why it's important and how it benefits horses
Rugging a horse affects the natural regulation of its body temperature. Here are several factors to consider in keeping your horse comfortable day and night.
Winter coat growth: part of the natural cycle
A horse sheds and grows a new coat twice a year. This seemingly uncomplicated event involves complex metabolic processes that trigger coat changes at certain points in the year.
The change in daylight hours affects hormones
In autumn, the pineal gland in the horse's brain puts out the signal for the body to begin growing a winter coat. This hormonal process is connected to the shortening daylight.
Cooler temperatures also play a role
A second factor which allows horses to adapt to the winter months is the actual falling temperature. The body regulates the necessary responses to the current climate. This is why horses kept in open stables grow thicker and longer coats than horses in loose boxes.
Winter coats cost energy
A horse's winter coat first develops gradually: by mid-December, the winter hairs, at first short, have grown longer and are accompanied by a thick, plushy undercoat. This creates a protective fur consisting of two layers, with the longer top hairs repelling water. The development of a winter coat costs the horse energy and, contrary to what many riders assume, the shedding of this coat in the spring also means enormous strain on the organism. Both the long top coat and the thick undercoat must make way for the short, thin hairs of the summer coat. Depending on the region, shedding can take up to four months.
Structure of the winter coat:
- Top coat: Water repellent
- Undercoat: Insulation - cold conditions make the hairs stand up, creating an insulating pocket of air. Absorbs water, dries slowly.
An intact winter coat provides excellent insulation. It retains body heat and repels cold, snow, and rain.
Summer coats: short and sweet
The summer coat hairs begin to develop as soon as the days begin to lengthen, even though temperatures are still quite frosty. Shorter, thinner hairs grow beneath the thick winter coat and remain when the latter is shed. At these latitudes, this light summer coat remains on the horse for only about four months, until it is shed within just a few weeks in late summer.
How does proper rugging help horses?
Winter coats cause horses to sweat heavily during and after exercise, making warm-ups and cool-downs more time-intensive in cold weather. Rugging helps to inhibit the development of the winter coat, providing the horse with a comfortable environment suitable for sport.
Clipped horses stay warm
A clipped horse needs to be diligently rugged as well as have its rug changed depending on conditions: insulated rugs of varying warmth must do the work of the winter coat, protecting the horse against wind and precipitation.
Protection against weather extremes
When the weather turns frosty with long or heavy rainfall, horses need lots of energy to maintain their body temperature and, just like humans, they can catch colds. A lightly insulated rug that's waterproof and windproof will help keep a sensitive horse, or one that's prone to freezing, comfortable during cold spells.
Energy conservation: age and convalescence
Old or sick horses often have little or even no energy reserves when their feed doesn't meet their needs. Dental problems or digestive ailments impede feed conversion and make it difficult to keep the horse at a constant weight. Correct rugging reduces the demands that moulting places on the organism, letting it manage with a lower metabolic output. This saves energy and facilitates a stable body weight over the winter.
Some like it cold
Depending on the breed, horses are predisposed to develop a more or less thick winter coat. Draught horses and robust breeds like Icelandics will grow thicker winter coats than warmbloods and thoroughbreds. Of course, the climate where the breed originated also plays a role, and a horse's seasonal moulting would adapt more easily there.
Benefits of proper rugging for horses
- reduces growth of the winter coat
- takes strain off the metabolism
- keeps body weight consistent
- protects the back
- relaxes the muscles
- shortens drying-off periods after training
When to start rugging
If you want to keep your horse from growing a winter coat, you must begin rugging him in the transition period from summer to autumn. This is the only way to keep cold spells from triggering winter coat growth.
As soon as the late summer nights begin to cool and you notice the difference in temperature between the cosy warm stable and the crispy autumn outdoors, it's time to put on a between-season rug. You only need to rug your horse at night in the beginning, when the days are still sufficiently warm. For horses that are turned out in the early morning, a thin rug will prevent the shock of leaving their warm stables for the chilly outdoors. A light-coloured rug will reflect sunlight and keep the horse from overheating on late summer days. As soon as the weather becomes more changeable, windier and rainier, a rug will protect your horse's sensitive back and musculature. As the temperatures sink further, the more your choice of winter rug will depend on its warmth.
Rugs must be regularly checked to make sure they are intact, fit correctly, and don't let the horse get wet or overheated when worn. A waterlogged rug must be removed from the horse and allowed to dry completely in a well-ventilated, ideally heated place. If left on, the horse may develop muscle tension and catch cold. If the rug is wet on the outside but the inside material is still dry, it can remain on the horse, as the horse's own body heat will help to dry it.