Does my horse need a rug?

Horses without rugs eating hay in snow Every winter in the UK there is a debate about whether horses need rugs. On one side is the 'go naked' lobby who believe that horses should be kept as naturally as possible and not wear rugs, and on the other are those who pile multiple rugs on their horses once there is a chill in the air. So who is right?

Why rug up horses?

The main reasons for rugging up are:

  • for the comfort of the horse
  • to keep the horse clean and dry
  • fashion

In other words, horses are rugged up for the horse's welfare or for the owner's convenience. Horse welfare should always be our primary concern and there are welfare arguments for and against rugs.

Welfare of the 'naked' horse

Horse in field shelter Wearing a rug may be 'unnatural' but so is the whole way we keep horses. Our mountain and moorland breeds can survive all year round on the hills and moors but they are free to roam and find shelter. Even a hardy pony needs access to some form of shelter in the field for protection in bad weather if he's not rugged up. This can be a field shelter, trees or a thick hedge where there is protection from the wind and rain.

Rain is much more of a problem than the cold as horses can cope with temperatures well below freezing provided they are dry. Horses keep warm by raising their hair to trap a layer of air which act as insulation - the hairier the horse, the more air can be trapped. When a horse gets wet the hair is flattened and the insulating layer of air is lost. Horses can also get cold in strong winds which separate the hairs and destroy the insulation, chilling the skin.

Many people rush to rug up their horse at the first sign of snow, but snow is often less of a problem than rain. Snow can settle on the horse and provide insulation (a personal igloo!) and in many areas of the world, which have heavy snow, horses are not rugged up. Of course, in the UK we often get 'the wrong type of snow' - very wet snow will flatten the coat.

A horse's mane and tail also provide protection and the oil in the coat helps the hair to shed water. It follows that a fully clipped horse with a pulled mane and tail which is thoroughly groomed daily will almost certainly need a rug. If a horse is not to be rugged up you should keep grooming to a minimum and consider whether clipping is necessary. Unless the horse is regularly doing fast work or sweats easily, clipping is probably not necessary, or could be restricted to the sweaty areas of chest and neck.

Horse eating hay in snow A horse's age, health and condition should be considered in deciding whether a rug is needed. It is natural for horses to lose weight in the winter and put on condition in the spring but if a horse is poor going into the winter he will only get thinner, making him much less resistant to cold. Older horses and foals tend to have less fat and muscle and can quickly lose weight. Horses generate heat by moving around so an unsound horse will lose heat quicker as he will be reluctant to move.

Breed and type is less important than health. Many people are happy to leave cobs without rugs but feel that thoroughbreds and Arabs need rugs. These breeds are often hardier than is generally thought - if they are allowed time to acclimatise, they will usually grow a good winter coat so that rugging is unnecessary. It is a mistake to rug up too early in the year. Unless it is a very wet autumn, leaving rugs off will give the horse a chance to develop a thick coat. If you rug up early in the autumn you are committed to rugging until the spring, and in mid-winter your horse will probably need a thicker rug. Allowing a thick coat to grow leaves your options open.

Horses generate heat by eating forage so it is essential that plenty of hay or haylage is provided rather than increasing hard feed. Tooth problems, especially in older horses, can make eating forage difficult so it is a good idea to have the teeth checked before the winter. Dehydration can also be a problem in winter when water is frozen. Ice should be removed from troughs as some horses dislike drinking if there is floating ice. Alternatively warm water can be given if the trough is frozen. In cold weather horses will drink more water if it is warm but, given the choice, they will drink the cold water.

Rain scald Apart from weight loss the main concern for the unrugged horse is rain scald. Rain scald is a bacterial infection of the skin resulting from repeated wetting and can occur all over the body. (When it affects the legs it is called mud fever.) Scabs form and clumps of matted hair come away when the scabs are pulled off. Rain scald is infectious so can be transmitted from horse to horse through skin contact. Although relatively straightforward to cure prevention is the much better course of action.

Welfare of the rugged horse

A rug flattens the horse's hair so that the insulating layer of air is lost. This means that a thin rug can actually make a horse colder than if he has no rug at all. A rug needs to be thick enough to at least compensate for this effect.

Although rugs provide protection from the cold and wet they can also cause problems. It is not uncommon to see horses with patches of white hair on their withers, caused by rug pressure. In spring horses are often seen with bald patches on their shoulders where their rug has rubbed. Rubbing and pressure sores on the withers, shoulders or hips can be caused by a poorly fitting rug or simply from the shape of the horse - a thin, bony horse is more susceptible to rubbing than one with a layer of fat for protection. A tight rug must feel like a strait-jacket so the horse should be carefully measured before buying a rug. Rugs with pleated shoulders give the shoulders more room to move and bibs (which cover the shoulders under the rug) can help prevent rubbing.

Horse wearing rug in snow Overheating can be more of a problem than the horse getting cold. If the horse is sweating under the rug, or looks fidgety and uncomfortable, he is probably too warm and needs a thinner or no rug.

A horse that lives out 24/7 needs to have the rug removed daily to check for skin problems and weight loss, which can easily go unnoticed under a rug. You should also check that the horse is not getting wet or sweaty under the rug.

Rugging up does not have to be an either/or decision - most horses could go without a rug on a dry, windless day. Even the occasion day with the rug off will give the horse some relief and give his skin a chance to breathe.

Stable rugs

As previously mentioned, moving around helps to keep a horse warm. The restricted space of a stable means that even a hairy pony can get cold in a traditional stable with the top door open. A wick away rug will keep him warm but also dry off a wet horse and draw off sweat if he gets too hot. Good ventilation in stables is essential to avoid respiratory problems - it is much better to use a rug than reduce ventilation and the top door should not be closed however bad the weather.

Owner's convenience or preference

Horses that compete or hunt are usually clipped so need to be rugged up, but many riders rug their horses simply to avoid the inconvenience of trying to groom a wet and/or muddy horse before riding or stabling for the night. Other people think that because they feel cold their horse must too, so use a rug. Show ponies are deliberately rugged up early to prevent their coats growing which means they then need a rug for the rest of the winter.

Foal wearing pink rug There is also increasing pressure from rug manufacturers whose advertisements urge us to buy the latest fashion in rug design and materials. Rugs used to be expensive items which were only bought every few years, whereas now a huge range of rugs is available in all price brackets and the desire to see your horse wearing the latest fashion can be hard to resist. Who wouldn't want a pink stable rug for their filly foal?

Although the 'go naked' purists would disagree, provided the welfare concerns above are addressed, these are all perfectly valid reasons for rugging up.

So who is right - the 'go naked' or the 'rug em up' lobby?

Although each side vehemently argues that they are right, there is really no clear cut answer. A healthy, hairy, well-covered horse should only need a rug in the worst weather, if at all, but this may not suit the horse's use or the owner's lifestyle. Provided the horse's welfare is fully considered the choice comes down to personal preference. However, most horses would benefit from, and no doubt appreciate, at least some time rugless

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Posted on 16 February, 2012

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