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!

Riding in Winter

This weekend, when the cold north wind blew and the clear skies sent temperatures plummeting,  really sorted the wheat from the chaff in terms of riders.

Luckily for me, all my riders wrapped up warmly, meaning that I had to do the same! So with the thermals fresh from their summer hiding place, an extra jumper and coat on, I braved the cold.

A couple of weeks ago I had a showjumping lesson myself, and was given an ear piece so that I could hear my coach over the gusty breeze. After yesterday, I`m considering purchasing one for myself. It`s a very strange feeling, hearing someone`s voice right in your ear as you canter towards a jump. I guess that we subconsciously get used to having our own bubble when we ride, which is occasionally pierced by shouted instructions, so having the feeling that your instructor is sat on your shoulder takes some getting used to. I think the one I used in my lesson was one way, which meant that I still had to shout in response to any questions. Well, I hope it was one way, otherwise I`ve deafened my poor coach!

Something for Santa to bring me anyway.

With the first cold snap of the year, it reminded me of the numerous occasions in the riding school when a small child would turn up for their lesson in a t-shirt and waterproof jacket, shivering with cold. I never knew what parents were thinking, not making them to wear a jumper, gloves, and thick coat. I think my Mum was pretty switched on about going outside in winter, as I remember being chilly, but never frozen. I did have a huge puffy gilet that was mustard yellow. Fairly hideous I`m sure, but it did the job of keeping me snug. It`s much easier to take off a layer halfway through a lesson because you`re too warm then to warm yourself up before you ride.

I can also remember children being told to put an extra pair of socks on for their lessons, and the next week they would still complain of cold feet … upon questioning them we would find out that they had eight pairs of socks on and somehow managed to cram their foot inside their riding boot, thus cutting off the circulation because they were so tight!

Personally, I find a thin pair of socks and then a thick thermal pair, from the ski shop, are sufficient, and means most boots still go on. I am a big fan of my neoprene wellies which also help keep my feet dry.

During my first winter as an apprentice I discovered a series of circular bruises on the outside of my thighs, which after a couple of days became painful and raised bumps. After googling them, we discovered that they are chilblains. Not very attractive, believe me! The wind is the main culprit, so I try to always wear full length chaps over my jodhs, and fingers crossed, I`ve been chilblain free for the last couple of years.

What else do I have in my winter wardrobe? A good selection of coats in varying sizes so that in the depths of winter I can get away with one thermal layer, one tshirt, a thin hoody, a normal hoody, a gilet, and two coats! I`ve had some funny looks when I`ve tried on a size fourteen jacket, when I`m clearly closer to a ten!

Gloves. That is another important part of the wardrobe. I like to warm mine as I drive between yards on the car dashboard, but it can be difficult to find gloves that leave your fingers warm, yet dextrous. When teaching I use thick, thermal gloves; but when on the yard I have my own invention. Thermal motorbike undergloves, are really tough (I always put holes in the tips of my gloves) yet are fairly thin, so I can still change rugs and tack up whilst wearing them. But to give me a bit more heat I wear fingerless gloves over the top of these thin thermal gloves. I find my hands stay dry, and snug, and I`m not forever taking them off to fasten a buckle, dropping them in a puddle in the meantime.

Instead of a hat, I usually wear a fleecy headband, which keeps my temples warm and is really useful in windy environments as it stops any headaches. I also wear a snood thing around my neck (it`s basically a fleecy tube) in place of a scarf – much less likely to get caught on anything, and does the job of keeping my neck and chin warm!

Hopefully you`ll find these few tips for getting dressed for going to the yard in winter useful, but don`t be surprised if your car ends up looking like a wardrobe with spare gloves, jumpers and coats scattered around – and don`t forget the spare outfit in case you get caught in a monsoon like I did on Tuesday!

The best thing about dressing up for winter is that come spring, when you venture out in just a tshirt and jumper, everyone exclaims about how much weight you`ve lost!

Winter’s Coming!

Today felt like the first day of winter. Which means that I need to turn my attention to the Christmas Countdown to get me through until the shortest day and then once Christmas memories have faded into the background the increasing evening lights will keep me going until Easter and spring.

But enough about my motivational techniques. I dread the first time you feel the damp drizzle and dark of the mornings. It was like that this morning, and I stumbled down the field in half light to find two damp horses looking at me reproachfully. Otis is clipped and has had a thin stable rug and lightweight turnout with a neck on for the last couple of days, but I decided to put his thicker turnout on with the integral neck piece so that his neck isn’t colder than his body – this is for my peace of mind as much as anything. Plus I don’t want a horse with a hairier neck than body! Llani is currently unclipped but has a lightweight rug on for cosmetic reasons mainly – he is clean and dry for when I want to ride and I don’t need to worry about him getting a chill if he’s still damp when I’ve brushed him off. He doesn’t have a neck on this rug though.

I had to steel myself and remember that horses are waterproof. A little bit of rain on their thick coat won’t hurt them, and they won’t get too cold. It doesn’t help when you’re wet and cold, you assume the horse is freezing as well as yourself so you put an extra rug on. My aim is to keep Llani in the lightweight until he is clipped (when I psych myself up to have him sedated) and then he can wear a thicker rug with a neck. But only then!

Let’s face it though, if the dreary drizzle continues I will pity his neck and swap rugs! Hopefully the rain will ease for the next couple of weeks and let us acclimatise to the cold without the wet!

I read a really interesting article not long ago which described how unrugged horses keep warm by letting their hair stand on end and pockets of air getting trapped close to the skin and maintaining their body temperature. For this reason, putting a lightweight rug on inhibits this natural reaction so does not allow the horse to keep warm as efficiently. This article promoted horse owners letting the thick winter coat grow and not rugging horses during the colder months.

This is all very well if you don’t intend to ride very often during the winter, as you can guarantee the horse will come in filthy dirty each day! The breed and hardiness of the horse will also come into play, as well as their age and condition. You should also consider how long the horse has been rugged and stabled during his life, as a horse who is used to being well rugged and stabled will find it harder to adjust to wintering out than a young horse who has never been rugged. The article I read had thoroughbreds wintering out in the arctic temperatures of America, which proves that horses can adapt well.

During the winter you should still monitor the horse to make sure he’s coping with the climate and has grown enough coat. They will probably also eat more as they are trying to keep warm.

I think the article I read was useful in reminding us that horses are animals and we shouldn’t humanise them too much; having said that I probably won’t be leaving my working horses unrugged! I would definitely turn a youngster out naked and encourage him to be a real horse until he grows up and has to work, and an older horse wintering out would probably have a rug on standby. I don’t mind the cold, and am happy to see naked horses playing in the snow, but as soon as the rain comes I pity them and want to Molly coddle them so that they get rid of the drowned rat look. Which is highly fashionable at the moment, I may add.

So yes, I will endeavour to be tough and keep Llani’s rug off until he has a hair cut, and then I will make sure they are warm and dry under their rugs whilst not being too warm.

Which brings me onto an important factor in rugging horses – horses find it easier to warm themselves up than to cool themselves down, which means that whilst we may be frozen to the bone and wearing four coats after having stood in the arena teaching all day, our horses won’t really appreciate the same treatment!