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.

A Welfare Rant

I saw one of those picture-saying things on Facebook earlier today, you know what I mean, but obviously the powers that be won`t let me find that particular piece of humour again, so let me tell you what it said.

“If you can`t afford vet bills you can`t afford a pet”.

I thought it was a wise saying, as so much of the time people buy pets or animals without considering the steep vet bills should the unthinkable happen. I was gobsmacked last week when I went to feed a friends cat whilst they were on holiday. They`d had to take him to the vet the day before to have the hole in his head checked out and to be given a jab of antibiotics. Anyway, they`d left the bill so I could contact the vet should I have a problem. As I pushed the bill aside, hopeful that I wouldn`t need it, I spotted the total … over £200! For a little cut to be checked, cleaned, and then antibiotics administered! It really drove home to me how vet bills can rocket.

And horses aren`t any cheaper!

So what`s brought on this sudden musing?

Well, it`s been drifting around my head for a while now, but a tale from my Mum made me think about speaking up.

We all know that equine charities are full. They`re not seeing any reduction in cases during summer months anymore, and the number of welfare cases just keeps rising and the market is saturated with cheap, half decent horses. So why is this?

  1. People are breeding indiscriminately. Don`t even get me started on this one. I feel that people have been breeding average horses with average horses, or worse – faulty horses who have no other job except to bring another faulty horse into the world – and I believe this is linked to the recent fad of “coloured cobs”. Unfortunately many purebreds, natives as well, are being bred with horses of a different breed, and I feel this lowers the standards of our native breeds. We are diluting the correct, true to type conformation, which means that the quality is decreasing and I think this will lead to them becoming unpopular because people associate a certain breed with the poor example they see in the field next door. Let`s move swiftly on before my head explodes …
  2. People are buying a horse, and then buying another, and then buying an excess of tack/accessories/fashion items which are put in front of our noses by the likes of magazines and celebrities. This is fine, if you can afford it. But how many of these people are putting the same amount away in order to pay for vet bills, or farrier bills? Or even dental or back checks? When you buy a horse you almost need to enter into a savings account to ensure that your horse can be cared for should you have a change in circumstance, loss of income, etc. Otis has his own savings account which I`ve built up over the last five years which means that I am confident that I can continue to feed/shoe/vet him if I was to lose my job. After all, I can cut back on my disposable income, but it is difficult for him to cut back on his food!
  3. The racing industry has found a new sucker. When race horses break down, become too old, or are excess to requirement, they used to send them off for slaughter. Not a nice thought, no. So a few years ago some bright spark realised that they could sell these “ex-racers” to the general public for a similar fee to that of the slaughter house – winner! I understand this, don`t get me wrong, if the horse is genuinely not suitable for racing then it is unnecessary to kill them when they could have a perfectly active, healthy life as a leisure horse. But not all horses who come out of the industry are like this. This means that the gullible public buys a horse thinking it`s cheap, gets lumbered with huge vet bills when the tendon goes again, or the horse develops kissing spines due to no topline, or the public get injured because they aren`t good enough riders to ride something that is used to going at speed. An injury or fright to the owner means that the horse is back on the market, and an injury to the horse means financial ruin for the owner. It`s a catch-22 situation. Don`t forget too, that whilst these ex-racers have flooded the market, there are also some very sensible, all round, well educated riding horses looking for homes who are sounder, physically and mentally, and better educated. However, because they are in the region of £2000-3000 they are overlooked by the public who want something for nothing.

I`d better stop here before I put both feet in it.

So with the market saturated and equine charities full, surely we must go back to basics to improve the welfare of future equines. The BHS is having a push for castration of horses, but should we look at grading purebred horses? I know sports horses are graded, as are PRE horses, but if we graded native horses, and non-sporting horses we would encourage a better quality of horse to be bred. Then of course you could be very revolutionary and enforce castration to all males who fail to make the cut. Or perhaps the equine charities themselves need to be really quite brutal when cases come to them. We`ve all seen the case of Gizmo, the little colt who arrived near death and is making a miraculous recovery. He has been great for promoting horse welfare and the work of charities, but at what cost? I`ve heard of charities having to put healthy, or near healthy horses down because of oversubscription at their yards. Surely, a relatively healthy horse who has been abandoned can be put right, and rehomed into a suitable home much more easily than the sickly horse who needs a year of veterinary care to become stable and then due to the ongoing health problems can never have a full working life.

Yes, I`m sorry for being the devil`s advocate, but I`m just trying to make you all think. Can we begin to make progress and reduce the number of abandoned horses by improving our own standards, both of what we breed, and the quality of life we expect to give a horse after their visit to a charity. Or perhaps we should look at doing what my Mum`s friend has done.

At my Mum`s yard a lady has basically abandoned her horses, giving them very little food all summer and not tending to their feet or anything. Hints have been made to her, but she remaining negligent until a fortnight ago a friend of my Mum`s had had enough. She marched up the field, well she didn`t have to go far as the horse barely left the gate in the hope someone would feed him, caught this horse and started feeding him hay from her own hay bales, and food from her own feed bins. When the horse`s owner arrived and felt her nose was put out of place, Mum`s friend immediately offered to buy the horse. Which she has done, and now she is enjoying watching him thrive as she feeds, grooms, and loves him. Now, we don`t know what his future is, but I`m sure she`ll make the correct decision when the time comes (back him, sell him, keep him, etc) but in the meantime this lady is helping the RSPCA and other charities by not letting this horse go into the system. Yes, charities do good work, but they are also overburdened, so a way to help them and subsequently help improve the lives of equines, is for the public to take a step and become responsible for a needy horse. I`m sure there are laws and regulations to follow, but I`m fairly convinced if you went up to a person who was neglecting their horse and offered them £100 they`d bite your hand off and then you can nurture them with guidance from charity experts, instead of lumping the charities with another case and another huge vet bill.

I`m sorry if I`ve offended anyone, but I`ve been thinking a lot about the overpopulation of horses in the UK and how many are simply unwanted. I`m sure we can all work together in different ways to help charities and promote thoughtful breeding, as well as improving the quality of working horses available for the public – any thoughts, I`d be interested in a calm, friendly debate!