In this article, Sean Whiting, Director of equestrian store Houghton Country, offers his insight into rugging and shares a few top tips for getting it right.
In winter when it’s especially cold and windy, many horse owners will be thinking about rugs. But what’s the best way to go about them?
A rug is like a warm coat for horses that can protect them when the temperature drops. But rugging up your horse isn’t as simple as going for the warmest option, as choosing a rug that is too hot can be just as dangerous for your horse as allowing them to get too cold. Like humans, horses have a thermoneutral zone: a range of temperatures in which they can comfortably maintain their own body temperature. For adult horses this is between 5°C and 25°C.
While we can use our own judgement to determine when to rug, humans have a more limited thermoneutral zone of between 25°C and 30°C. This means that we feel the cold more than horses do, so we could accidentally cause them to overheat if we rug them based on how we’re feeling.
To help you approach rugging up safely, I’ve put together a few tips for rugs in winter.
Horses generally need rugs in winter when the weather is colder and the days shorter. Of course, the weather can fluctuate wildly at this time of year, and some months are colder than others, so keep a thermometer outside the stable so you know when to rug, remove the rug when there’s a rise in temperature, or bring your horses into the stable during a particularly cold snap.
You also need to be regularly checking the temperature of your horses to gauge whether they need a rug or not. If your horse is too cold, their wither will feel chilly to the touch, while it'll feel damp if they're too hot. You should immediately tend to a horse if it is shivering or sweating profusely.
Choosing the right rug can be tricky because there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. You have to take several things into account, including the environment your horses are kept in and the routine, age, breed, health, and personal preferences of each individual horse. Then, you’ll need to choose the right tog, size, and material rug to suit.
In terms of which weight of rug to go for, this depends on a number of factors including the breed of your horse, as native breeds have thicker coats and therefore need less insulation. However, the follow temperature brackets can be useful to bear in mind:
15°C or above – Nothing
10 to 15°C – Nothing to lightweight/zero fill
5 to 10°C – Lightweight/zero fill to Lightweight (50g-100g)
0 to 5°C – Lightweight (50g-100g) to Medium
0°C or below – Medium to Heavy
Then, depending on how much shelter is in the paddock, whether your horses are stabled or unstabled and clipped or unclipped, you may need to reconsider the weight and perhaps choose a rug with a neck cover.
There are other alternatives to rugging when the weather is extreme, such as bringing horses into the stable. Remember that the cold might not necessarily bother your horse unless it’s freezing — what they really don’t like is wind and rain. So, if it’s particularly blustery or wet, make sure they have options for shelter when they’re out in the field and take care when riding, as they may get spooked more easily than usual. It is also important to avoid riding on icy roads and frozen ground, and high-visibility attire for both horse and rider are particularly necessary for riding in the low light conditions of winter.
Having enough food is also crucial for horses when it comes to regulating temperature, so make sure their hay is topped up and keep an eye out for any ice in their water. A tennis ball floating in their trough can often be enough to keep their water from freezing.
Finally, don’t forget to arrange pet insurance for your horse so you can quickly and easily organise healthcare when you need it.
The tips in this guide can help you keep your horse from getting too cold this winter. If you’re not sure what rugs you need, remember to ask a professional for help as getting it wrong can be dangerous for your horse.