In part 4 of our story behind the native good doer, we look at the issues around “over-rugging”
Over-rugging the good doer– why is this a problem?
For many domesticated horses a shortage of food and higher energy requirements to keep warm during the winter months are no longer a life or death concern as owners readily provide forage, hard feed, ample rugging and shelter. While there is definitely something satisfying about tucking our horses up in cosy rugs, with a nice deep bed and a full hay net on a cold winter’s night, have you ever stopped to consider if this is best for your horse, especially if they are already a good doer?
Whether stabled or turned out, clipped or unclipped, are we over-estimating how much additional rugging is required to keep them warm?
Particularly for good doers whose health relies on getting their weight down over the winter months, a better understanding of conditions where rugs are needed is key. With modern technology, the rugs we use on our horses and ponies have become so advanced, that in many cases our horses no longer need to use the extra fat accumulated over the summer months in order to keep warm during the winter. Along with other factors, this can result in extra fat being cumulatively carried into the subsequent spring year after year, eventually resulting in an animal which is overweight or obese.
So when are our horse and ponies likely to feel cold?
The horse aims to maintain his core body temperature at 38◦C and typically finds it easier to warm up than cool down. Like humans, horses have something called a thermoneutral zone (TNZ) – this is the range within which the horse is able to comfortably regulate his own body temperature. While for a (naked) human this range is small, between 25-30◦C, for an adult horse in the UK this is likely to be between 5-25◦C, by comparison, a much greater range. As such, when we as horse owners feel cold, this is not a reliable indication that our horses are cold. This understandably leads to decisions resulting in over-rugging.
To illustrate this, a recent pilot study reported during environmental temperatures of 4-4.5 ◦C that rugged horses (only in fleeces and light quilted rugs!) had surface temperatures of between 24-30◦C compared to control horses (unrugged) at 12.5-18.5◦C. This not only illustrates the effectiveness of fairly minimal rugging in maintaining body temperature but also highlights huge potential for rugging to cause discomfort by increasing surface body temperature beyond that which is comfortable for the horse.
So, how do we know if our horse is the right temperature?
Despite often being told that a feel of the ears will give a good indication of overall body temperature, this has been found to be a poor indicator. A much better indicator is thought to be feeling just behind the withers – however, this is still a method that is likely to be affected by how warm or cold we feel and is therefore never completely reliable.
There is now technology available, such as Orscana and Horsepal – sensors placed under the rug, which can detect temperature and warn you if your horse is outside of his comfort zone. Alternatively, BETA have made a good guide on rugging dependant on environmental temperature and whether your horse is stabled, turned out, clipped or unclipped. (https://www.beta-uk.org/media/trade/download/39672-BETA%20Outdoor%20Rug%20Insert%20v3.pdf).
Essentially, rugging requirements are led by the individual horse and environmental situation. Those turned out with access to shelter having lower requirements than those who are not, and those younger (young foals), much older, or carrying less weight, potentially having higher requirements than those carrying ample weight. Acclimatisation must also be considered, while a heavier rug may be needed initially, after a few weeks of colder weather, rugging could be reduced. Also consider the horse’s own ‘central heating system’ – forage. If you are able to provide ample forage, heating the horse from the inside out, rugging requirements will be reduced.
Although for some horses weather considerations do need to be taken into account, with regards to energy (feed) required in order to maintain condition, a substantial number of horses (and ponies in particular) do not require substantial ‘rugging’ or extra feed consideration.
For the good doer, see winter as an opportunity to facilitate weight loss in a natural way. Be cautious of over-feeding and over-rugging during this period so that they can enter spring in a leaner, healthier weight and condition.