When it comes to our horses’
comfort we obviously want nothing but the best for them. It’s logical,
therefore, that when Autumn sets in and the weather becomes chilly, we find
ourselves shivering and conclude that our horses are cold too.
Time to break out their rugs and
our winter coats!
When and how much to rug horses,
however, is one of the most confusing decisions a horse owner has to make. Perhaps
you’ve seen those recent headlines in the equestrian media telling us that
over-rugging is a welfare issue? There’s a danger of being cruel in our desire
to be kind.
So when are rugs necessary – if
Of course when deciding to rug or
not to rug a lot depends on the individual horse and his circumstances. As a
starting point, though, it helps to understand that horses have an inbuilt
ability called thermoregulation which enables them to adapt to temperature
Our equine friends adapt to cold
by using thermogenesis (producing heat) or by thermolysis (loss of heat), using
physiological mechanisms involving the skin, muscles, fat and hair.
As we all know when autumn sets
in horses – particularly those who are usually outside – grow a thicker, longer
coat to compensate for the colder weather.
Some of the other mechanisms
involved in keeping their bodies warm may well be interpreted by us humans as
signs of discomfort and being too cold. Things like shivers, for example, which
is actually a reflexive muscle contraction to produce heat from metabolising
sugars and fatty acids. Then the hair may bristle and stand on end, to create
an insulating effect – which obviously doesn’t work if the horse’s coat is
soaked by rain.
In the cold the blood vessels in
the extremities of a horse’s limbs will also constrict, to ensure most blood
flows to the central organs and the horse’s feet don’t suffer tissue damage if
their feet are on the cold ground or in the snow.
In the cold you may also notice
that your horse breathes more slowly – a lower respiratory rate reduces heat
loss by evaporation. The adrenal glands will also release more adrenaline to
send glycogen to fuel up the muscles.
When is cold too cold?
So we understand that horses are
naturally able to compensate for the cold – which explains why our native
breeds survive the winters happily out on the moors – but does cold weather
reach a point when even our cleverly designed horses can’t hold out against the
elements? Then when must also consider that our modern domesticated horses of
various breeds are “spoilt” in being cared for and protected so assiduously, so
their natural ability to fend off the cold may be compromised.
Things like clipping and frequent
grooming (which removes the natural oils from the coat) inhibit horses’ ability
to cope with the cold, just like those with limited turn out who live in
unnatural environments. Then there are horses who routinely wear sweet-itch
rugs in warm weather, or protective sheets for showing, competing and
There may well be a case for
rugging horses in these situations when temperatures plummet to zero or below.
The tricky question is, however, what weight of rug to use.
Appropriate Rug Weights
As we have said, a lot depends on
the circumstances in which the individual horse is kept. To assist you in your
choice however we rather like this rugging guide produced by Equus (English
equestrian riding apparel suppliers).
Please note that this is a guide only … you are advised to use your
discretion and avoid over-rugging your horse!
Consequences of Over-Rugging
A horse that is over-rugged
during winter will end up obese by spring, putting him at risk of laminitis.
Horses should gain weight during summer and lose it in the winter, burning
calories for thermoregulation.
- An over-rugged horse might
display signs of colic, but in fact they are suffering heatstroke.
- Over-rugging definitely
compromises the horse’s thermoregulatory ability.
- Rugs interfere with the horse’s
natural proclivity for mutual grooming and can lead to various skin conditions.
We’re not saying don’t rug at all
… just consider what is best for your individual horse and his environmental
One other thing to consider, if
you don’t rug you shouldn’t just jump on a cold horse first thing in the
morning to ride away …. Like all athletes he needs a warm up!
sell horse rugs from our shop in Frome, Somerset and are happy to
advise on the best make, model and weight for your horse. Keep your horse happy
and healthy this winter!