Rugging horses. A topic that gets a lot of people very stirred up! Most horse owners love their horses and genuinely want to do what’s best for them. But what is best is not always clear. The problem arises because we are not horses!
Why Do We Rug Horses?
Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s to keep them warm, dry and comfortable. And, done well, this is what it achieves.
But there is another covert reason why we rug horses. There is a saying “ a jumper is thing a mother puts on her child when she feels cold”. It is a similar thing with horses. Rugging fulfils a need in the owner to nourish and protect. But we cannot ask the horse if he is cold, if he hates the rain or if he wants a rug. So we make the decision based on our own perception.
Apart from using our own anthropomorphic view of the world, we really don’t have any way of deciding when or how to rug. Unless you can learn to think and feel like a horse. Barring that, all we can do is look at what we know about how horses deal with cold and wet and base the decision on that.
The first thing to consider is … does my horse feel cold when I do? Do horses perceive the environment as humans do? There have been many studies that show most emphatically that they do not.
Did you know that in dry, relatively wind-free conditions, horses are actually the most comfortable at a temperature of 13 degrees Celsius (based on the clinical detection of signs of stress)? Not many humans could say that!
The fact of the matter is that horses have a far superior ability to modulate their body temperature as compared to humans. In bad weather we have to have protection from the elements or we soon freeze to death. Not so with horses.
Firstly, horses have a fur coat. In winter this becomes thick and luxurious. This coat is an amazing tool providing the horse with the means to regulate their own temperature – and very effectively too.
Have you ever developed “goose bumps” when out in the cold? Horses do too. But in a horse, this effect works to raise the hair slightly. That enables the coat to trap a layer of air close to the skin, which becomes warm, and acts to insulate the horse from the colder air further out.
In addition, a horse’s coat has a wonderful waterproofing ability. If you part the coat of a horse that has been standing in the rain, most times you will see that the hair and skin beneath the wet layer is still dry. The water is channelled along the direction of the coat until it simply drops off.
There is another factor that works to warm a horse up. Fibre rich food! High fibre food is digested in the large intestine, largely as the result of bacterial action. This activity generates heat, helping to keep the horse warm. So a horse in an environment which allows constant grazing will go some way towards beating the cold demons.
The condition of your horse also plays a role when trying to evaluate whether or not he needs a rug. Fatter horses will have a thicker layer of sub-dermal fat. This layer acts as an insulator, slowing down the rate at which body heat is lost. So being in good condition is a definitely an anti-rug factor.
Horses generally have an effective mechanism for coping with cold and wet weather. In most cases this mechanism is sufficient, and rugging really is not needed. But there are exceptions, but first let’s look at reasons not to rug.
Negative Effects of Rugging Horses
Over-heating is first and foremost the strongest argument against rugging. In winter, horses grow thick, luxuriant winter coats. Take a look at the picture to the right – that is one thick coat!
With their thick winter coats, horses are extremely efficient at keeping themselves warm. In fact, they are more likely to suffer over-heating than experience cold distress.
Can you imagine what it must be like? Imagine yourself in a jumper and warm trousers, then wrapped up in a thick, warm padded coat (or doona or duvet). Then picture yourself standing in the sun on a moderately warm day.
How long before you start to cook?
Then add a fur coat as the underlayer of your ensemble … Over-rugging can be considered a form of abuse, albeit that it is done with love!
Then we need to consider the other effects of rugging.
Did you know that rugging can actually interfere with the horse’s own thermo-regulatory system? This means that you could actually cause your horse to get cold simply by putting a rug on! A thin rug which does not provide sufficient heat, but which fits snugly enough to prevent natural warming mechanisms, is just as bad as over-rugging.
Then there are rug straps. Because rugs tend to fall off or get displaced, we use straps to keep them on. Straps are not without issues.
They can be too tight and cause discomfort. Or, if too loose, pose a danger in that a horse might get a hoof caught when rolling (personal experience!).
Because they are generally always in the same place rug straps can chafe and rub, causing bald spots on the coat. They can get caught on stray objects.
The list goes on …
So considering all the above, should we never rug? No, that’s not the answer either! There are always exceptions.
When to Rug Your Horse
Hard as it is to believe, cold alone seldom affects a horse. They will wander around quite comfortably in the snow. But there are times when it may be appropriate to rug your horse.
If the weather is bad as well as cold, for example, high winds or soaking rain, you may need to rug your horse. High winds will disrupt the coat, blowing away the warm insulating layer of trapped air. Continuous rain will eventually saturate the coat. This will inhibit the ability to form an insulating layer of warm air.
Whether or not your horse has shelter from the wind and rain is also an important factor in the rugging debate. If your horse has good shelter from poor conditions, you may not need to rug.
If a horse is very old, ill or in poor condition, the ability to regulate temperature may be compromised. In these cases, rugging might be the appropriate option.
If your horse is clipped, he will no longer have the degree of natural protection he otherwise would have. Clipped horses generally need to be rugged more frequently and more warmly than others.
You can see that there are times when it might be appropriate to rug your horse.
Given that we cannot experience the world as a horse does I believe it makes sense not to rug your horse wherever possible. Feeling cold yourself doesn’t mean your horse is cold.
It’s hard, but you need to put yourself in his hooves, and try to understand the issue from your horse’s point of view. He wants to run, roll, scratch … freely. He doesn’t want to sweat without relief, standing helplessly boiling when the sun peeks out whilst you’re not there.
Summarized Guideline to Rugging
When deciding whether or not to rug your horse, considering the following factors may be helpful:
Is the temperature at or below 10 degrees Celsius?
Is the wind blowing?
Is it raining continuously?
Is the horse clipped?
Is the horse aged, unwell or in poor condition?
Does the paddock have appropriate shelter?
Once you have considered all the relevant factors you will be in a much better position to make an objective decision, based on the well-being of your horse, as opposed to your subjective experience. Good luck 🙂
If you’ve found this post helpful, or if you have any comments or questions on the topic of rugging horses, Please feel free to leave a comment below 🙂