Saddle blankets are an important part of your western show wardrobe, because they’re the visual element that ties you and your horse together and makes you look like a team. A gorgeous horse, beautifully groomed and clad in the latest tack, and a rider turned out to perfection, need just the right saddle blanket—in style, color, and size—to bring the whole look together.
First, let’s talk about saddle blankets from the horse’s point of view. Blankets are supposed to pad the horse’s back and absorb sweat. Show blankets don’t do either of these chores, but a liner blanket does: be sure to always use a work or liner blanket under that fancy show Navajo. (Hint: most genuine Navajo blankets are hanging in museums these days, not tack rooms, but it’s OK to use the name for any show blanket). All-in-one blankets that have good back protection and a decorative top are usually not large enough or fancy enough for big-time show use, so do plan on using two blankets when you show.
You may be able to use your everyday blanket under a show blanket if the work blanket is small enough to be completely hidden by the showpiece. If you’re purchasing a liner just to use at shows, opt for a solid color to match your horse that’s thick and firm enough to protect the horse’s back, but not so thick that, when the show blanket is added, your saddle looks like it’s resting on a stack of mattresses. Look for a liner blanket that will conform to your horse’s back, absorb sweat (a drier back is a happier back) and won’t peek out from under the show blanket.
Blankets are available in many designs. Depending on the breed and events you show in, your blanket may be very simple or a complex pattern of color and line. Reiners, cow horse exhibitors, and some pleasure horse riders—especially men—choose solid color blankets with either no trim or simple border designs of tooled leather. Corner conchos-engraved in round or other geometric shapes, with or without leather or horsehair tassels—add interest to the back edges of these solid color blankets.
If you like fancier blankets with intricate contrast designs, remember that loom-woven blanket patterns are always a series of straight lines. Smooth curves are impossible within the linear format of the weaver’s grid, but almost-curved lines can be made as a series of small steps giving a slightly jagged finish to the line. If you want curves in weaving, reinterpret your idea into the geometric components that can be woven.
Judge a blanket’s impression from a distance, just as it will appear across the show ring. Fine designs of similar colors will blur in the arena, so bold contrasts and larger motifs are better bets to carry out a theme from far away. Simple designs may be a good choice if you wear patterned clothes so there’s not a clash between blanket and blouse, but complex blanket/shirt coordination done well looks terrific.
Show blankets should be selected in colors that enhance your wardrobe and flatter your horse. If you wear black chaps and lots of red, then a black blanket with a red southwestern hip design is a good investment to go with your wardrobe. With many show blankets costing several hundred dollars, buy smart and get one that will work with most your clothes. Keep in mind the part your horse’s color plays as well: a black blanket will blend into a bay horse’s coat, but provide strong contrast and beautifully frame your saddle on a gray horse.
Most quality show blankets are woven from 100% wool yarn. Some modestly priced models use nylon and acrylic yarns, but wool, which dyes to vibrant colors and weaves beautifully, is still the material of choice. Warp threads (the base threads in the weave) are usually cotton or nylon, which is stronger than the wool and doesn’t stretch as much on the loom. Expect a good wool show blanket to weigh four pounds or more, and know that with reasonable care it will last a decade or longer.
Gently vacuum your show blankets after use to remove show dust and horsehair, and don’t forget to use mothballs when you store wool blankets. Dry cleaning is hard on Navajos and expensive, but can be done by a competent cleaner. If your blanket ‘springs a leak’ and starts to come unwoven, use a tapestry needle and matching yarn to darn the damaged
spot, or return it to the maker for mending. Trim yarn ends that occasionally pop from the weave flush with the blanket, or use a crochet hook to pull these ends to the back side of the blanket. These ‘loose ends’ are normal and result from the weaver adding in more yarn as they work. Use wear leathers to protect the sides of your blanket from staining and abrasion from latigo straps.
With today’s’ show saddles sporting deeper skirts, and designed to fit larger horse, blanket size is very important. A good starting size for show blankets is 34" front to back, and 36" side to side. Of course, if you ride a small horse or have a smaller saddle, you may not need such a large blanket. Don’t use a double blanket (rectangular, then folded in half to make two layers) for showing, as the layers tend to shift and the corners curl as you ride.
Try to test-drive a blanket before you buy it. Use the liner blanket and the saddle you intend to show in to make sure the blanket’s proportions look good on your horse and that the design, if any, is still visible when you’re tacked up. Many shows now require two numbers to be used on the back corners of show blankets—if your club uses double numbers, remember they may cover or interfere with your blanket’s design.
As with your other show equipment, invest in the best show blankets within your budget and you’ll not only look good, you’ll look good for years to come. Whether you buy off the rack or have a special blanket custom woven, choose the right style, colors, and size and you and your horse will always look like a winning team.