With temperatures starting to dip and the colder months on the way, you may be thinking about using rugs again.

The first thing to consider is that just like us they are all individuals, and what’s suitable for one isn’t necessarily suitable for another.

You know your horse better than anyone so try not to be influenced by what others are doing and 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.

Temperature control

“Your horse has his own in-built cooling and heating system called thermoregulation,” says anatomy expert Gillian Higgins. “This keeps his body temperature within a certain range.”

Sensitive nerves and receptors in the skin, abdomen, skeletal muscles and parts of the spinal cord send messages relating to body temperature to the hypothalamus, 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,” says 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.

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The golden rules of rugging

  1. Don’t rug your horse based on how cold you feel. He can cope with a dip in temperature much better than you can.
  2. Old, young, underweight and clipped horses will feel the cold more and may need rugging.
  3. For most horses, rugs shouldn’t really be needed until the night time temperature is between 5°C and 10°C.
  4. 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.
  5. Wind and cold temperature combined lead to the greatest heat loss.
  6. 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 him as he’ll use less energy to keep warm.
  7. As the temperature drops, if your horse doesn’t have access to shelter, he will need a thicker rug.
  8. Feeding your horse plenty of hay will help to keep him warm — it’s not always necessary to up the weight of the rug he’s wearing for him to feel the benefit.
  9. A good indicator that your horse is at a comfortable temperature is putting your hand under his rug just behind his withers. If he feels cold, a thicker rug might be needed.

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