To Rug or Not to Rug...

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

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.

Heat regulation

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.

Vanya (bay) and Rascal (grey)

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! 

Timmi (big ears) Nikki (little ears) :)​

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

  • Lack of shelter or reluctance to use shelter
  • Poor muscle mass/underweight
  • Age
  • Metabolic issues
  • Gut issues
  • Other health issues
  • Clipped
  • Recent environment change (adjustment period)
  • Lack of movement

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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  • Trudie H. says:

    Thanks Debs for well balanced article.
    In Bavaria we had an open stable system, our Arabians were never rugged, had a good shelter with ample space for all and unlimited access to hay. They survived -28°C without problems. Some looked like teddybears and happily rolled in the snow after a long hack in winter.
    In Jersey weather can be very damp and windy so I’ve started rugging lightly as horses have no shelter in the field during the day (stabled normally without rug at night).
    Question: which method do you consider best to check whether pony is warm / has the right body temperature?

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Hey Trudie, I know some people check the ears, and others the armpit. I tend to check both, and then decide. One of mine seems to always have cold ears. To get his ears warm he’d be way to hot everywhere else. This suggests a circulation problem for him, and he’s the one with some health issues, so it’s a work in progress.

      I check where I can and make the best educated guess I can, and hope I don’t get it wrong too often. it was definitely easier when they had better shelter. Jersey is a different matter though, as it definitely gets colder and wetter than most places, as you’re surrounded by the sea. Arabs are bred for extreme temp changes, but not so much wet climates.

  • Kel&Dave says:

    We have a herd of 10, and while they can all get inside their shelter, the ones on the lower end of the pecking order will choose to stay outside if the higher ranked horses are in. Because of this we rug during winter, but also have an “ask” system. It’s interesting that they will all have their rugs on when it’s cold and wet, but when it isn’t wet, there are some who are happy without. I do tend to insist on rugs when it’s cold for the few oldies who have arthritis issues, and they seem begrudgingly grateful in the early hours of the morning.
    This year we have considered a summer sheet for them for the first time, as we have had an awful period of mosquitoes which has lasted longer than usual, and the next thing will be biting flies to ward off, so we’ll trial the worst affected and see what they think. They’ll soon tell us if we’re wasting our time!
    Thanks for a great article Deb

  • Petra says:

    Thanks for the article. Well balanced and I agree that horses know. We have 4 horses living out 24/7 and only hedges for shelter. I don’t rug until it’s start freezing or close to and extremely wet. Rugs are 100g or less depending on the weather. If horse walks away when I come with rug I often leave it unless I know it’s going to snow or rain for long time. Listening to the horse works and keeps them healthier.

  • Jackie Harris says:

    Great article. Also important to understand that the wrong rug can also make a horse cold. My Highland has never been colder than when a well-meaning yard manager put her rain sheet on as she knew I wanted to ride. It was a filthy cold wet day but as pony was I clipped she couldn’t fluff up all her native layers she was literally shivering under the rug. To the bemusement of all I took the rug straight off, she went and rolled and within 30 mins was back to normal temp with nice warm armpits. And I didn’t ride that day!

  • Sandra Kennel says:

    My Horses Do Not Like to be Cold!

    Finally, a balanced article regarding putting a blanket on a horse. I have read so many one-sided articles that I was reluctant to read this one.
    I blanket my horses when it gets 10° or below here in Bend, Oregon. I am also conscientious about taking the blanket off during the daytime if it warms up as we often have big swings in temperature. Yes it’s a pain; but if a person chooses to blanket, it’s one of the responsibilities that go with it.
    It may sound crazy to some, but my horses also tell me if they want to blanket. I pull them off the rack and my horses come up and wait their turn to be blanketed. I have often thought I imagined it but to me it seems they are appreciative. Conversely, they are seem appreciative when I pull them off also.

  • Emkay says:

    I have a little dartie hill pony, she o ly gets rugged if it’s very cold – 5deg or below, with lots of wet stuff and or lots of cold wind and rain. If she walks away when I take her rug out Im less likely to put it on her, she’s not stupid! If I decide to clip her tummy to keep her a bit mud free and dryer, I’m more likely to throw a rug on, than not! She’s generally got a lot of blubber by autumn to insulate her anyway!!! she is out 24/7, yaryarded for a few hours a day on concrete with soaked hay.

  • Betsy Mora says:

    Horses are individuals: just like people. As people we all have opinions. My husband wears jackets and snow hats almost year round. I on the other hand barely do except in rain or snow. A person needs to know there individual horse and what works for them. Don’t treat them all the same.

  • Lavina Snoek says:

    Thank you for yet another very sensible article! There are quite a number of useful tables out on the internet, with rug use vs. temperature & turned out/stabled/(un)clipped etc. I’m using one as background picture on my phone. Does that make me a Rug Geek??!!

  • jean hoblyn says:

    up until last year I had a huge warmblood who took of his best friends rug in pieces; I now think the friend asked him to do it. He also took his own shoes off on the fencing and my farrier knew this because of the way they were twisted. I let them be rugless and barefoot for the last few years of their lives and I am so glad I did

  • Sheila Lee Thompson says:

    Excellent article, as always! We ask any we think might need a rug, by offering the rug – if they walk away that’s a no; if they stand to have it on, that’s a yes. It’s a very simple system and works amazingly well. However many humans are still arrogant enough to think that they know best and the horse doesn’t, and that is very sad for the horses. And as soon as possible after the rug has gone on, it comes off – and is offered again if the weather turns, or the equine is ‘out of sorts’ or any of the reasons why a horse might need a rug, as itemised in the article. The major problem for the horse arises when there is no-one around to check and / or remove the rug when it’s no longer needed.

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Thank you! 🙂

      I loved it when I had a system where I could ask. I’m working on having that again

      • Leah says:

        Nicely balanced , common sense advice. It does concern me that so many owners seem to be very susceptible to rug manufacturer’s manipulative advertising…rug manufacturers pushing the idea that unless your horse has a 350g (!) duvet like rug on, in Englands’ comparatively mild winters, you’re not the ‘best’ owner. Personally, I think heavyweight rugs should be banned unless essential in more Northerly climes, not that I even saw horses in heavyweight rugs when I lived in Sweden or Canada. If an equine is ill/elderly/poor enough be unable to regulate their body temperature in very cold weather, layers of thinner rugs which can be easily removed and added as medically required would be more suitable.

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