Rugging Horses in Australia

Selecting The Right Rugs For The Right Conditions

Over-rugging is a common problem that owners and riders who don’t properly understand horse biology and the technical features of their horse rugs can easily make. It can lead to horse overheating which can cause dramatic weight fluctuation, metabolic disorders, bacterial skin infections and can even lead to laminitis and colic. Selecting the right rug for the right conditions is crucial to the health and wellbeing of your horse - and with some simple tips you too can avoid what is a very avoidable, costly but well-meaning mistake.

Understanding your Horse’s Biology

Horses are warm blooded mammals that use a process known as thermoregulation to maintain a core temperature of approximately 38 degrees celsius (100.4 degrees fahrenheit). Being the incredibly adaptable and resilient animals they are, they can endure extremes of cold and heat ranging from -70°C (in places like Yakutia in Russia) to upwards of 50°C (in places like Australia and the United States). 

Quick Horse Facts - How Horses Regulate Core Body Temperature

  • Water repellent natural coat oil - keeps coat layers close to the body dry
  • A digestive system - that creates heat as it digests food
  • A cardiovascular system - that diverts blood to vital organs 
  • Weight gain - during summer months for greater winter insulation
  • Erect coat hair - that traps air creating a layer of insulation
  • A winter coat - that is thicker and longer
  • Sweating - during warm and hot weather
  • Behaviour change - like seeking shade or walking into water

The evolutionary advantage this gives horses is their ability to remain active year round regardless of environmental temperature fluctuations. However, despite these extremes in temperature tolerance, horses have what is called a ‘thermoneutral zone’ - an optimal temperature range where body temperature can be regulated autonomically by opening and closing blood vessels in the skin to lose or retain heat. Whilst a range of factors and definitions influence this definition, a generally accepted zone is between an air temperature of 5°C and 25°C. Within this temperature range, horses are able to easily control their body temperature. 

However, outside of these temperatures and horses will use and require other means to warm up or cool down.

Quick Horse Facts - Factors Influencing Heat Loss

  • Weather - convective heat loss (when the air temperature is less than the horse’s coat or skin temperature), or by forced convection (aka - wind chill factor - convective heat loss further aided by cold wind)
  • Size - As a general rule, smaller animals lose heat easier than larger animals. This gives larger animals an advantage in colder climates but horses are unique as they can acclimatise to extremes of hot and cold.
  • Age - Just like humans, very young and very old horses have a decreased tolerance of extremes in weather and may be less able to retain heat
  • Diet - High fibre diets generate heat better than high starch or high oil-based diets. Horses living in cold climates are able to keep in good condition as long as they have unlimited access to good quality forage
  • Breed - The shape and unique characteristics (eg coat thickness) of certain horse breeds help in the retention of heat in cold weather. Think cob horses, their shape lends for greater heat retention over more elegant breeds like Arabs
  • Coat - The condition of a horse’s coat will have a big effect on the ability to retain heat. By trapping air between its coat hairs, a horse is able to keep warm. However, when coat hairs get wet, the hair can’t stand erect and so can’t trap air, leading to faster heat loss
  • Shelter - Access to shelter gives a horse a better chance of keeping dry when it's raining (and by extension staying warm), and provides respite from winds and strong summer sun

How To Decide When To Rug

The above factors influencing heat loss provide a good start in determining when your horse needs to be rugged and with what kind of rug. 

You can do a quick temperature check of your horse by placing your hand behind the horse’s withers. Does it feel cold? If so, then you should consider using a rug / thicker rug. Does it feels damp? If so, this is a likely indicator that your horse is too warm and you should consider either removing the rug or using a lighter rug or sheet.

Quick Horse Facts - Tips On Deciding To Use Horse Rugs

  • It’s not about you - don’t make your decision based on how cold you feel
  • Young, Old and Horses that are clipped will need rugging first
  • Temperature - introduce rugs when overnight drop below 5°C
  • Gradually increase rug thickness as it gets colder
  • Horses have the ability to acclimatise to changes in environment 
  • Avoid having rugs on all day so as to allow for some Vitamin D formation

Choosing The Right Rug

Below is an approximate guide for when your horse is likely to need a rug. A couple of points on the table below:
  • A clipped horse has had most of its hair removed like in a full clip or hunter clip
  • Horses with a low trace clip or similar are considered “unclipped”

A Note On The Use of Horse Rugs In Summer

Whilst the use of rugs in winter is primarily to keep horses warm, rugs can also be used in summer for a range of reasons: 

  • To protect against insects - Biting insects can cause a real problem for our equine friends - as such, this is a common reason to rug a horse during the warmer months
  • To minimise coat bleaching - Generally a problem with darker coloured horses, coat bleaching leaves the hairs lighter, duller and rough to the touch
  • To protect against wet weather -  as mentioned above, wet coats can contribute to increased heat loss but in warmer weather, this will have a cooling effect

    For more information on this important topic, you can refer to our previous blog covering this very issue found here.

    Where To Find The Right Rug For Your Horse

    We have a comprehensive range of turnout rugs, stable rugs, summer and winter horse rugs from Kentucky Horsewear, Premier Equine and our own Active Equine rugs. Our range extends from 0g waterproof turnout rugs all the way to 400g soft lining stable rugs

    At Active Equine, you can be assured that we have your horse rug needs covered.

    So if you are having trouble deciding which rug is right for you and your horse, our staff are at the ready to assist you in making the right product decision. All you need to do is drop us a message here and we will respond promptly.