Rugs. Too hot? Too cold? Or just right?

About three years ago a few articles went viral about the problems of over rugging horses, along with charts telling us what rug weights are appropriate at what temperature.

A lot of it makes sense, and yes many people were over rugging horses. But recently, I’ve become concerned that this approach is actually causing owners to leave horses under rugged and cold. Which has it’s own set of problems such as weight loss, stiff joints, unhappiness.

The result is that owners now second guess themselves, and no one is confident in their logic. Which is detrimental to horse’s welfare.

Whilst there are problems associated with over rugging, most notably obesity and colic like symptoms, it is important to look at each horse and their environment as an individual.

Some horses feel the cold more than others. They may have finer hair and thinner skin, may be clipped, or they are not carrying as much weight as others. Older horses can often feel the cold more, and it’s important to remember their rugging history. A mature horse who has been over rugged in previous years will not cope well being under rugged. And of course, some horses just feel the cold more. Despite Phoenix’s breeding (a hardy Welsh) I have caught her in after a summer shower, with the thermometer still reading seventeen degrees Celsius, and she is shivering. She seems to cope fairly well with dry cold, but the wind and rain really give her a chill.

A horse’s diet will affect his ability to keep warm. Sugar beet is digested in the hindgut slowly, so has a heating effect. So a horse who is fed lots of forage, hay or haylage, will have their own heating system,as opposed to horses on a restricted diet. Yes, those on a restricted diet are presumably supposed to be losing weight, but it is worth remembering that with less forage they will feel the cold more.

The environment plays a huge impact on a horse’s ability to keep warm. Are their stables brick or wood; are they well insulated or is there a through draught? One of Otis’s stables was below a flat so it was beautifully warm in winter as the flat heated it from above.

Likewise, if a horse’s field has lots of shelter, natural or man made, they can escape the wind or driving rain. A north facing field is colder than a south facing one, and fields in a valley are less exposed than those on the coast or mountain side. If they are only turned out in the day so have limited forage other than grass, then they will not be able to keep as warm as a horse living out all the time with as lib hay.

So a horse in a north facing field with very little shelter will need extra protection from the elements than the same horse in a field with a palatial field shelter.

The important thing, I believe, is to get to know your horse as an individual, monitor how warm or cool they are without obsessing over it because they will adjust. If they’re a bit warm in the field, they can move to stand in the breeze; if they’re a bit cool they can move around to warm up, or stand out of the wind. There’s a lot more scope to self regulate their temperature in the open space.

The other thing to consider is that when we are doing our horses in winter we are rarely doing them at the warmest or coldest part of a twenty four hour cycle. When we turn out in the morning, we need to consider the fact that the day will warm up. However, it will also cool down, possibly before we catch in. I tend to work on the basis that the warmth of the day is usually counterbalanced by being exposed to the elements (autumn and spring are the danger days when the sun is stronger). When we tuck our horses up in the evening, we need to be aware that the temperature drops in the early hours. So you don’t want to put your horse to bed only just be warm enough, because they will undoubtedly be cold in the middle of the night.

I think the key to rugging a horse for weight loss, which is surely where this trend has come from, is to delay rugging them in the autumn, and to remove rugs early in the spring. One of my clients has a companion pony who is too fat, but living with a horse who needs plenty of grass, makes it difficult for him to lose weight. So I insisted that he stayed naked until November at the earliest, horrendous storms excluded, as he has a lovely field shelter, to encourage the weight to drop off. Now, he is in a lightweight rug and will stay that way for as long as possible, before having his rug removed, weather depending, in February.

Otis has been unrugged the last couple of years except for snowstorms, as he was fat, hairy, perfectly warm enough, with a lot of natural shelter in his field. This summer and autumn he has lost weight (a planned diet), and their field had been divided to help rest it, but that means that there is less natural shelter for them. He’s not had his rug on yet, except for the heavy rainstorms in the last few weeks, but I think it will go on soon. However, I am weighing out the pros of him being able to raise the hairs over his body to trap air to keep warm, versus having the windbreak of a lightweight rug. I think my final decision as to when I put his rug on will be whether the weather is cold and wet (rug on) or cold and dry (no rug).

So yes, I think it’s important not to over rug horses, but it is equally important not to withhold rugs. Treat each horse as an individual, consider environmental factors, and make your own mind up based on your instinct rather than the latest trends or what your stable neighbour is doing. And react to your horse: if they seem to be hungrier yet not putting on any weight they may be too cold. If they’re clammy under their rugs then they’re over rugged.

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