So I’m afraid to say that Autumn is certainly here, and there is an unmistakable ‘nip’ in the air in the mornings.
Hop onto social media and you’ll find plenty of posts and links to articles highlighting how you shouldn’t be rugging up your horse, now or indeed over winter at all. Log into any horsey online group, an equine forum or chat to those at your yard and many will advise you that you should be rugging your horse up now it’s ‘cold’, and tell you which rug you should be using. Confusing right? You might even experience criticism from others on your yard if your horse isn’t wearing a rug, or indeed the ‘right’ weight rug.
So I’m not going to tell you that you should or shouldn’t be rugging your horse. In my experience there is no definitive temperature that a horse needs a rug, or an accurate guide as to what weight or thickness of rug for specific temperatures. Horses, like us, are individuals. in this article I’m going to highlight the reasons that owners rug and let you draw your own conclusions as to whether your horse actually needs rugging up or not.
Firstly why does a horse need a rug? This might seem a bit basic, but I’d like to separate this from why us the owners chose to use rugs on our horses. Many horses are more than capable of keeping themselves warm and comfortable in this country if we provide them with adequate shelter, and sufficient fibre. Shelter because horses can certainly feel the cold when it is wet and windy, and fibre because their hind gut effectively acts as a radiator. Breaking down fibre keeps them warm, and if there is a deficit between the number of calories going in, and calories used up to stay warm than some Winter weight loss will occur. This is as nature intended and will actually be highly beneficial for many horses. Don’t forget our equine population is getting fatter and fatter year on year, and we do need to allow and encourage seasonal weight loss.
Some horses do certainly need a rug. Older horses, thinner skinned horses, horses that are clipped and those in harder work. However every horse is an individual, and there are no hard and fast rules in my opinion. For instance the 32 year old pony that my daughter rides occasionally HATES a rug (she gets too hot), and many thoroughbred polo ponies spend six months living out over Winter with no rug on and do very well.
I think we largely use rugs for our own reasons (yes I certainly would tick many of these below).
Reasons that we rug our horses
I’m a big fan of keeping horses outside as much as possible, ideally 365 days a year. However I know what’s it’s like to hear the rain lashing down at 3am and feel guilty that your horse is out in the rain. If you’ve provided them with a huge thick rug, right up to their ears it can make you feel (and sleep) better.
However this guilt can be rather misplaced if your horse doesn’t actually need a rug in the first place. Cobs, native types and draught crosses are the sort of horses that if unclipped can fair very well without a rug. These are also the horses most prone to weight gain, and most likely to benefit from losing some weight over the winter. Should we actually be feeling guilty about rugging/ over rugging instead of worrying about them without a rug? These types of horses are often hot when provided with thick rugs, but do we feel guilty about this?
As someone who has largely kept horses turned out over the Winter I appreciate the benefits of a clean horse that a rug offers. It’s difficult enough riding over the darker months of the year, without trying to remove wet mud first. I think that keeping your horse clean enough to ride is an excellent reason to rug your horse, but a thin sheet is sufficient if your horse only needs a rug to stay clean.
Problems with obesity are arising partly from horses (who don’t need it) being provided with very thick rugs (and of course overfed and under exercised). Keeping a horse turned out all winter, with a thin rug to keep them clean would probably be the best of both worlds.
Livery yards can be a dangerous mix of opinions and strong characters, and many horsey people are more than happy to tell others what they should be doing / feeding/ buying for their horses.
When everyone else is reaching for a heavyweight rug in mid September is it normal that you feel that you should do the same. Others might in fact criticise you for not rugging your horse up, but as I have highlighted in many other articles and on our courses YOU are the expert on your horse. You know what is normal for your horse, you should be aware of their weight/ body condition score and you can judge if they do need a rug or not.
With hindsight (it’s always easy to say that looking back) my number one reason for being an overrugger is the fact that I feel the cold. I get really really cold. When I used to be a full time riding instructor I looked unrecognisable due to the layers, and every Spring when I shed the layers clients would ask if I’d lost lots of weight!
I do understand that if you feel cold it’s natural to want to wrap your horse up, but again you do really need to ask yourself if you are rugging your horse up for the horse or yourself.
I think no one is immune to marketing, and as the Winter nears many of us will be thinking about investing in a new coat or winter breeches to keep ourselves warm and toasty. Rugs these days are amazing, let’s be honest. They come in the most amazing colours and patterns, with NASA type technology and every design and thickness you could imagine. Rugs jump out of the page of a magazine to me, and it’s hard not to want to buy these.
Many a horse owner will tell you to rug a horse up with thick rugs in early Autumn to stop them getting such a thick Winter coat, or to slow down the onset of the Winter woolies- but does this actually work?
Well one a scientific level Winter coat growth is related to hormonal changes that are triggered by changes in the amount of daylight. So simply put shorter days are a signal to grow a thicker coat. A thick rug will flatten the coat, but only providing a daylight lamp in the stable during the evenings would help slow down hair growth.
So does your horse need a rug?
If your horse is unclipped (or a very low bib clip), thicker skinned, over weight/ prone to weight gain then the answer is probably no.
If you want to use a rug for your own benefit then pick a thin one if your horse fits the above description, or save your pennies for a beautiful winter coat for yourself. Let’s not forget that your horse is already wearing a gorgeous fur coat.
I hope you find this article useful, and do head over to my Facebook page here and tell me if you’re rugging up less this Winter.