****Note: The links in this post aren't really recommendations. At the bottom I will give you a run down on what I know of brands and places to buy them but I am putting links with lots of the items I mention just so you have a reference point for what I'm talking about.
Living in New England, blankets are a pretty serious topic. Everyone kind of develops their own system and brand preferences and you will too. However, we all need a jumping off point.
Last winter we were at a barn that really took care of the blanketing for us. Our leased pony came with blankets and we didn't think about it too much. Heading into winter this year we had a new pony and no blankets. I didn't even know where to begin.
One big issue is that pony sizes are hard to come by so where horses have the option of buying a set from one brand and having all the layers work together, ponies end up with a bit of a hodge podge. Then there is the issue of where to buy blankets. I like to buy from my local tack shop. It saves shipping costs and means I can try things out and exchange them if they don't work. This is really important with blankets - just as it is with saddles and bridles. But when it comes to ponies, the local shop won't always have what you need. Sometimes, they can't even order it! In that case, Just for Ponies is the place to go. Even then you may not find what you need.
So what do you need? It depends on where you live but if temps get down to 20 degrees in your area you should, at a minimum, have a turnout sheet, a cooler and a heavy. A turnout sheet is the horse version of a lightweight rain jacket. It can be put on when it's 50 and raining to keep the horse dry. We also use ours overnight before a show so the clean pony can't get dirty when he rolls. A cooler can take many forms but is essentially a cotton or fleece layer that can be put on either to keep a damp pony from catching a chill or as a layering piece under a turnout sheet. So if it's 30 and rainy you may put a fleece cooler under the turnout. Turnout sheets also come in medium and heavy fill powers so the heavy is like a super warm North Face down coat, usually with 300 grams of fill. The medium is just a little lighter, usually around 200 grams of fill. Both should be waterproof. Many, like the Smartpak Deluxe, can be ordered in any or all of the 3 weights. Sometimes you find you can order your blankets in a set which gives you more layering options rather than a heavy weight turn out. I'm surprised by how much we use both the heavy and the medium. Sometimes one of them gets wet so it's nice to have the other one available. If you have a horse you are likely to have for a long time it's worth have a good selection of blankets and sheets.
If you live in a cool climate, a quarter sheet is a really good idea. I made the one in this photo from a blanket called a Chappy Wrap. A quarter sheet is soft and warm and is used to keep the horse warm while riding on a really cold day. It has side extensions that go under the saddle flaps and meet in front of the saddle where they velcro to keep the sheet in place while you ride.
There are several other types of blankets and sheets out there. Typically if someone refers to a sheet they mean the lightweight turnout. However, there are also stable sheets. These are not waterproof and are more appropriate for a life indoors. It's nice to have a stable sheet for trailering or for putting on when they come in on a rainy day so the turnout can hang and dry. It can also be a good layering piece. The Baker Blanket is an equine staple and we have 2. They are great for layering and come in wool or cotton. We have cotton which is easy to take home and run through the washing machine (more on cleaning horse clothes in a minute). Another good item to have in your equine wardrobe is the anti-sweat sheet. This is similar to a cooler and is used to keep a sweaty horse from getting chilled. It soaks up sweat but is like netting so it allows air in to dry the horse while keeping him warm. There are certainly other items out there including dress sheets. Some people like to have a separate set of blankets they use only for shows when the horse is clean and they want to look good. They usually have a nicer trim and are embroidered with a monogram. Most tack shops also offer a line of custom sheets and coolers.
If you plan to clip your horse's neck or if you live in a severely cold climate, a neck cover - or a heavy weight blanket with a high neck - might be necessary. If you want a neck cover it is best to buy one that goes with your sheet. Again, with ponies, this is a tall order. I did end up finding one that fit our pony but then the sheet of the same brand didn't work with it. Fortunately, it does work with our medium and our heavy. Eventually I'll get around to adding rings to our lightweight so it will work with that too but it still isn't ideal. If you can, try to buy them together. There are a few different systems out there but for the most part they have velcro or hooks on the underside of the neck cover that attach to the neck edge of the sheet either through metal rings or belt loops. This is one of those things that's nice to buy at a tack shop so you can see how it works before making your choice.
Now that you have a wardrobe, I suppose you'd like to know how to use it. This is something that just takes time and experimentation. The goal is to keep the horse warm without causing him to sweat. You don't want to over blanket. If a horse gets sweaty and gets his blanket wet he can catch a chill as the temperature drops. This is all pretty basic common sense. If your horse has a heavy winter coat he won't need as much clothing as a thoroughbred with no hair. If you do a full clip, you need to put on extra clothes.
Clipping may be another post but you may have no idea what I'm talking about so I'll try to explain briefly. When you work a horse for an hour, even on a cold day, they can work up a sweat. Before you can put the horse in his stall for the night, he must be completely dry. You can't blanket a wet horse for the night. If your horse is particularly fuzzy it can take a very long time walking him around to cool him out - we're talking about an additional 45 minutes. So, you can shave off some hair to reduce sweating as well as the time it takes to cool down. We full body clipped Pumba in October but it's pretty much fully grown out now. For the coldest part of the winter we are just clipping him under his neck, across his chest and belly just past the girth. You have to experiment with your own horse and the amount and type of riding you do to know how much clipping is optimal for you. Follow this link for some information on clipping.
With blankets and clipping come blanket rub, yet another thing I had no idea about until one day I noticed an area on our pony where the fur had literally "rubbed" away. Even really nice, well fitted blankets can give a horse rub. On a chestnut horse it looks like a small patch of grayish dirt. It's pretty easy to see on a light grey pony - it's typically dark grey against their light hair. The real issue with allowing rub to continue is that eventually, all the hair in the affected area will wear away and the blanket will then begin to rub and irritate the skin. I guess you could think of it like a bed sore. The chest area is usually the worst and there are a few products on the market to help prevent rub. Stretchies are usually the first line of defense. You can buy a full body stretchy or one that covers the chest area and which many people refer to as a "bra". Another option, and definitely a brand recommendation, is the Bossy Big which completely eradicated rub from the portion of our pony that it covers. The stretchy just didn't work for us but the bib is a life saver. We find that our Baker Blanket causes more rub than a fleece cooler if we need to layer - we recently had a stretch of sub-zero temperatures that had us layering under Pumba's heavy! We also find that rotating blankets helps since different blankets fit a little differently and put pressure in different spots. Most sheets have a nice slippery layer against the pony to minimize friction but some horses are just prone to rub anyway. We find our Amigo heavy and SmartPak Deluxe medium are really good sheets and don't cause much rub.
Horses are dirty and love to roll in the mud so your pony clothes will get filthy. Our barn sends sheets out at the end of winter for cleaning. You can also have older sheets waterproofed if they are starting to leak though it seems as though once they start leaking, they never stop. We sometimes take blankets to Dover Saddlery to send out for cleaning and I know there are other places that do it as well. Dover is just really convenient for us. I do wash coolers at home in my washing machine. We usually put duct tape around the metal parts to preserve our washer and dryer. Be prepared if you wash blankets at home you will find horse hair in everything you own! It's probably not a good idea to wash sheets at home for several reasons. Firstly, they are seriously dirty. Secondly, you may damage their waterproof finish. Thirdly, medium and heavy weight turnouts are super big and may overload your washer. Having them cleaned once a year at the end of the season is usually sufficient.
So, in case you couldn't tell already, my favorite places to shop are Dover Saddlery, SmartPak and Just for Ponies. We are super super super lucky to live in Wellesley, Massachusetts which boasts brick and mortar Dover and SmartPak stores. We have even been so lucky as to find blankets in the discount attic at SmartPak and basement at Dover. We love the SmartPak brand blankets. Weatherbeeta tends to make sheets with the most fun fabrics. Horsewear Ireland makes both the Amigo and Rambo brands which are pretty much top of the line in both price and design. We got an Amigo from a friend and it is super nice. It fits really well and when I'm out shopping I notice both brands take advantage the most innovative design and textiles. If you can afford it, I think they are worth the money ($400 for a Rambo heavy vs. $200 for a SmartPak heavy). But I am just about as happy with our SmartPak sheets so you don't HAVE to spend more. I do think Horsewear does a better job with neck covers so if you intend to use a neck cover frequently you might really think about splurging. Also take into account how long you will have the particular horse you are clothing. It's rare that the next horse fits in the same blankets. If you are leasing for a year, you might not go for the extensive wardrobe of high end blankets. If, however, this is a young, forever horse, I would buy blankets that really fit well and will perform for a long time.
SmartPak has some great resources on their website including a Blanketing 101 article and a Blanketing Glossary. Both are worth a look if you still have questions.
Have fun dressing your pony! -