"Should I Rug My Horse, and When?

"Should I Rug My Horse, and When?

Social media comes to life at this time of year with people posting the question, ‘have you rugged your horse yet?’ As the nights draw in and the skies turn grey, the equestrian community almost collectively gives a little shiver at the thought of what lies ahead, but when should you start rugging your horse? The gloomy skies and dark evenings have us all rushing for the fireside and the central heating controls but horses are not humans and they are happier being kept on the cold side. The sensible answer to the question of if and when to rug, depends on your horse and how they are being kept.

No rugs required

A native pony in good health does not need a rug, he just needs access to shelter and plenty of fibre and his coat will take care of him. The native ponies of the UK are very hardy types who have evolved to live in some very harsh conditions. They have developed a coat of two layers which traps air in pockets in between the layers; if you put a rug over the top, you actually flatten these pockets and reduce the horse’s natural ability to keep warm and dry.

Depending on environmental temperature, age and condition, there are plenty of other types of horses who will happily winter out without a rug providing they have shelter and lots to eat. It is interesting to see horses opting to graze in the foulest of weather conditions rather than standing in a field shelter; hedges and folds in the land will also provide cover and protection.

How do I know if my horse is cold?

Most people check their horse’s temperature by feeling their ears but in fact latest scientific research states that the best area to check is over the withers at the base of the neck, just in front of where the saddle sits. Horses tolerate the cold well if they are fit and healthy, they dislike a mixture of cold and wet however, happy to tolerate frosty sharp cold or milder wet conditions but less comfortable if the two are mixed. A cold horse will appear ‘tucked up’ which means the flanks seem sucked inwards against the bodyline and the horse may also appear dejected and lacking brightness. This can be a sign of other health conditions so it is important to treat a horse with this sort of appearance with caution until you have established the cause.

Which rug?

If your horse is working and is clipped, then of course he will need a rug. And how much you rug will depend upon the type of clip.

There are so many different types of rug available these days and rather like human clothes, different manufacturer’s suit different horses. Rugs are measured in feet and inches from the point of the horse’s shoulder to the end of the hind quarters but depending on your horse’s conformation, you may fine one 6’6” rug does fit whereas another does not, so good advice from a saddlery is often very helpful when it comes to sizing and make.

Stable rugs and turnout rugs are sold in weights which are described in grams, loosely grouped into three categories of lightweight, medium weight and heavyweight. You don’t necessarily need to have a rug of each type and layering is definitely the best option with our variable English temperatures. For example, you may find that you only ever need a medium weight turnout rug because you can use a liner underneath when it is really cold, similarly in the stable.

Here are the different types of rug:-

  • Stable rug - can come with or without a neck section which may be integral to the rug or detachable
  • Liner – usually just has front buckles and is quilted, designed to fit under a stable rug
  • Turnout rug – waterproof and comes with or without a neck section, they also have additional straps to go around the hind legs to keep the rug secure
  • Cooler – a rug you can put on a wet horse to dry it, moisture is wicked away leaving the horse warm and dry
  • Sheet – a lightweight rain sheet is one of the most useful things you can ever have, ideal at shows to pop over the horse during a shower and perfect for early autumn days when there is a chill in the air, or spring mornings heading out of winter and the temperature is rising and the sun is warmer. Summer sheets are also a good thing to keep in your rug box, a simple cotton sheet which can very helpfully keep flies at bay and prevent the horse’s coat from getting dusty the night before a show or when travelling
  • Fleece – a lightweight soft rug, perfect for cool temperatures or for travel

Rug care and maintenance

It is pretty essential that you have somewhere throughout the season that is heated and warm so you can dry wet rugs. You can buy rug racks which allow you to hang the rugs vertically, a good way to store them as well as drying them. Wet rugs are no help to the horse and the stitching will rot if you cannot dry them thoroughly.

During the summer months, wash and repair your rugs and re-proof your turnout rugs. Some livery yards have industrial washing machines which will do some of this for you, otherwise there are equine laundry companies who will collect all your rugs and return them to you, clean, repaired and ready to go for next season.


Horses get very hot when they travel, they are working to balance their weight and there can be an increased level of stress and anticipation. It is more important that your horse’s limbs are properly protected with travel bandages or travel boots, that he is wearing a leather headcollar and that his poll and tail are covered than he necessarily wears a rug to travel in.

Old age and illness

As horses age, like people, they don’t thrive as well and are not as resistant to harsh winter weather so an old horse may need a rug during the colder months but each animal should be judges as an individual as some ‘oldies’ cope very well and manage happily without providing they have adequate shelter and hay to eat.

Sufficient quantities of forage so that is long fibre – hay or grass – are essential to maintaining the horse’s body weight and condition and to keep him warm. So before you reach for a warmer rug this winter, check that your horse has enough forage to eat.

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