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The Whys of Rugging

Last week was Handlers Camp, a 4 day residential camp for the young people who volunteer their time each weekend because they love horses and want to learn more. It was a bit hot, but our topic was rugs. I do know it is August, but soon (almost too soon) it will be November and rugs will be of utmost importance. So, we measured the horses and we measured the rugs and we fit the rugs to the horses (who were confused as to why we were doing this in 28C heat) and we cleaned the rug room. For those of you who just didn’t make Camp this year, here’s a bit of what we talked about and learned.

The Joys of Rugging
Or Roughly When and How You Do It

Rugging a horse is probably the single most contentious thing any owner has to face. The fighting and arguments about rugging have gone back decades if not centuries. There is simply no hard and fast answers. To make matters worse, the equine industry has been quick to meet consumer demand and have created a multitude of different types of rugs. We are long past the days of, “If it looks cold, toss a rug on it.”.

So what rules can we follow? The first place to start is the breed. If your horse is a desert type (Arab, Barb, Mustang) and you live in Scotland, you will need to purchase A LOT of rugs. If you have a hardy breed and live in England, you will have far fewer rugs. It is important to remember that breeds from hot countries have evolved to be able to withstand high temperatures and rid themselves quickly of internal body heat due to a very low fat levels. They have a fine coat and large sinus cavities – both of which are perfectly suited to a hot dry climate. Because Thoroughbreds are half Arab-half Warmblood, they suffer in colder climates.

It is rather obvious but you also need to look at where you live. You may not be all that into The Weather Channel, but you need to at least have the BBC Weather App on your phone. Knowing the seasonal expected high & low temperatures as well as the expected precipitation patterns (it doesn’t ALWAYS rain in England – sometimes it snows!) will help you make the appropriate decisions as to what type of rugs are the best for your horse.

The next thing you need to look at is your horse’s home. What type of stabling and turn out does he/she have? Are you in a wooden stable or a brick barn? There is more heat retained in a brick barn. How does the sun affect your stable? Are you full in the sun or are you in partial shade? Again, this makes a difference when it comes to the retained heat in the building. And then there is the question of how long is he/she in the building. If you are stabling your horse every night, then a very heavy rug might not be your best choice if you live in a temperate climate. If your horse has 24 hour turnout and you live in Cathness, then a heavy turnout with a neck and possibly bandages on the legs is required. Most of us don’t live in extremes (although I have lived in the American South and on the northern coast of Scotland) and that is what makes rugging your horse so hard. Over the last 40 years I have learned that a horse simply does not have 1 rug for the day and 1 rug for the night, even if they are Ardennes.

And the last thing to think about before you go shopping is what does my horse do? Is he/she clipped? Your horse’s workload and your expectations make a huge difference. If you are going to be competing over the winter, then you are probably going to have a clipped horse. It doesn’t matter if you own a thoroughbred or a cob, a clipped horse in January will require a rug. The real question is how many. If you are planning to turn your horse away, don’t clip and let them get a bit shaggy. If you are loathe to rug a horse that spends most of its life in a field, then you must watch them carefully for signs of cold. Yes, my Charlie went most of last winter without a rug, but when it did get really cold (0C), he still got one. And this leads me to Naturalists…..

There are a group of people who believe a horse is part of nature and will self regulate their body temperature and hair growth in a natural way according to the laws and elements of nature. My response to this is, well yes, providing humans do not interfere. However, the minute you own a horse and are keeping it in an enclosed grazing area and riding, you are interfering. A wild horse will roam for miles to graze to keep warm. That really can’t happen in a 10 acre field. A wild horse will be in a herd where they can share warmth, and if there is a fight, well that’s part of nature. A domesticated horse may have a herd but we, the owners, then to loose our minds when there are fights and injuries because we usually want to ride our horse. We try to support their grazing needs by giving them hay piles in the field during a bad spate of winter, which simply does not happen in the wild. These piles can often be the cause of fights. I’m afraid I take the position that you either have a truly wild horse and leave it totally alone or accept you have a domesticated animal which will need appropriate care and dare I say it, some rugs.

Now let’s go shopping….
So what rug do I need? After properly measuring your horse, ask what are you wanting the rug to do. Example: my horse suffers greatly from flies and has reactions from fly bites. So your horse needs a fly rug. Now ask yourself: Is my horse a calm, docile thing or is he/she an active, playful, destructive type? If your horse is calm and docile then a simple fly sheet will be fine, but if they play, bite and roll lots, then a fly rug with a reinforced belly and seams (which does cost more) is your answer. Don’t try to skimp to save money. Please remember, “The cheap ones cost you more.”

Another thing to consider when purchasing a rug is how big is your horse and how big is the rug. Now I have a Grand Ardennes. He’s huge (and lovely). He has a barrel chest (takes a 56” girth and he’s not fat!) and is 17/3.5HH. I bought him a 7’3” heavy weight Weatherbeater turnout. Although it was the right length from chest to bum, it didn’t drape past his armpits. It looked rather silly on him. At £89.00 it was an expensive mistake. I know know that I have to make sure the drop from the centre line of his back is at least 38”. A friend of mine has a New Forest and she purchased a 5’7” for her and it hung past her knees. Again, an expensive mistake. So know what size your horse is on every angle including their neck so that you can measure the rug and get the best fit possible. Oddly, one size does not fit all.

When shopping please remember that “Water Resistant” is different from “Water Proof”. Water resistant will keep him/her dry in the dew or mist. Water Proof will keep them dry in a storm. Water resistant will help in a rain/snow shower, but will get wet through eventually. Water proof will keep the interior fluff dry. In both cases, a wet rug does need to be hung to dry properly or both types will suffer from deterioration of the chemical which repels moisture.

If you are going to buy second hand rugs (a very common thing), make sure you have them laundered before you use them. Even if they have been washed by the previous owner, doing it again will give you the peace of mind that the rug is clean, vermin free and proofed to your requirements.
One last thing that I was taught as a young girl (read Dark Ages)…. You will get more warmth by layering rugs than using one big heavy one. If you layer rugs, then you will get air between the layers which warms with the body heat and will keep the horse warmer. This is the key I learned:

Type of Rug                                    Warmth Level
Fly Rug                                                0
Field sheet (Rain Coat)                       ½
Lightweight sheet or fleece               1
Mediumweight Rug Field or Stable   2
Heavyweight Stable                           2.5
Heavyweight Field                              3
Any Neck on any rug adds                 ½

So by adding up the rug amounts you can see that 1 fleece with 1 necked stable rug is warmer overnight in a stable than a medium weight stable – in fact it is as warm as a heavyweight stable rug!

It is important to remember that no matter what you decide and do, someone will always tell you you’re wrong. Everyone is an expert, but please be the expert for YOUR horse only.

Hope this gives you some food for thought and helps a bit.

Keep Riding!