in the horse. Thanks for the education.

    Personally, I prefer winter coats made of horse hair to protect my crew from the cold winters, but certainly understand why some might object to the fuzzy equines that result from this practice. Still, I shudder a bit for the horses I see turned out clipped or discouraged from growing a winter coat when the wind gets whipping around here and the temperatures drop. I’ll be sure to keep this in mind in the future as horses come in that require blanketing.

    1. Aaahhhh Nanette, I too prefer warm fuzzy horse hair equines in place of blanketed ones. But my Northern WI bred appendix does not agree (haha)! He will not grow a coat, and I leave him to grow as much of one that he can until he is shivering in the cold and then I’m forced to blanket him. I really dislike it because I believe that he would do so much better without an “artificial jacket”, but alas for 10 years I’ve tried everything to get him to grow his own and he refuses!

  3. I have only begun blanketing in the last two years. All but one of my horses is well into their twenties and we live in the “Great Northwet” where our heavy rains make for more of a problem than just cold or snow. I think frequent removal of the blankets for grooming and checks is absolutely essential. It is also important to be sure of a good fit in the first place. With all the various designs, there is a blanket that will fit right for almost every horse. If you choose to blanket, you must also choose to check your horse frequently for any problems.

  4. If you blanket, don’t just put it on and leave. It should come off at a certain degree, and may be placed back on when it gets colder…Monitor it and be sure it fits correctly as suggested by the article…as a kid we were always told not to leave our jacket/coat on in the house as it becomes ineffective and it also unhealthy!

  5. It might be more helpful to describe what is better about the “WUG” designs rather than just recommending a specific brand. I loved the article until the end when it suddenly sounded like an advertisement.

    I hate cut back blankets – they do the most damage to the base of horses’ withers. High neck blankets are much preferable. I didn’t think about that being because they spread the pressure over a larger part of the neck, but that might be why they are better.

    I also think gusseted shoulders are a big help. And if a blanket has a double buckle front, I adjust the lower buckle looser than the upper one – to allow freedom of movement.

    It helps when you pull your horse’s blanket to gently touch along any pressure points – that will give you an indication of poor fit long before the skin dries and starts to slough off.

    Anyway, good job raising people’s awareness of how poor fitted equipment can adversely affect a horse’s preformance. How about a follow up on Browbands!!!

  6. Rug fit is paramount – it doesn’t matter how expensive (or cheap!) the rug was, what brand, what materials, or anything else – if the darn thing doesn’t fit right, then it’s going to cause problems at some point. Constant pressure on any point of the body will eventually create problems – I’ve seen rubs, hairless areas, even open sores on the crest, withers (on top and behind), chest, shoulders, point of hip, sacroilliac, point of buttock, tailhead, flank, and between the butt cheeks on various different horses caused by poorly fitted or poorly adjusted rugs. I’ve yet to see an example of a divot in front of the wither, but perhaps our rugs tend to be cut a bit differently or maybe I just haven’t come across it yet.

    What most manufacturers fail to consider is that horses don’t stand in one spot unmoving with their necks and heads raised every moment of the day liie those plastic horse you see displaying gear at the tack store. Instead, they graze step by step, have a bit of a run, roll, graze some more, and so on. The simple fact is that not many rugs (especially synthetics) are cut to fit a moving horse with his head down, so when the horse DOES lower his head the rug starts pulling and rubbing.

    A classic issue is the position of the chest straps – manufacturers place them to sit snugly at the ‘base’ of the throat (if you’re lucky – many place them even higher), ignoring the fact that when the horse lowers his head, the whole neck drops down even deeper. So a rug done up higher ends up pulling on the base of the neck, AND being pulled down tight on the top of the wither.

    My personal rule is that a rug shouldn’t be done up any higher than the top of the breastbone (the keel of bone in the chest muscles), since that’s the point where the neck meets the chest when the head is lowered. Since most rug chest straps are fixed at a higher point, this means either leaving the top strap undone and using the bottom one (assuming it has two and the second is in the right place), crossing the front straps top-to-bottom (works surprisingly well, creating a self-adjusting V neck effect), or having the top strap moved to the correct position.

    And of course, it’s not just the position of the chest straps – it’s things like the overall angle and depth of the shoulder, the position of darts and gussets at the shoulder and rump, overall length, position of belly straps and leg straps, line of the back and neck, how the neck rug is attached, and so on. And then there’s the neck rug, tail bag, hood, belly protector, …

    Some rug brands do fit certain breeds fairly well, assuming of course that your horse is an ‘average’ horse of that breed! On the other hand, some rugs just don’t seem to fit any horse well, unless it’s conformed like a backwards yak . And of course, even if the rug is the right size and cut, if the various straps aren’t adjusted correctly, it can still slip and cause problems 😦

    Claire Vale
    New Zealand

  7. Thank you for posting this! This is the most concise, informative and well laid out article I have found to educate me about horse blankets. It truly was helpful. I will be reading more on your blog.

  8. Could you please write another article on how a blanket SHOULD fit. One thing I know is that it must be adjusted so as not to slip back behind the withers as this forms a straight jacket between the horse’s back and his chest.

    1. Thank you for your comment and suggestion. I will follow up with a ‘how to’ measure your horse for blanket fit etc. shortly. One of the problems seems to be that people don’t specifically measure their horse or often let the new horse ‘inherit’ the old horse’s blanket. If the blanket is too small, it will cut into the horse’s natural indentation in front of the withers and the damaging process begins. So in short: Measure, measure, measure! And if in doubt, buy a size bigger.

      1. I live near Phoenix Arizona, where 50 degrees in the winter is considered an Arctic cold front. Horses are blanketed from top to bottom. I do not blanket my horse. I’m originally from Minnesota, where it got really really cold. I never saw horses so bundled until I got to Arizona. My horses fuzz up like they did in MInnesota, but people here don’t give them the chance. I know when I stand next to mine their body heat is warm and toasty. But people don’t want to believe they can survive without them. Reminding them of the wild mustangs all around doesn’t seem to help!

  9. Thank you for this informative article. I live in Texas and don’t blanket that much. Just on nights like these when the temps get down in the 20’s with a cold wind. My mare especially feels the cold and she is happier with her blanket. I will certainly be watchful that the coats cause no problems after ready your article.

  10. I think “Wug” was mentioned in this article only as an example because most people know what one looks like and how it comes up higher on the horses neck, I am sure a generic version of the Wug type blanket/rug design is available somewhere. I use a Wug type medium weight at this time of year. Our temperature even in the barn shows highs only at 30 degrees and lows in the teens right now. There is no rubbing, hair loss or marks from this blanket on my mare. I did buy this blanket one size too big and it came with all the fancy darting on it, which I think does help with all the moving around that she does. She also, does not grow a winter coat, ever, this means blanketing is a must for her here in New England. I also have a heavy weight Wug type with a detachable neck (which I have never used) when it get’s down toward 0 degrees or below. I have seen so many horses with blanket rubs over the years, mostly on the points of the shoulders/withers and even some on the hips. This is definitely caused by an ill fitted blanket or blanket material that is not suitable for long term use. We change out the blanket on our mare based on the temperature and weather changes. What is suitable for day time temperatures is not necessarily the right blanket for overnight temperature drops.

      1. It’s interesting because most rugs I deal with cause pressure on the actual withers rather than the area just in front of it.
        The issues I came across are shoulder pain (from front of the rug rubbing and causing pressure points) and general wither/back pain.

  11. I feed on the ground and found that the breast straps on the blanket cut into my horse’s windpipe and esophagus when he reaches his head down to eat, causing serious misery. Now that he is growing a good winter coat, I just use a rain-sheet from Horseware for the few days we have with freezing rain, other wise my OTTB is so much better off with out any blanket.

  12. my half Arab is tiny and has a narrow chest so her blankets were either slipping back or were just cut too far back or had a long chest piece so they slipped back and cause a sore behind her withers. I found the blankets with the attached necks were great for her because they prevent slippage and the Velcro at three points along her neck were wide, flat and help keep the blanket forward. This also allowed me to loosen it up at bit at the chest so she could get her head down to eat and a leg forward without the binding at the withers . If the day is sunny or not raining I try to remove the blankets and let the horses breathe , move freelyor change to a new one if the pulled off one is wet or poopy (or both) . Although I like Rambos for quality and durability since we have an orchard that wreaks havoc on some blankets I have found several like Big D with their quilted and shaped rear end and Tough 1 high necked which I also like and they are way more affordable for me so I can buy 2 for each horse and can usually find them used at tack swaps or private party sales reasonably priced . If one is wet or needs a laundering the horse has an extra .
    Good article. I hadn’t ever seen the injury at the point mentioned.thanks for the education

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