What should you look for in a good winter cover?
It’s easy to picture an equine fashion parade of covers. Imagine horses striding the catwalk in the latest in stable-wear featuring the new-season colours, patterns and styles – not to mention the matching accessories.
Then there’s the wonderful range of fabulous snug-fitting paddock-wear for summer and winter. Here’s the inside word on the upcoming winter style: toughness and functionality have again won out over frills and lace.
There are dozens of different types and styles of rugs in the marketplace, using different materials and fastening systems.
Once, the choice was pretty simple. Armed with your horse’s measurements, you picked the weight of canvas and chose between wool or jute lining.
But some clever clogs at DuPont in the United States invented ballistic nylon for use in multi-layered flak jackets worn by World War 2 airmen. Its success in stopping bullets and shrapnel was limited, but there was no doubt that DuPont, using a basket-style weave, had come up with a super-tough, scuff-resistant material.
Bullet-proof vest-makers moved onto higher-tech materials such as kevlar, but ballistic nylon is now made around the world for many uses – one of them horse rugs.
These synthetic rugs, with polyester fill sandwiched between the outer shell and the lining, square off in the market against wool or jute-lined canvas rugs.
Both have their strengths, with horse owners sometimes making the call based on each individual horse. Some owners prefer synthetic because they’re lighter to handle. Others believe they get longer life from a canvas cover, suspecting they stand up better to the rough and tumble of paddock life.
It’s hard to imagine a scientific study involving that big imponderable – horses – that could prove this either way. How could you assess a fabric’s paddock toughness? A rug can be bitten, rubbed on a rough old fence post, and snagged on an unnoticed bit of fencing wire. There seems no end to the innovative ways in which horses can accelerate wear.
Whatever your preference, you’re shelling out good money so it’s important you know what to look for in a cover. Given the huge range on the market, we’ll concern ourselves only with outdoor winter rugs.
What kind of fabric?
All cover materials, synthetic or natural fibre, must meet several crucial requirements for a winter cover. They need to be waterproof, windproof, breathable, and able to withstand the rigours of outdoor life.
When you go shopping, you’re likely to come across these options.
This tried and true woven fabric is made from cotton, linen, jute or hemp – all natural fibres. It is tightly woven and its versatility gives it thousands of uses, from tents and yacht sails to shoes and painting cavasses. Canvas is usually treated to make it water resistant, UV resistant and fire resistant.
It is undeniably tough and comes in different weights. There are many grades of canvas and several ways of measuring them. The system usually seen with horse covers is the number of ounces the canvas weighs per square yard. Outdoor rugs are usually made from heavier grades – up to about 24 ounce fabric. Some manufacturers might simplify this by simply offering light, medium or heavyweight options.
In New Zealand, a winter rug will normally be lined with wool. Cover manufacturers usually use canvas with a ripstop weave, designed to minimise the chances of rips and holes growing. It is ripstop that gives covers that familiar checker pattern in the weave.
Canvas edges should be folded over and stitched to prevent fraying. They can be sewn into a tape, too, but the edge should still be folded over inside the tape.
The fate that awaits any edge that isn’t properly dealt with. They should be either folded and stitched, or sewn into a tape.
The edges of synthetic covers should be sewn into a tape, usually made of webbing, to prevent fraying. Note that this edge has been double-stitched.
This stain-resistant fabric is made from petroleum products. It is lighter than canvas and extremely scuff resistant. Like canvas, it has thousands of uses worldwide. It also comes in different grades, measured in denier.
Denier is effectively a measure of the fineness of the fibre used in the material’s manufacturer. The higher the denier, the denser and heavier the fabric, and the tougher it will be. Naturally, the higher the denier, the more you should expect to pay. Like canvas, a ripstop weave is available. Outdoor nylon rugs can range from 400 denier to 1200 or more, so be clear on what you’re paying for.
The warmth in a synthetic rug will come from a layer of polyester fill – the same stuff as in your duvet inner. This is measured by the weight of fill in each square metre of material. A winter-weight synthetic rug is likely to have 300g to 400g of fill per square metre. A midweight cover probably uses 200g to 300g, while lightweight rugs could have 100g or less (if they have any at all).
Each manufacturer’s definition of what is winter weight, mid-weight, or summer weight will vary, so find out the weight of fill used. Polyester fill needs protection so it will be sandwiched between the outer shell and an inside lining of polycotton (a mix of polyester and cotton) or lightweight breathable nylon. This lining not only needs to breathe, but move easily against the horse’s coat.
While polycotton fabric is cheaper, breathable nylon is favoured by many in synthetic rugs because hairs tend not to stick in it, and it glides more freely over a horse’s coat. It is also generally faster drying than a polycotton. Some manufacturers are successfully using a fleece material, said to effectively wick moisture away from a horse’s skin.
Polyester is a lightweight and affordable material made from coal and petroleum products. It is cheaper than ballistic nylon. It is strong, but not as tough as nylon. It is also measured in denier and comes in a ripstop weave. Again, the higher the denier, the stronger and heavier the fabric. A 1200-denier polyester is equal in strength to about 840 denier nylon.
Manufacturers will often combine materials to produce a fabric that displays the qualities of both. So a nylon/polyester blend should deliver the inherent strength of nylon with some of the affordability of polyester. A canvas/polyester blend should still deliver a tough fabric, but one that is still lighter than winter-weight canvas. A number of major cover manufacturers are using nylon/polyester blends, obviously finding what they consider the right balance between affordability and toughness.
Given that most cover-makers rely on the wearability and longevity of their products to get repeat business, we should expect they’ve got this right. Major manufacturers appear to use polyester/nylon blends around the 1200 denier mark for winter paddock wear.
With hundreds of different material types in the market, it’s not surprising that some cover manufacturers around the globe are branching beyond traditional materials. There are reports of polypropylene and Goretex making their way into covers. There are no doubt others fabrics, too. If you strike a cover using different materials, ask why. You’ll then have to weigh up their argument.
Life in the great outdoors will soon show up the difference between quality fastenings made from durable materials, such as stainless steel, and those made of cheaper materials.
Does it fit?
A rug naturally needs to be the right size, but how does it fit the horse? Some brands of rugs are more contoured than others, accommodating, for example, higher withers or broader shoulders. A rug which is nominally the right size will still rub and be uncomfortable if it doesn’t accommodate the body shape of the horse. People’s clothes are no different. Covers that are too big will tend to roll sideways and move back, creating undesirable extra drag about the shoulders. Covers that are too small will restrict movement, be uncomfortable, and create bad rubs. Turning a blind eye to rubs can easily result in open sores. Some rugs made of natural fibres may shrink a little after being wet. Some, however, are pre-shrunk, so check before buying and make some allowance if necessary.
Features to consider
Cover manufacturers are generally attuned to the needs of owners and horses. This has led to steady improvements in the design and manufacture of covers.
Here are some things to consider:
A good neck rug will provide a horse with plenty of freedom. It needs to function in such a way that water is unable to run off the rug and into the shoulder area. Some neck rugs are designed with a cut away area at the base. This is designed to take weight off the withers.
These are well suited to high-withered horses, but you need to be sure that it still keeps the water out when the horse is eating. Some neck rugs are “faced” – this being an extra layer of material sewn in to improve strength and help the neck rug maintain shape as it ages. Neck rugs do run the risk of rubbing out some of a horse’s mane.
Areas on any cover where straps and surcingles join are stress points which should be well reinforced and stitched heavily. Leather is often used on canvas covers, with rivets sometimes used to secure the straps. Reinforcing in synthetic covers may be hidden between the inner and outer layers, but you should be able to feel it.
This is the area where a cover is most likely to rub and cause hair loss. These rubs are usually the result of a poor fit, or a cover that restricts shoulder movement. Some covers have gussets to allow more shoulder freedom. Belly straps can also help by holding the cover more firmly in position, so it doesn’t ride back and create pressure points around the shoulder area. The front strap should be adjustable.
When bad weather comes, you know exactly where your horse’s backside will be pointing. Tail flaps are designed to give added protection against wind getting in around the back of the cover, which can lift it. Make sure the tail flap lifts easily out of the way when your horse is attending to his ablutions, or you’ll be facing a nasty clean-up job. Some tail flaps are velcroed on and removeable – something paddock mates are likely to discover sooner rather than later.
Areas where surcingles and straps attach to the cover fabric will face extra stresses. Look for additional reinforcing material and heavier or extra stitching. Canvas rugs will sometimes go the extra mile with leather reinforcing stitched around these points. Straps can be fastened using rivets through the reinforcing material. The various metal clips and fastenings should be sturdy and well fastened to the leather or web straps.
These should ideally be adjustable; and some are elastic. Webbing material and leather are the commonest. Some covers have a tail strap instead of leg straps.
Some horse owners dislike top seams, arguing they’re a point where rain can penetrate as the cover wears. Top seams are probably not a good idea on synthetic covers, but are pretty standard in the manufacture of many canvas covers. If they do eventually leak, the application of a suitable waterproofing agent will take only a few minutes.
The edge of any material is a weak point where it can easily fray and be subject to damage. It’s essential these edges in covers are properly dealt with. Edges on synthetic covers should be sewn into a tape – usually a tough webbing material. This webbing will also hold in place the inside lining and the fill material. Two rows of stitching is common. Canvas can also be sewn into a tape, but it is important that canvas edges are folded over and sewn to prevent fraying, regardless of whether tape is used.
What weight cover should I choose?
People make this judgment based on so many factors: the horse, the climate, the weather that day, the available shelter, to name but a few (see the sidebar).
The big problem is usually the middle of the day. A warm winter cover may be great on a cold night and chilly morning, but what about the midday and afternoon sun? Are you home to remove the cover or replace it with a lighter one?
If you’re not around to deal with covers on a warmer winter day, you might be better choosing a medium-weight cover to help with the really cold spells, but reduce the chance of overheating when it does warm up. Horses are better equipped to stay warm than to stay cool.
Remember, too, that each manufacturer’s definition of what is a light, medium, or winter-weight cover will vary a little, so ask how much fill you’re getting and what the outer shell is made of.
Time to go shopping
People like a bargain and, with covers being a seasonal item, there are great buys to be had at certain times.
However, always bear in mind that many desirable features in a cover come at a cost. Heavier canvas and higher denier materials cost more, as do greater levels of polyester fill. Extra reinforcing and gussets take extra material and time to build into a cover. Quality clips and fittings made from a strong material like stainless steel will naturally be more expensive.
Is that bargain-priced cover really such a bargain? It may well be, but once you know what to look for, it’s possible you might consider the cover that’s a little dearer an even better buy.
Don’t just look at the price. Look at the features you get for the price, then make your decision.
To cover or not to cover?
People rug up well in winter. It’s understandable. Our covering of body hair is woeful.Some horse owners apply the same standards to their horses – “If I think it’s cold, my horse must, too.”
But horses are much tougher and better at handling the cold than we are. For starters, they have a decent covering of hair that grows longer and thicker in the lead-up to winter. Their hair “stands up” when they start to feel the cold, trapping a layer of warm, insulating air against their skin. (Our hairs do, too – we just don’t have enough to make a difference.) On a good diet, they will store a layer of fat beneath their skin for added insulation as the days begin to shorten.
When bad weather arrives, they point their rump into the wind to minimise exposure. This also points most of their hairs toward the breeze, which helps to keep the protective layer of warm air against their skin.
If they start to chill off, their body diverts blood away from the skin, and their big muscles start to shiver to generate heat.
The growth of a winter coat will be curtailed if you begin covering the animal going into winter. It would be very hard on a horse to then switch to no cover for the remainder of the cooler months. If you go down the winter-cover track, stay on it.
Those who opt against covering their horses rightly point out that they have coped in the wilderness for countless centuries without covers. Horses, unfortunately, cannot spell out their preference.
Not all equines are created equal, so owners need to judge on a case-by-case whether their horses should be covered in winter.
Here are some questions to consider:
How much natural shelter does my horse have?
Do your paddocks provide good shelter from the prevailing cold winds? In the wild, horses can seek out suitable shelter, but we do not provide them with that luxury when we fence them in.
Does my horse develop a good winter coat?
Some horses are better at growing a winter coat than others. If your horse is a hairy dude for the winter, he or she may well do fine without a cover. The ability of a horse’s hair to stand on end to trap air is an important part of the strategy for keeping warm. Some argue that a heavy cover can interfere with this process. If you clip your horse during the winter months, he must be covered.
How bad is your weather?
New Zealand crosses the sub tropical and temperate zones. Our mountainous backbone creates wide weather extremes. Cold on its own is usually fine, be it a frost or a chilly breeze. Rain, too, need not necessarily be a problem. It’s the combination of rain and a brutal wind that causes problems. If your area is prone to long, wet, windy cold spells then invest in a cover, particular if your paddocks offer limited shelter. A horse’s coat will repel water surprisingly well, but once the water penetrates to the skin the horse will be working hard to keep warm. Some studies suggest a horse can lose heat 20 times faster once wet to the skin. Imagine if an icy wind is getting in as well to lift the hair and penetrate its coat.
Is your horse in work?
A horse in work will be better off with a cover. Being turned out on a cold and wet day after an hour of exercise won’t be your horse’s idea of fun.
What about the breeding?
Some equines adapted over thousands of years to life in places so cold and windswept that New Zealand looks positively equatorial by comparison. Lighter breeds stemmed from much warmer climes and may not have that same inherent toughness to withstand our winters.
Is your horse old, young, or unwell?
Healthy horses in their prime will be better equipped to stay warm in nasty weather than aged, sick, or young equines. Covering foals can be a problem, as they outgrow them so quickly. At the very least, let the foal and its mother enjoy a paddock with the best shelter.