Getting Togged up! A Basic Guide to Rugging Horses
Yes, it’s that time of year again. There can be a lot to like about winter, especially if you have found a nice job via Caroline Carter Recruitment! 😊 Let’s not forget though, the short days, long nights, mud, rain, wind, snow, ice, and lots of horse rugs to choose, use, dry and store.
Right now, grooms up and down the country will be facing the dilemma of which rugs to use and how best to use them. For each and every horse in our care, there are rugs that work and clearly, rugs that don’t. It really is a responsibility to make the right decision on a horse’s behalf and you also have to factor in the yard owner’s instructions too, which can be different to your own ideas but cannot be disregarded.
It may be that you are a junior groom, new to your job, and you haven’t been to college or worked alongside a really experienced more senior groom. My advice is to never “blag”, rugging is serious business and getting it right will hugely benefit the horses in your care. Getting it wrong can cause suffering, harm and can end in real disaster.
In this article, we aim to summarise what will need to be considered when faced with rugging dilemmas for the stabled and part stabled performance horses in our care. Our guest blogger Emily Taylor has had 20 years experience as a professional Showjumping, Eventing and Dressage groom and has been rugging up horses successfully for many decades now!
Until it’s Spring!
A Basic Guide to Rugging Horses
First the science bit
Horses are mammals and they maintain their internal body temperature at around 38°C through a well-developed mechanism known as thermoregulation which has developed through evolution so that the body temperature is maintained within a narrow range. Fluctuations outside these normal temperature ranges can lead to health problems, so these highly developed systems need to be respected and understood.
Typical things that affect the horses’ body temperature are:
Turning horses out
When turned out, a horse’s natural ability to cope with cold temperatures is undoubtedly positively affected by the availability of shelter.
Studies have repeatedly shown that a field shelter (at least a 3-sides,) can reduce heat loss by around 20% because it allows a horses coat to stay dry and reduces heat loss from wind chill. Most performance horses that are turned out in adverse weather conditions would probably benefit from a turnout rug particularly in wet and windy weather, especially if there is no field shelter available. Neck covers on a rug can also assist in keeping a horse “toasty” under such circumstances. Of course, many performance horses are also brought in the moment the wind, rain or snow kicks in or in preparation to avoid it.
One of the downsides of stabling as far as rugging is concerned is that this inevitably restricts activity, so the horse can’t generate body heat by moving around. This clearly needs to be factored in for rugging choices. It is well documented that maximum ventilation when provided for stabled horses has enormous health benefits. This remains so in the winter of course, but this may also mean drafts which are not beneficial for any horse. Look out for those and in this situation make sure you deal with the source of the draft if possible. Again, a neck cover may be useful.
This is commonplace in performance horses on the majority of professional yards these days and plays an important part in the choice of rug to be used. If a horse is fully clipped we have removed its natural thermal layer and water-repelling barrier, therefore it is common sense that we replace these with “sufficiently” warm and dry indoor and outdoor rugs. What constitutes “sufficient” is something we will come back to. The type of clip itself also needs to be taken into account. A fully clipped out horse will need different considerations when making rug choices vs an unclipped or partially clipped horse.
Bathing and washing
This is not an uncommon, all year-round experience for your average performance horse. Every time we bathe a horse, we strip its coat of some of the natural warming and water-repelling properties, even with a clipped coat. Most yards these days will have warm water showers to bathe their horses, but some do not. Bathing a horse in inclement winter weather in cold water is not ideal. Once bathed even in warm water, a wicking rug should be applied until the horse is dried and then the horse can be rugged and checked a few times before a final rug choice is made. Never rug a wet horse for the night – the rug will absorb the moisture and hold it close to the horse’s body for many hours to come, chilling as the temperature drops.
For a variety of reasons, many performance horses are on rationed hay or haylage. Horses are designed to eat forage for at least 16 hours out of the 24 hour day, and the digestive system processes this in a way which in turn heats the horses body. The horse on a forage ration which doesn’t mimic nature will almost certainly require some extra rugging to compensate for this. It’s a fine balance – you could give the horse more hay and rug the horse less which would be more natural for the horse, but often this is not done in this order. One can only speculate as to why.
Warming up and cooling off horses when they are ridden has an impact on the horse’s body temperature and it’s important that we are considerate and sensible when working horses in cold temperatures. Unlike humans, horses lose body heat slowly. They also gain body heat slowly, so if a horse is allowed to get too cold it can take a long while for him/her to rebuild body heat. Horses are known to develop colic, or colic-like symptoms when their body temperature is too low/high and if, for any reason, they are unable to normalise it (for example, being over or under rugged).
Post-exercise rugging needs to be carefully considered and wisdom would suggest that a “wicking” type of rug is used until the horse has cooled down to its normal level before it’s usual night rugs/day rugs/turnout rugs are put on. A sweating, unclipped horse should not be left without any rug as a means of cooling it down, this is a sure way to cause a problem which could take a serious turn for the worse quite quickly. Again, think carefully before rugging a very sweaty horse for the night – as with after bathing, the rug will absorb sweat, which in turn chills the rug as the night time temperature drops.
Rugging for competitions/travelling/training has similarities to all that we discuss in this article but has a whole different set of circumstances – a discussion for another time.
Every horse is different, every year is different and one should never cling to “we have always done it this way so why change?” Horses get older, rugs lose their efficacy and the temperature in a month one year is most certainly not going to be the same every year! It’s amazing how many people can cling to their old habits (grooms and yard owners alike) often to the detriment of the horses in their care.
In summary, when selecting which rug, we need to be mindful of:
- The environment of each horse
- The routine of each horse
- Age/breed/health/condition/temperament of each horse
A point of note: when we step outside the door and very quickly assess that it is milder/colder/freezing we can’t necessarily apply the same subjective logic to our horses as we do ourselves. They have been standing in a stable/paddock all night and will have often been without roughage for a good few hours. As an experienced head groom, it used to drive me mad when a groom would turn up on the yard wrapped up with just their eyes showing, start mucking out, get hot, then go round stripping rugs off all the horses as though the horses had been mucking out and got hot too! Had the groom stood still in a stable all morning they would be just as cold as when they arrived on the yard!
How to check if a horse might be cold
- Check a horse is warm enough, not too warm, if the rug has slipped very regularly
- Check if a horse’s coat is standing up – this is a good indicator that the horse is feeling chilly, and its natural reaction is to try to increase its coats thermal properties by the hairs standing on end (like goosebumps).
- Tuck your hand into a horses rug, and feel behind the wither. If it feels chilly he/she may need another layer. If it feels damp he/she is probably too hot.
- Respond immediately if you spot a horse looking uncomfortable, rugs disturbed or if the horse is shivering or sweating
- Keep an eye on the weather forecast and prepare for temperature swings that are common in autumn and spring and at different parts of the day. Your rug room can feel like a not-so-magic roundabout at these times of year with all the rugging and unrugging only a matter of hours apart
- Keep a thermometer on the wall outside of the stable so you know what the temperature is on the day, in the yard and make sure you are not relying on a weather forecast which really only applies the most northerly locations of the country!
- Go by the warmth of the horses’ ears or legs.
- Assume because you are hot/cold the horses must also be. Think about the ambient temperature, what you have been doing, what they have been doing.
- Never assume because an unclipped/partially clipped performance horse is sweaty from exercise he needs to be left unrugged in order to cool down.
A rough guide to choosing which rug to use
- Make sure the rug actually fits the horse. There are many online guides to getting this right. Horses can change shape and size year on year. Probably this is something best done well ahead of time so you don’t find yourself stuck for a rug when you actually need it!
- Horse condition. If a horse is overweight he/she can use this extra weight to expend energy thermoregulating – a healthy way to lose a few lbs but don’t go mad with it! If a horse struggles to hold condition it might be a good idea to provide a little more help so he/she doesn’t waste energy thermoregulating. Clearly, if a horse is shivering it isn’t good sign, even if it is a bit on the heavier side. Likewise a thinner horse isn’t thermoregulating either if it’s sweating under a rug. You need to use your head, or it’s just plain mean to the horse!
- Horses are better off regulating their own body temperature, mainly through digestion. As winter approaches, ask yourself if a horse needs a little rug, or would an extra hay-net be more beneficial? Does he/she need both?
- Is there a lot worse to come? Don’t rush to tog your horses up because you are shocked by stepping out of a centrally heated building in late October. Be sensible about the rate at which you add rugs as winter approaches. Do the checks to see if your horse is warm enough, too warm, very regularly and be guided by that ultimately.
- Most experienced grooms and yard owners learn the needs of the individual horses in their care over time and seem to instinctively know which rugs to use and when. But they will often stop and think about it, or change their minds at the last minute. Do take the opportunity to ask them to explain their logic and thinking so that you might learn from it.
- Don’t be frightened to call the various well-known rug companies for advice too – sure they will try to sell you a rug, but that won’t stop them giving you some useful advice on the matter in relation to a particular horse you aren’t sure about.
Rugging is both an art and a science. If you don’t really know what rug or combination of rugs will work for a particular horse on a particular day, do ask. Sole charge groom positions are very popular these days and the owners and horses are reliant on you knowing your stuff and staying informed on the facts and latest thinking. Have a great Autumn/Winter and Spring becoming a rug guru! Once again, don’t forget yourself in all this – don’t forget to wrap up appropriately and not to have a cold bath on a freezing winter day! And if you do don’t forget to wick! 😊
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