To rug or not to rug?
My horse struggles to keep weight on. He always has, it’s just the way he is. He’s been checked by the vets (lots!), but he’s just not driven by food. Consequently, he has a body condition score of 3/5, which is healthy and good, but he can drop weight very quickly when weather gets cold. I have a whole range of rugs for him, and I do try to keep him warm and comfortable whatever the weather.
Most people use rugs for their horses over winter, with the very good intentions of keeping the horse warm/dry/clean. But this comes with certain complications. Horses have evolved to lose weight over the winter months, to the point that they arrive in spring positively lean. However, this is certainly not something most people are used to. Many would be horrified to think of their horses going hungry or cold, and would really struggle to allow them to lose weight.
By rugging our horses, we are preventing them from regulating their own body temperature, especially if they are not clipped. The horse’s coat is incredibly good at helping the horse to cool down by sweating or to help preserve heat by ‘fluffing up’ to trap air under the coat and thereby provide an insulating layer. If the horse does not need to expend energy to stay warm, then excess energy is stored as fat.
Horses don’t feel the cold as we do. While we might have frozen fingers & toes, horses are well adapted to colder, winter conditions. If we judge what rug to use based on our own experience, then we will often be wrong. Horses can cope really quite well with cold weather; most can cope with living out in winter without rugs. Yes, shelter will certainly be useful to get out of the wind and rain, but it is absolutely feasible for the horse to not have rugs on and to survive!
However, when we start clipping horses, the game changes. We strip our horses of their protection against the weather, so we absolutely should replace this with rugs. The trouble is when we get over-protective and start adding layers of rugs. The use of lycra hoods and neck covers reduces the ability of the skin and coat to breatheand access the air, which can further complicate how the horse regulates his own body temperature.
We need to stop thinking of our horse’s as babies; although bred for specific traits, horses should still be allowed to be horses. Think about how and why you are using rugs on your horse; is it for your benefit or his?