We’re currently in the process of getting our Christmas cards sorted. Whilst going through our huge file of pictures to find the perfect one that represents everything we think a Doghill Christmas is about, I came across a snap I took of my Lusitano mare Sophia in heavy snow about 10 years ago. Sophia was a “quirky” girl who was given to me by a friend with the immortal words; “if you can catch her, you can have her”. Well, never one to resist a challenge (especially where horses are concerned) I promptly caught her and I “had” her.
In the interests of full disclosure, it’s probably pertinent to mention at this point that Sophia was semi-wild, hated to be touched and it took 4 days and a lot of bribery and fast thinking to get anywhere near her in a 10 acre field, let alone catch her. But I digress. My point is that Sophia had, at the age of 10, never, ever worn a rug.
Rugging a horse is a very emotive issue. There are the “a horse wouldn’t have a rug in the wild” brigade and so their horses never wear a rug, even when the horse is soaking wet and shivering with cold in a field in a howling storm, and then at the other end of the spectrum, there are the “my horse has a full coat, but it is never ever not rugged because I like it warm and cosy” people and you’ll find their horse sweating in a heavy rug, in hot sun, because it was cold 3 days ago and it might be cold next week.
However, the great majority of horse owners fall somewhere in between and are pretty sensible in their approach. When they are deciding whether their horse should wear a rug they have to take into account considerations like whether the horse is clipped, unclipped, stabled or living out and this impacts their decision.
At Doghill, we rug according to the horse and according to the weather. For example, our riding horses are rugged with a very light rain sheet to keep them dry and clean, so that we don’t have to scrape wet mud off them every time we want to work them (and because Xara my grey mare makes the most of a mud bath). Because he lives mostly out, Hobbit has been wearing a reasonably heavy duty medium turnout rug since early September. That’s because he has arthritic hocks and we need to keep him warm and dry so he doesn’t go lame. Because he drops weight really easily, we also don’t want him to waste energy keeping warm. Jimmy (his field companion) on the other hand, is unrugged and maintaining more than enough weight (and mud!) to stay in condition despite what the weather throws at him.
As a rule of thumb, we always rug our older horses and pregnant mares through the winter and we let the youngsters rough it without rugs to build up a bit of resilience, but it does depend purely on the horse. Maverick one of our retirement liveries refuses point blank to wear a rug and shreds them the minute they are on his back. According to his owner Alison, it has been the same expensive situation for the last 28 years!
Horses are very efficient at controlling their core body temperature when the environmental temperature is between around 5 to 25 oC, and in winter they can acclimatise to a much wider range (as low as minus 15oC). Unlike humans, normal digestion in the horse’s hind gut produces a large amount of heat and therefore owners will feel cold when their horses do not. This is why it is so important for your horse to have access to long fibre and constant forage in winter – they quite literally have a “central ‘eating system”. It is usually healthier for a normal horse to be provided with shelter and extra forage (hay etc.), which also helps its digestive tract, rather than to use too many rugs. The amount of forage needed is often less than people think and rugging to ‘save on feed costs’ should never be a key reason for rugging.
Instead, it’s wind speed and rainfall which have a much greater effect on whether you rug a horse. A wet horse in a cold wind will lose heat at a much higher rate and it will find it much harder to stay warm. We’re lucky at Doghill in that we have lots of natural shelter in our fields, but even then we need to keep an eye on the weather report for rain.
Our rule of thumb is;
Windy, but cold and DRY, an unclipped, unrugged horse is probably OK and warm enough turned out.
Windy, but cold and WET, you need to think about how you’re going to keep your horse dry, be that a rain sheet, heavier rug or providing some form of shelter for your horse to get out of the weather.
Temperature wise we use the chart below as a rough guideline. This is by no means definitive and rugging a horse does depend on individual circumstances, but it is a helpful guide.
And as for my mare Sophia wearing a rug? Well in the 15 years I had her, I never once managed to persuade her to wear one!