If you’re anything like me, you’ll love a horse blanket. I love buying horse rugs, putting them on my horse and seeing him wearing them — he’s got more than one for every occasion. It’s a running joke in my home that my horses have a better wardrobe than I do. The funniest thing about it is that it’s true, they do. Some girls love buying new shoes; horse girls love buying horse blankets and horse rugs. That’s true in my case, anyway.
The world of shopping for horse blankets and horse rugs is enormous. There is something for every job, temperature and weather conditions — and in all colours with matching accessories too. Yet they shouldn’t be viewed as fashion items. A horse blanket has an important job to do in caring for a horse, and choosing the correct horse rug is vital. It’s also crucial to know when your horse or pony might not need to wear one at all and the implications of over-rugging. I’ll cover all that in this article, as well as how to choose the right weight of rug, golden rugging rules to swear by and I’ll demystify some of the ‘jargon’ you’ll come across when researching a rug for your horse.
First of all, horse turnout and stable rugs are available in different weights. It’s a bit like the tog rating we look at when we’re buying a new duvet: the weight of a horse rug refers to the amount of filling inside that blanket and how warm it will keep your horse. Consider how your horse copes in different temperatures to help you choose the best weight rug for them. Remember every horse is an individual, so even if the horse in the next stable is wearing a heavyweight, a lightweight might be plenty for yours.
What weight of horse blanket do you need?
Lightweight horse rugs
Lightweight horse rugs usually have between 0g and 80g of filling. Lightweight stable rugs may have up to 150g of filling. Lightweight turnout rugs (you may also see/hear these described as rain sheets) keep your horse clean and dry, making them a good option for damp spring and autumn days or cool summer nights. You’ll choose a lightweight turnout when your horse is in the field and it’s raining, but it’s also warm and so you don’t want to add unnecessary layers. It’s also useful to have one in the horsebox at a competition so that you can put it on your horse while their tied up outside if it begins to rain.
Mediumweight horse blankets
Medium weight horse blankets tend to have between 100g and 250g of filling. For many horses this will be all they need to keep them warm and dry through the winter months. The bit of padding inside a medium weight horse rug offers protection on really cold, frosty and windy days, but not so much that a horse may overheat.
It’s usual to have different weights of rug for the same horse too. In winter, for example, you may find that your horse needs a mediumweight to wear in the field where they are exposed to the elements, but only a lightweight in the stable, which is sheltered and therefore much warmer.
Heavyweight horse rugs
You’ll know when you’re dealing with a heavyweight horse blanket, because they are usually quite heavy! Often they take longer to dry after a soggy day in the field too, so bear this in mind. Heavyweight rugs are exactly what the name suggests: thick, heavy rugs containing over 300g of filling. These are likely to be used in areas of the world where temperatures plummet well below freezing. A horse who is fully clipped may benefit from wearing a heavyweight rug, as can horses who are old or finer breeds, such as Thoroughbreds.
In areas of the world where the temperature is inconsistent, such as the UK, don’t be surprised if you find yourself swapping between a lightweight, mediumweight and heavyweight rug regularly, even in winter. Always rug according to what the temperature actually is and what suits your horse’s requirements. Don’t just assume that as it’s winter it must be very cold.
Controlling your horse’s temperature
You know your horse better than anyone so try not to be influenced by what others are doing when it comes to rugging up. Go with what is best for you and your horse. Understanding how your horse stays warm will also help you decide what rugs are needed.
“Your horse has his own in-built cooling and heating system called thermoregulation. This keeps his body temperature within a certain range,” says anatomy expert Gillian Higgins from Horses Inside Out. “Sensitive nerves and receptors in the horse’s skin, abdomen, skeletal muscles and parts of the spinal cord send messages relating to body temperature to the hypothalamus, which is the thermoregulatory centre within your horse’s brain.”
Horses keep warm by:
- Insulation — your horse will use fat to generate energy and warmth.
- Vasoconstriction — this is when the capillaries under the skin contract, reducing heat loss.
- Shivering — this rapid contraction of his muscles produces heat.
“Your horse’s hair also plays a key role in temperature regulation,” adds Gillian. “He adapts to the colder weather during winter by growing a longer thicker coat. If you remove that coat by clipping it off, you will need to replace that lost layer with a rug. You may also notice that when your horse is cold his hair stands upright. This is to trap an insulating layer of air to warm him up.”
What happens if a horse is over-rugged?
I’ve already mentioned that over-rugging horses can cause problems and it’s generally a well discussed topic. What exactly are these problems, though, and how can you tell if you’re overrugging?
“Knowing when horses need a rug is pretty obvious,” states scientist Dr David Marlin. “If you have a horse who is shivering, losing weight and doesn’t seem very happy, it’s time to consider putting on a rug. On the other hand, if you put your hand under the rug and the horse is sweating underneath, you know you are over-rugging.”
According to Dr Marlin, the difficulty with over-rugging is that it’s not always that obvious. The trickiest thing to judge is when the horse is too hot but isn’t sweating. A study undertaken at Sparsholt College that used humidity sensors under the horses’ rugs found that horses start to sweat at around 25°C. That is the upper limit of the horse’s thermoneutral zone.
“In the study, the upper neutral limit was exceeded on every horse but only one presented with sweat, even though all the horses were severely over-rugged,” adds Dr Marlin. “The key finding from the study was that when trying to assess this by just putting a hand under the rugs, sweating was only detected in one horse who was wearing four or five rugs. So we could tell by feel if a horse was severely over-rugged, but not when a horse was moderately over-rugged.”
Putting on a horse blanket when it’s not needed
The consequences of putting on a horse rug when it’s not needed are that you’re creating a warm, humid environment under the rug.
“These are ideal conditions for bacteria and fungi, increasing the risk of skin infections. There’s also the issue of vitamin D deficiency, because if your horse is constantly rugged, there’s a reduction in the amount of sunlight reaching the skin,” says Dr Marlin.
“An over-rugged horse will also be using less energy to keep warm, which could potentially play a role in obesity. If you have a horse or pony who is overweight, over-rugging is going to exacerbate that. A horse who is overweight has already got a pretty high level of insulation. They don’t need a rug and taking off the rugs will potentially help that horse reduce their bodyweight.
“One of the problems we have with weight management in general is that we mess with the horse’s natural cycle. In the wild, horses will eat everything that’s available in the summer, get well covered, and then lose this extra layer of fat through the winter, so that by spring they are looking on the thin side and the cycle starts again. What we try to do is the opposite, which is have them fit and lean in summer when they’re competing, and then over-feed and over-rug them in winter, encouraging horses to get fat, which results in incidences of metabolic syndromes.”
Dr Marlin’s key message is that rugging horses isn’t natural.
“Most cope well in the wild without our help and when we interfere, we often make things worse,” he explains. “As long as they are in good health, have a good body condition score and access to shelter and ad-lib forage, many horses don’t need to wear a rug — or, if they do, they should only be lightweight rain sheets to prevent the horse getting wet and cold.”
Nine golden rules for using a horse blanket
- Don’t rug your horse based on how cold you feel. They can cope with a dip in temperature much better than you can.
- Old, young, underweight and clipped horses will feel the cold more and may need rugging up or wearing a heavier weight of rug compared to other horses.
- For most horses, rugs and blankets shouldn’t really be needed until the night time temperature is between 5°C and 10°C.
- Start with a simple lightweight rug. This may be all your horse needs. You then have the option to move to a heavier weight rug if it gets really cold.
- Wind and cold temperature combined lead to the greatest heat loss.
- Remember the winter months are the ideal opportunity for those horses who are carrying a bit too much weight to lose a few pounds. This won’t happen if you rug them up as your horse will use less energy to keep warm.
- As the temperature drops, if your horse doesn’t have access to shelter, they will need a thicker waterproof rug.
- Feeding your horse plenty of hay will help to keep them warm too as the digestive system generates heat as the horse eats. This is another reason why it’s not always necessary to increase the weight of a rug the horse is wearing for them to feel the benefit.
- An indicator that your horse is at a comfortable temperature is putting your hand under their rug just behind the withers. If they feel cold, a thicker rug might be needed.
Understanding horse blanket jargon
I agree — horse rug jargon can be confusing. Below is a list of the commonly used terms you’ll come across when choosing a horse rug, and what they mean.
Horse rug denier
This tells you how durable the horse rug is likely to be. The higher the denier, the tougher and heavier the fabric of the horse blanket: 1200 denier and above is very strong; 600 denier is an everyday strength.
As the name suggests, this is the fabric’s ability to contain rips and tears. It doesn’t mean that your rug won’t rip, but that the woven thread pattern runs in two directions and this helps to prevent a rip from spreading once it starts.
Similar to ripstop, this type of material is very strong, durable and more resistant to tearing.
This refers to the outer material’s ability to stop water passing through the rug on to your horse. This ability will decrease with use, but with correct cleaning and reproofing, the rug will remain waterproof. Always follow the instructions on the rug for cleaning.
Taping seams is when a waterproof tape is applied and sealed to ensure the seam on the rug will be waterproof.
Breathability is the rug’s ability to allow moisture to pass through the fabric away from your horse, thus keeping them dry and comfortable.
Horse rug filling
Usually referred to in grams, the higher the gram of fill, the warmer the rug will be.
This is referring to the neck of the horse rug and means it stops at your horse’s withers, leaving their neck uncovered.
A horse blanket with a ‘high neck’ means the neck cover extends beyond the withers, but doesn’t cover all of your horse’s neck. Depending on the size of your horse, it may finish halfway along their neck. This type is a good choice if your horse is prone to rubbing their withers when wearing a rug because it removes the pressure point.
This style of horse rug has an integral neck cover that cannot be removed. It covers the full neck, all the way up to your horse’s ears.
This type of horse blanket has a neck cover that can be removed, giving you the versatility of having two rugs in one. It’s usually a full neck cover, which means it covers all the way up to the horse’s ears. Check what you’re buying before you decide, as sometimes a detachable neck has to be separately rather than being included with the rug.
I personally find detachable necks useful and I have owned a lot over the years, because it makes a rug more versatile. On very cold and wet days, the neck cover can be added for better coverage, while on drier days it is easily removed.