Whether or not to rug your horse in winter can be a surprisingly contentious topic. Debates can get even more heated than an over rugged horse!
Let’s skip over all the ranting and ‘my way is the only way’ attitudes and look at this a more logically.
A rug is a tool. A tool can be used well or used badly. When it’s the right tool for the job it’s amazing and when it’s the wrong tool for the job it’s well… not amazing.
Over rugging a horse means that the rug is too much and is causing overheating. Overheating is a problem for horses and can cause distress. Of course they can’t take the rug off (well ok, some seem to be able to, but most can’t) so they’re stuck being too hot until someone helps.
Sweating inside a rug doesn’t really help them cool down, as the sweat isn’t able to evaporate.
Humans are able to regulate their body temperature between 25-30 deg C. Outside of that range we need clothes. Horses however can effectively regulate their temperature between 5-25 deg C.
What this means in practical terms is, when you feel like you’re freezing your jubblies off, your horse may be absolutely fine.
Also notice how the top end of the horses thermoneutral zone (fancy term for the range of temp regulation) is lower than ours. That means they can’t regulate their temperature as well as we can when they’re too hot. This is why over rugging is dangerous for horses.
Horses are much better at regulating being too cold than they are being too hot.
I hear people saying that horses can ‘run around to keep warm’ and while that might be technically true, I’ve never seen it happen. Yes they move around while outside, but do they start running around when they get cold? I’m not convinced.
Most horses won’t even stand in a field shelter to get out of the rain! How often have you seen a horse cold and wet standing outside the entrance to the field shelter? (more often than I’ve seen one running around to warm up, that’s for sure)
So Never Rug?
I’m not sure the solution to over rugging is to never use a rug. Surely the solution to over rugging is to rug correctly?
I’ve no doubt that over rugging is a problem. Many horses are rugged unnecessarily, but that doesn’t mean that no horse ever needs a rug.
Some horses may need a rug.
I know we aim to make the environment as natural as possible, but it's not natural. It's a field. Fields aren't natural. The climate is also changing faster than species can adapt.
It is also worth remembering that dying off over winter is common in nature as a way of getting the weaker ones out of the gene pool.
Being too cold is very stressful, both mentally and physically causing problems for the endocrine system and raising cortisol levels.
Rug if you need to.
A fit healthy native horse probably doesn’t need a rug, but there are health or environmental conditions that make it more difficult for a horse to regulate their own temperature to the point where they may need a rug.
My horse Vanya never wanted a rug on. She’s ¾ TB so not really a native type, but she was always a pretty hot horse. She’d be the very last in the herd to need a rug, if she ever did.
After developing EMS, she became the first horse in the herd to want a rug.
How did I determine she needed a rug?
I felt her to see if she was cold, I checked the weather to see if it was going to get worse, and I asked her.
When I kept my horses on a barn system the rugs would be hanging over one of the walls. I would walk over to the rugs and the horses would line up to have their rugs put on. If they didn’t, they didn’t get a rug. I literally let them ‘ask’.
On occasion, if I knew the weather was going to turn, then I might ‘insist’ a little but generally it wasn’t a massive deal if they didn’t get a rug, as they had access to a barn with adlib hay, so they could be dry sheltered and fed.
Sadly I no longer have a barn, so I can’t run this system anymore. Nor can I be comfortable in the knowledge that they have a barn to keep dry. I know they’re out in the wind and rain. There’s a lot more pressure to get the decision right every day.
Every horse is different
I need to treat every horse differently both in terms of them being an individual, and for each individual as their needs change from year to year.
I’ve already mentioned Vanya who went from being a usually hot horse to feeling the cold due to EMS.
I have Rascal, who always wants a rain sheet if it’s raining. I’d never even owned a rain sheet before I had Rascal, but it was clear I needed to buy one within a week of his arrival… in July! He gets very upset about getting wet. He hates the rain or even the fine mist of a spray landing on him.
How does he express this upset? He runs around kicking and biting the other horses. He’s a firm believer that if he’s unhappy, so should everyone else be! He gets a rain sheet for everyone else's safety. Over the years I have been able to toughen him up a little so he only needs protection from wintery rain. I don’t go running out with a rug from every summer shower!
Nikki hates wearing a rug, but he struggles a lot with maintaining his weight, and has problems with his teeth, so I can’t rely on him eating to keep warm. Depending on how good his weight is he may or may not get a rug. I haven’t actually managed to catalogue his full list of health challenges yet, but I know enough to know he needs a little help maintaining his temperature and it’s important he doesn’t get too cold.
When I had a barn system Nikki never had a rug, the barn was enough. (OMG I want a barn again!! I’m going to be crying over my keyboard by the time I get to the end of this article)
Timmi is another one who isn’t a great fan of wearing a rug. Before this year he never needed to, nor did I own one for him. He’s had some liver issues and lost muscle this year, which makes maintaining temperature more difficult.
Reasons a horse may need a rug
It’s ok to rug a horse, but do make sure you’re being clear and honest with yourself about what your horse’s needs are. They don’t need a rug because you’re cold. Just because you believe in keeping things natural, doesn’t mean your horse couldn’t benefit from a little artificial assistance to be more comfortable during winter.
That last paragraph may have managed to blanket offend everyone! (pun intended) but what I’m trying to say is…
Rug if your horse needs it, Don’t rug if they don’t.
And if on occasion you get it wrong, don’t beat yourself up. It happens to us all, we can only try our best.
How do you feel about rugging? Tell us in the comments below
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