Rugging or blanketing horses is usually something that makes US feel a lot better, especially when its cold, wet and we see our horse shivering.
Keep in mind that horses have survived for millions of years without the need for man-made rugs to protect them from the weather.
They have the wonderful ability to grow a thick coat with hairs that stand up to trap air for warmth and lie flat when it’s hot.
In keeping horses on small acreages, we have decreased their ability to find a variety of sheltered places during extremely cold or hot weather and to escape insects. In the wild, horses migrate to areas that serve this purpose as they need them.
However, it is possible to simulate a more natural environment in which the horse can happily live without the encumbrances of rugs.
I’ve rugged horses ever since I started washing them and taking them to horse shows as a kid, so I grew up thinking it was all part of the process of keeping horses as many people do. In fact with the aggressive marketing we see from rug manufacturing companies, we are led to believe we are being irresponsible horse owners if we don’t rug our horses.
What we don’t realise is we are actually being irresponsible when we leave rugs on in warm weather, allow rugs to rub causing wounds and be a constant irritation for the horse.
An ill-fitting rug (and not many of them fit well) pressures the wither and chest when the horse grazes, has leg straps that rub especially if the rug slips and a general fit that restricts shoulder and neck movement.
I’m not advocating that we should never put a rug on a horse – what I am asking people to do is be responsible and sympathetic about rugging their horses and to understand what it feels like for the horse.
Imagine if at the first hint of cold weather you put on a heavy coat that you weren’t allowed to take off.
How hot would you get when the sun came out or if you ran around a bit? How uncomfortable would it be for you to move around?
Life would be miserable and is for many horses who’s owners merrily go off to work each day in the cold of the morning and then when the sun comes out and the day warms up, there’s no-one around to remove the rug.
The poor horse can’t absorb much vitamin D or have a good roll, itch or run around and feel good. Some can’t even find shade to relieve the heat and one of the saddest things is the horse who has a rug put on at the beginning of winter which is not removed at all until summer. This is not kindness, its outright cruelty.
No wonder some rugged horses stand around looking depressed then get all excited and jumpy or distracted by itches when the rug does come off for a ride.
So, what can we do to give the horse maximum comfort without rugging?
First, we need to provide shelter from the elements – mostly the wind and hot sun. That means having a shelter shed for shade and wind protection, large trees or hedges in an inviting position in the pasture which is ideally large enough for plenty of movement.
We can encourage movement to keep warm by placing hay in various parts of the paddock rather than in one pile or have water at the opposite end of the area.
We can also provide herd members to encourage movement as they play and enforce pecking orders.
By providing constant access to hay in wet or cold weather the horse can heat itself internally. With the combination of food and movement, a horse can easily regulate its own temperature and in the process, keep its hooves, muscles, tendons and ligaments exercised and healthy.
We can allow our horses to grow a thick winter coat, especially our young horses, and if we have started rugging as soon as the nights get cold, we can gradually leave the rug off starting with a nice sunny day and perhaps only using the rug in wet, windy weather when the chill factor is greatest.
Horses cope fine in the cold – I’ve seen horses in snow and minus 20 refuse to come inside out of the cold so long as they have the ability and motivation to move and eat hay.
If you do choose to rug your horse in really wet weather, perhaps after 24 hours of rain and wind which increases the chill factor, then that’s fine but remember to remove it as soon as the weather clears.
Your horse will be so much more comfortable without it rubbing and restricting them.
“But what about all the weight they will lose from shivering?” I hear you say.
The answer is to give your horses constant access to hay – I’ve seen a cold, shivering horse stop shivering within 10 minutes of eating hay. The energy produced from digestion is enough to warm a horse from the inside out. We all know for ourselves how much food is comfort in cold weather.
My 30 and 33-year-old mares have never looked better in winter for having constant hay to eat. It is a natural feed and will put on more weight than many high-protein and high-energy feeds.
Their arthritis has also improved from being able to move around more.
Of course, if your horse is sick or unable to move very much through injury or illness then a rug might be necessary for the recovery period. If we initially allow our horse to grow a thick winter coat then we have extra warmth when the horse needs it and we can remove the rug once recovered and leave it off.
“But what about riding when they have a thick coat – how do you cool off a sweaty horse without them catching a cold?”
Giving your horse a more natural lifestyle might mean changing some of your lifestyle habits too in order to work with them and nature.
It might mean riding your horse in the morning so he has the warmer part of the day to roll and rid himself of sweat. It probably means you need to take longer to cool your horse down as part of your ride – walk home the last 2km or sit on your horse and allow some grazing after a workout. If you need to, you can put on a sweat rug that allows gradual cooling while the horse has a feed before turning out again.
It may mean a little extra brushing before and after a ride, but that’s good for us too and for the relationship with our horse.
If there’s a freezing wind blowing and sweat is still a problem, then put a rug on for that day and remove it the next morning.
A friend of mine is an endurance rider who allows her horses a natural lifestyle and doesn’t rug or clip her endurance horse. She uses a rug the night after a competition but otherwise, the horse has a shelter shed and hay for warmth and does extremely well in our Tasmanian winters.
Even if you want to go to a horse show, there’s no rule about having a thick coat and so long as your presentation is good there is no reason to be discriminated against.
You will need to use a rug after washing your horse until the coat replaces its natural oil which can take a few days. A bit more elbow grease can bring up a wonderful shine on a thick coat if the horse is healthy and fed a natural diet supplemented with minerals and some sunflower seeds for extra oils in winter.
I’ve taken horses to shows that have simply been given a good groom and rugged the night before with white socks washed on the morning of the event and they have won breed & ridden classes.
Rugs have a place and a purpose in the artificial environment we give our horses but given the choice, a horse would rather have freedom from rugs providing they have the comfort of shelter and food.
I’m sure they send us messages when we find the rug balled up in the rolling patch or ripped on the fence from trying to rub it off.
Think of the money you can re-direct to hay and shelter provision when your rugs don’t need annual replacement or repairs.
But most of all, think of your horses and what is more natural for them.
Here is a fabulous article about ‘Thermoregulation in horses in a cold time of year’ that will help you understand the mechanics of how horses keep themselves warm.