Horse owners often feel under pressure to rug up their horses, and sometimes this is brought on a change in weather, guilt or peer pressure from other owners on your yard (you can read more reasons that we rug our horses here) Many horses do need a rug, and it can be confusing when you might be seeing posts on social media telling you that your horse definitely doesn’t need a rug, and that you shouldn’t be rugging your horse.
However it’s not that simple, there isn’t a one size fits all rule, just like us, horses are individual. We need to consider the horse itself, it’s age, the environment it lives in, whether it is clipped and any other important factors like immunocompromise which might make rugging your horse up more essential.
Most owners want a which rug when guide, outlining the type of rug they need for specific temperatures. You will find plenty of guides online for ‘which rug when’, and I’ve included one from Edinburgh University Equine Hospital at the end of this article. However there are a few points that I think it is worth outlining first, which will help with your rugging decisions.
The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is defined as the range of temperatures that a horse (or a human) can easily maintain their body temperature with little or no effort. For humans this is 20 to 35 degrees, and horses it is 5-25 degrees, which is obviously a huge difference. Humans have a narrow TNZ range compared to horses, and as a result we often base decision making on how we feel, not on what the horse actually needs. Research has also shown that when healthy horses have been acclimatised to colder weather that they can tolerate temperatures of -10 to -15 degrees.
At our Healthy Horse Conference in November 2019 we heard about an interesting self choice study where horses were trained to differentiate between three symbols – a horizontal bar if they wanted their rug on, a vertical bar if they wanted their rug off, and a blank symbol if they wanted no change in their rug situation. The differences that Nicky Jarvis described we so interesting, with some horses asking for their rugs to be removed in the snow.
We tend to forget that our horses have an inbuilt radiator in the form of the caecum, and as fibre is fermented in the hind gut heat is produced. So in short if your horse is eating then they are probably staying warm. Make sure your horse has sufficient fibre and consider ways to increase your horse’s chew time so that they are eating for as long as possible, and this will ensure that they are staying warm.
Unless you have fully clipped your horse then they are already wearing a ‘fur coat’, and the horse’s coat is actually pretty impressive. It consists of three layers and don’t forget the grease and trapped air in the coat which adds to the horse’s ability to keep warm. This is particularly important when horse’s don’t wear a rug in the rain, they look soaking wet but often it is only the top coat layer that is wet, and if you part the hair you’ll see that they are dry underneath.
So many of the horses in this country do need to lose weight, encouraging seasonal weight loss, and using less or no rugs (so that your horse is using fat reserves up) is a very helpful way to achieve this. Not rugging, or using less rugs on your horse doesn’t mean that your horse will be miserable and shivering all night long. That’s not a great image for any owner to have in their head, but we must remember that many horses can cope better than we think without rugs, and the negative health implications for an overweight horse are numerous, the most significant being the increased risk of laminitis. Laminitis is an extremely painful condition, and sadly the main reason that horses are put to sleep in this country.
At our Healthy Horse Conference back in November 2019 Dr Nicky Jarivs, who is the head of Veterinary and Care at Redwings Horse Sanctuary shared details of a fascinating study about the effect of rugs. In this study, it was found that a sweet itch rug could add 4.2 degrees more to the surface temperature of a horse, and a fleece rug could contribute to a temperature increase of 11.2 degrees. This certainly surprised me, and many of those in the audience, I certainly would think nothing (before the Conference), of popping a fleece rug on my horse, and a second rug at night. The control horses who weren’t rugged had surface temperatures of 12.5 degrees and 18.5 degrees, despite the outside temperature being 4 degrees. Again this was a surprise. If you missed our last Conference then don’t panic, you can join us on 31st October in 2020.
Horses wearing fleece or quilted rugs had recorded surface temperatures of 24-30 degrees, which is probably a lot more than anyone expected. Whilst I would love a holiday destination with a ambient temperatures of 24-30 degrees, I would also like a swimming pool and a sunlounger included. The takeaway message from this study was that some types of rugs can significantly increases the horses’ temperature, possibly to the point that they are too hot, not comfortable and longer term this can compromise the horse’s capacity to regulate their own temperature.
Whilst you can class your horse’s environment as a simply ‘stabled or turned out’, think a bit more about where/ how your horse is kept. A stable might be an American barn with 20 other horses, and the doors and windows shut at night; this is going to be a much warmer environment then a horse is a separate ‘outside’ stable block. If your horse lives out then what (if any) shelter do they have? How much natural shelter is there? Is it open or enclosed and protected by hills and trees? Like the horse stabled at night one field is going to vary a great deal to another, and this should also be taken into account when deciding on which rug your horse needs.
Which rug when from Edinburgh University Equine Hospital
Rugging is a huge topic, and whilst as owners we have the best intentions I do think that we are often getting it wrong. I really hope that this article helps you. It has often been considered cruel not to rug up your horse, but the tide of opinion is really turning, and with more research it seems that in fact providing too many rugs may be causing more harm than good.