As the weather cools and winter approaches, we tend to put on heavier clothes to stay warm, and many horse owners do the same for their horses by adding rugs — but this anthropomorphic tendency may not be the kindest or healthiest course of action for most equines.
Winter is upon the Northern Hemisphere and British pet charity Blue Cross is advising horse owners to think carefully before rugging their horses.
The charity’s Horse Welfare Manager Ruth Court points to research into rugging horses in recent years and the many reasons not to do it, the most obvious one being weight gain.
They may look toasty and snug in their rug, but “horses have evolved to deal with the cold”, Ruth says. “As long as we meet their basic management needs by providing ad lib forage, water, equine companionship and access to shelter they should be comfortable and warm with the lightest of rainsheets or no rugs at all.
“Do remember to make any changes gradually though, to give them time to adapt their natural heating system and they must be checked at least once a day to be sure that they are happy in the field.”
Blue Cross has put together nine points to consider before deciding to rug a horse:
Self-protection: Horses are programmed to protect themselves in bad weather, turn their backs on wind and rain to protect their head, neck, eyes, ears and belly.
Natural shelter: They may choose natural shelter such as hedges and trees and keep together to share body warmth. Or they may have access to a field shelter.
Natural insulation: Horses with frost on their backs may look cold but they are quite the opposite as very little body heat is escaping through the air which is why the frost hasn’t melted.
Compromised thermoregulation: The horse has a very efficient coat covered with tiny hairs. The hair erector muscles for each hair need ‘exercising’ in order to work efficiently and over rugging may compromise this natural mechanism.
Heat imbalance: Over rugging mean that the horse warms up under the rug but not in other exposed areas.
Over-heating: If the horse becomes too hot under the rug, he doesn’t have a natural ability to cool down and may begin to sweat and become uncomfortable.
Natural weight control: The use of rugs can affect the horse’s natural weight control system. Horses are designed to use fat reserves over winter to keep warm. By keeping horses over rugged and over fed during the winter we are increasing the risk of further weight gain in the spring, increasing the risk of laminitis.
Forage: Munching and digesting forage for 24 hours a day will help generate heat to keep a horse warm naturally.
Individual needs: There are some exceptions to the rugging rule: Lighter, elderly or unwell horses may benefit from the additional warmth of a rug, as would horses without any shelter from the weather. Clipped horses and stabled horses with restricted movement may also appreciate a rug.