As the weather gets colder many horse owners are deciding whether or not to rug their horses. It can often be difficult trying to decide whether a rug is needed, which rug to use and when to put it on. However, some people feel horses should not be rugged and it may even be detrimental to do so. Here we explore the issue of whether to rug our horses or not.
The horse has many natural mechanisms by which it can regulate its heat loss. A horse can generate heat through digestion, muscle movement and the skin, fat and coat can provide insulation. A horse can increase the thickness or length of its coat in response to changes in daytime light length and can raise, lower or change the direction of the hair altering the insulation offered. As a result, horse’s find it easier to warm up when it is cold than to cool down when it is warm or cool down after heavy exercise.
Rugs often leave parts of the horse exposed to the cold. As horses are incapable of regulating the temperature in specific parts of their body, when they attempt to warm these exposed parts the areas covered by the rug can then become overheated.
Furthermore, when the relevant mechanisms through which horses regulate their temperature are not used they deteriorate. This could mean that if they were to be exposed to cold temperatures suddenly, they could not use their natural mechanisms properly.
Rug fit is very important. Many horse owners may have noticed rubbing from ill-fitting rugs. However, it is less commonly known that incorrectly fitted rugs could cause more damage to your horse. A dip or indent in front of the withers can sometimes appear when the edge of a rug is pulling down and pressing on to the crest and nuchal ligament. Apart from an indent, other signs that this could be happening include hair loss, coldness from lack of circulation and potentially even stiffness and soreness in the horse, ranging from mild discomfort to severe unsoundness.
Stefanie Reinhold (2010). Horse Winter Blankets: How much damage can they do? Reinhold’s Horse Wellness. Available at:
Every Horse Is Different
When deciding whether to rug a horse it must be remembered that each horse is different and will have different circumstances. A sick or injured horse that may not be able to move around as much could benefit from a rug. Elderly horses could also benefit. Another reason may be that you have little shelter available. Many horse owners also show their horses. This may mean they want to rug their horses to keep them clean or prevent a thick coat from growing. Many people also don’t have much flexibility in when they can exercise horses in winter meaning horses may be clipped or need a rug after sweating.
A recent survey was conducted by Western Horse UK and Horsemanship Journal which included questions about rugging. Of the 114 respondents, 65 % felt that horses were often over-rugged whereas, only 4 % felt horses were often under-rugged. 20 % believed horses were both often over-rugged and under-rugged.
When asked if they rug their horses to prevent a thick coat for showing, 41 % said they did not. Furthermore, 45 % of respondents said they find it hard to find well-fitting rugs and 37 % said they sometimes find it hard.