The Art of Rugging – a lost skill?

I’ve neglected my blog a bit but in my current state of permanently exhausted pigeon as parent to a toddler in the midst of the terrible twos I’ve only been getting as far as thinking that something would make a good subject for a blog. I’m like a writer with lots of titles at the top of empty pages in their book.

My musings over the weekend, after clipping Phoenix and overhearing numerous conversations about what rug to put on – a hot topic every autumn. I believe that the art of rugging a horse so that they are a happy individual is being lost in the details over rug thicknesses and the theoretical side. Rather like how old horsemen had the intuition and connection to horses, which has become lost in modern day horse ownership.

Years ago, about fifteen I’d say, you’d buy a lightweight rug, which is from zero fill to about 150g filling; a medium weight rug which goes up to about 300 g filling; or a heavyweight rug which has in excess of 300g filling. You didn’t know the exact weight of the rug, but could get a good idea based on it’s feel. You’d then put said rug on depending on the weather, if your horse was clipped, if they were stabled and so on. It was simple and ultimately you stuck your hand inside, just by the shoulder, and could feel if the horse was too hot, too cold, or just right. Then you made adjustments accordingly.

Nowadays (I feel so old saying that!) every rug has the filling weight listed on the label. Which is useful in deciding if this lightweight is heavier than that lightweight. But the whole rugging system has become so mathematical.

All I hear people say now is “I’m putting on a Xg rug tonight… You’re only putting on a (X-50)g rug?… But so and so is putting on a (X+50)g rug.” yes, I do realise my use of X harks back to my A-level maths days. But you get the idea. Everyone now compares their rugging decision to their stable neighbour; and looks at the precise weight of the rug, perhaps tweaking layers on an hourly basis, but less attention is taken to the weather and environment – is it wet cold or dry cold? Is the wind easterly? Will the shelter in the field protect them from the wind coming from that direction? And does the horse actually feel warm or cold?

I worry that everyone is getting bogged down in the numbers of rugging, and not listening to their horse, or judging the actual weather conditions. And of course, knowing the precise weight of rug which is on each horse means direct comparisons are forever being made. Without consideration for the horse’s individual tolerance for the environment.

For example, Phoenix needs more rugs than she should theoretically given her condition score and breeding. But she shivers on the damp, cool nights, is tight over her back the following morning, and generally not as pleasant to ride. I’m taking the layering approach this year so I can remove the top rug in the morning and replace it at night with ease; last week I was using a couple of lightweights (50g each to be precise) as she hadn’t been clipped. She needs slightly more protection on wet days due to her personal preference and lack of shelter in her field. But that’s just her. I was irked to discover that someone had been interfering; horrified that she had two rugs on, on an evening when heavy rain forecast. Believe it or not, she was comfortably warm when that someone checked under her rugs. And the next morning she was a dry, warm, very happy horse. Besides, those two 50g rugs only equal a 100g rug, which is still classified as a lightweight rug, if you want to be pedantic. It’s just easier to remove one rug rather than remove a thicker rug and replace it with a thinner one. And I’m all about an easy life!

I think the moral of the story, is to stop getting waylaid by the numbers on rugs and what your stable neighbours are doing, but focus on responding to your horse’s feedback and reading the weather forecast. Every horse is an individual and tolerates different temperatures differently – some don’t like being too hot in rugs and actually run a bit hot. Others don’t mind being slightly warmer in a rug and struggle with the cold, particularly when it’s also wet and windy. It’s down to us as owners to read the signs from our individual horse, rather than focusing on the numbers or making comparisons. You know you’ve got it right when your horse is dry, not changing weight in a negative way (they’ll drop weight if they’re cold, and put it on if they’re hot); aren’t tucked in, shivering or holding themselves protectively; and not grumpy!

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