‘Think before you rug’: winter welfare plea to horse owners

  • Owners have been urged to think carefully before they rug their horses and ponies this winter.

    Animal welfare charity Blue Cross has reminded owners that while horses may look snug while wrapped up, this may not be the healthiest or kindest option.

    “As winter approaches, it’s tempting to reach for the extra rugs, but does your horse need a rug at all?” said Blue Cross horse welfare manager Ruth Court.

    “There has been a lot of research around rugging in recent years and there are many reasons why we may not need to rug our horses, the most obvious one being that it can lead to weight gain and overweight horses.”

    Horses have a much wider thermoneutral zone — the temperature range in which they do not have to “work” to control its body temperature — than humans, so even if owners feel cold, they may not.

    Blue Cross is urging owners to consider certain points before they decide to grab a horse rug:

    • Horses will protect themselves in bad weather, by turning their backs on wind and rain to protect the head, neck, eyes, ears and belly.
    • They may choose natural shelter such as hedges and trees, or a field shelter, and keep together to share body warmth.
    • Horses with frost on their backs may look cold but this is not the case: very little body heat is escaping, which is why the frost has not melted.
    • The horse has a very efficient coat. The erector muscles for each hair need “exercising” to work efficiently, and over-rugging may compromise this natural mechanism.
    • Over-rugged horses do not have a natural ability to cool down, so may sweat and become uncomfortable.
    • Rugging can affect the horse’s natural weight control system; over-rugging and over-feeding in winter means they are less likely to lose weight, so increasing the risk of more weight gain and laminitis in spring.
    • Eating and digesting forage helps generate heat to keep a horse warm naturally.

    Of course, some horses do need rugs: clipped, elderly, unwell and lighter-breed horses may need them, as well as those kept in stables, with restricted movement. The individual circumstances need to be considered when deciding which rug to put on your horse.

    “Horses have evolved to deal with the cold,” said Ruth. “As long as we meet their basic management needs by providing ad lib forage, water, equine companionship and access to shelter they should be comfortable and warm with the lightest of rain sheets or no rugs at all.

    “Do remember to make any changes gradually though, to give them time to adapt their natural heating system and they must be checked at least once a day to be sure they are happy in the field.”

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