Horse Rugging Guide: An introduction to horse blankets
Throughout the year, you need to make sure your horse is as comfortable as possible in all types of weather, and that probably means using horse rugs.
Rugging plays a big part in keeping them warm when it gets colder, but you’ll also need to adjust their rugs in other seasons, as well as when they exercise.
- What is a horse rug?
- What are the types of horse rug?
- When to rug a horse
- Does your horse need a rug?
- How to measure a horse for a rug
- How to wash and store horse rugs
What is a horse rug?
A horse rug — also known as a horse blanket — is a type of coat that is put on a horse to keep it from getting too cold, while also providing protection from the elements.
Horse rugs are designed to be draped over the length of a horse’s back, covering the main area of their body from chest to rump and the very tops of their legs. Usually, a rug will have two or more belly straps to secure the sides, as well as a front strap to close the front. Some rugs have a closed front that must go over the head, and some may have leg straps to prevent slippage.
Why use horse rugs?
Horse rugs can be used all year round, but especially in autumn and winter when temperatures tend to drop and the horse may need extra layers of warmth. However, there are a few more reasons that correct rugging is such an important part of equestrian care. Below, we’ve listed some of the key reasons why providing the right rug for your horse is essential.
- Keeping your horse dry: Adding a waterproof turnout rug will ensure that your horse does not get as wet when outside during heavy rain, lessening the chance of them catching a chill.
- Keeping clipped horses warm: Rugging can be used to provide extra warmth for horses that are clipped, allowing you to work them through the winter months.
- Reducing washing and grooming time: When your horse is wearing a rug, their body will be fairly protected from dust and dirt, reducing the time you need to spend washing and grooming.
- Keeping winter coat growth to a minimum: Rugging a horse ahead of the winter season can keep the growth of an unclipped horse’s thick winter coat to a minimum. This means that your horse’s coat may remain shorter and sleeker, as well as being more manageable.
- Protecting elderly and sick horses: Elderly and sick horses may need extra warmth through the year to stay healthy, which can be provided with extra rugging.
- Protecting your horse from the sun: Many rugs are thick enough or have specialised material to prevent damage from the sun, such as sunburn or coat bleaching.
- Protecting your horse from insects: You can get specially designed horse rugs that stop biting insects from getting to your horse, which reduces irritation.
- Maintaining a show-ready appearance: When your horse is due to compete in a show, a rug can be used to make sure their nicely groomed appearance is maintained.
What are the types of horse rug?
While the majority of horse rug products on the market are designed to provide degrees of warmth to horses, there are also types of blanket intended for other purposes, such as keeping insects away or the horse clean. Let’s take a closer look at the types of horse rug available and what they offer.
- Turnout rugs
- Exercise sheets
- Fleece and cooler rugs
- Show sheets
- Fly and sweet itch rugs
- Stable rugs
Turnout rugs are used to keep horses warm and dry when they’re turned out in a field. Typically, these blankets are made with waterproof outers while being breathable enough to allow any sweat to evaporate. You’ll also find that these rugs are designed to be durable, with ripstop material used to minimise tearing or snagging.
There is a wide choice of turnout rugs made with different weights of filling. They offer varying degrees of warmth to the horse, and each rug is measured in grams to indicate the heaviness of the filling. A lightweight winter rug can have up to 150g of filling, a mediumweight rug can range from 150–300g, and a heavyweight rug will have upwards of 300g of filling.
Turnout rugs also differ in their design, especially around the neck. A standard rug does not provide any cover over the neck, but may have features that allow a detachable neck cover to be attached. Some rugs do provide protection in this area, however: combo/full neck rugs have an integrated cover that stretches all the way to the head, while high/half neck rugs reach halfway.
The majority of turnout rugs use body and leg straps to ensure the rug stays in place when the horse is out in the field. The most secure use body straps that fasten across the belly diagonally, as well as leg straps that fasten between the hind legs. Some rugs use a fillet string beneath the tail to secure the rear, which works well when the horse is standing but can fail if the horse rolls.
Many riders like to pair their horse’s turnout rug with one or more under blankets to provide additional warmth and comfort. These are usually not waterproof or insulated, so are positioned underneath the outer shell of the turnout rug. Various combinations of weighted rugs and under blankets can be combined to achieve different levels of warmth.
Exercise sheets, sometimes called quarter sheets, are designed to keep horses warm and dry while they are being worked in cold or wet conditions. Typically, these rugs cover the horse’s body from the front of the saddle to the rear. They may feature cut-out areas in the saddle region.
Exercise rugs come in waterproof and non-waterproof versions to suit a horse’s needs. A non-waterproof sheet will usually be made with fleece or wool to provide a layer of warmth on cold but dry days. They’re usually used on clipped horses and can be worn for the whole exercise period, or just during warm-up and cool down periods to prevent sweating horses from catching a chill.
A waterproof exercise rug will have a water-repellent outer to help ensure the horse’s body remains dry when being ridden in wet weather. Thin sheets are commonly used on clipped and unclipped horses, providing them with waterproofing without any danger of causing them to overheat. There are also hi-vis exercise sheets available, which are designed to make horses more visible to traffic when they are being ridden on roads. These can be useful in visibility-reducing or poor light conditions.
Fleece and cooler rugs
Fleece and cooler rugs are two types of horse blanket that are versatile and quite interchangeable.
Fleece rugs are manufactured from man-made material designed for warmth and breathability but are thin enough to be used as light rugs for stabling, an under rug, or a substitute for a cooler rug.
Cooler rugs are designed to be breathable so that they can be used on a horse after it has exercised to prevent chills as it cools down. They tend to be made with moisture-wicking fabric that takes any moisture away from the coat so it can evaporate. They can also be combined with a stable rug or a turnout rug as an under rug to provide these properties in addition to extra warmth.
Show sheets — often called summer sheets — are used to keep horses clean and provide a light layer of warmth. They get their name from their use as pre-show or event rugging, providing a layer of protection to a freshly washed and groomed competing horse when in transit. Because they only provide a small amount of insulation, they’re ideal for use in the warmer months of the year.
Fly and sweet itch rugs
A fly rug is a lightweight horse rug made with fine mesh that is designed to protect your horse from biting flies during the summer months. These sheets are very breathable so can be used in warmer temperatures, and they may even provide a horse with a degree of UV sun protection. They can also act as a barrier to dust and dirt, minimising the time needed for grooming.
Fly sheets offer varying levels of protection to a horse. Those with a standard neck and open belly offer the least, while those that cover the belly and tail, as well as having a neck cover, will ensure more of the horse is shielded. You will also find differences in how fine the mesh is on each rug, with finer mesh able to stop more insects.
There are also types of fly sheets intended to prevent sweet itch, which is an allergic reaction that a small amount of horses suffer from when bitten. They feature finer mesh than normal fly rugs and provide wider and more secure coverage of the horse’s body. Another big difference is that these rugs have a closed neck cover and chest, so they have to be placed over the horse’s head.
A stable rug will provide a horse with extra warmth while they are stabled inside. They’re not for use as an outer layer when outdoors as they aren’t waterproof. These rugs are usually padded or quilted and made from synthetic materials, as well as being breathable so that the horse’s sweat can safely evaporate, allowing the cooling-down process to happen naturally.
Similar to turnout rugs, stable rugs come in a range of weights, with lightweight options at 150g or less, middleweight options being 150–300g, and heavyweight rugs at 300g and upwards. For a horse that’s stabled both day and night in the winter, you’ll likely need to provide extra layers when the temperature drops in the evening. This could mean having a lighter day rug and swapping to a heavy rug, or it could mean adding an extra under rug to a rug used all the time.
When to rug a horse
While it’s likely that you’ll be providing heavy rugging in the winter and lighter in the summer, you need to be able to adapt your approach to ensure your horse is comfortable year-round. This means that you will need to pay attention to their needs so you can adjust their blanketing when necessary.
If you’re not using your initiative in this area, you may end up selecting the wrong options out of habit, so you should always be willing to review the situation. It’s also vital that you don’t get stuck into a routine because things can change: your horse will get older, rugs will become worn and thinner, and temperatures will fluctuate, so you need to be adaptable.
To help you decide when you need to rug your horse and what type of rug to choose, we’re going to look at some of the key factors that will impact this decision in the next section.
Does your horse need a rug?
Most horses will need some type of rug at some point through the year. However, it can be difficult to know when to add a blanket and how light or heavy it should be. A few factors affect what level of rugging is required, like whether your horse is clipped, if you have access to a stable, and the horse’s diet.
To help you get a better idea of how and when your horse will need blanketing, we’re going to take a look at some of the factors that impact the need for rugging and how they may affect your horse:
- Turning your horse out
- Stabling your horse
- Exercising your horse
- Clipping your horse
- Grooming and washing your horse
- Your horse’s diet
Turning your horse out
If you plan to turn your horse out during the winter so that they’re spending long stretches of time in the field, you will need to provide them with the appropriate rugging. Even if you have not clipped your horse, blanketing may be necessary to ensure they’re a comfortable temperature. The level of rugging you need will depend on the extent of a horse’s clipping, how much time the horse spends indoors, and the temperature and weather — our horse rug temperature guide can help you decide.
Your horse’s ability to stay warm when outside will also be impacted by the availability of shelter out in the field. If you have access to a purpose-made shelter for your horse, they will be able to stay dry and won’t be affected by wind chill as much, so you may need to adjust blanketing to ensure they’re not being over-rugged, which can leave them too hot.
Stabling your horse
A stabled horse will not need the same level of rugging as a turned-out horse, as they are sheltered from the elements. However, it’s important to remember that you will be limiting their ability to move around and generate body heat. In addition, most stables are very well ventilated, so the likelihood of it becoming draughty in adverse conditions is quite high. Because of this, you will still need to assess the needs of your horse and provide an appropriate stable rug, and possibly a neck warmer, to keep them comfortable.
If you only intend to stable overnight, you will need to make sure that you provide an appropriate level of blanketing for when your horse is outdoors during daylight hours.
Exercising your horse
When you work your horse, they will need warm-up and cool-off periods that are closely linked to their body temperatures. While horses lose their body heat slowly, they also cannot regain it quickly, which makes them vulnerable to getting too cold or hot after exercise. A big part of managing their temperature is down to assessing their needs and providing the appropriate rugging to get them back to their regular temperature.
For instance, a horse can develop colic symptoms should their body temperature get too high or low. This can be caused or partially caused by unsuitable rugging before, during, or after an exercise session. This means you need to make sure your horse is comfortable and assess their blanketing needs at each stage of a workout.
Post-exercise rugging is extremely important, and you’ll almost definitely need to provide a blanket with moisture-wicking properties, like a cooler or fleece rug, until the horse has cooled down to its normal body temperature. This is done so that the horse does not catch a chill, as the moisture on their coat from sweating can make them more vulnerable to catching a chill. You will need to do this for both clipped and unclipped horses. You’ll also need to be extra careful if exercising in the evening, because if you rug your horse for the night while they are still cooling, the sweat will be absorbed and chilled when the temperature drops for the night.
Clipping your horse
Many riders like to clip their horse’s winter coat so that they can continue to work them through the winter months without sweat getting trapped in the hairs and putting their health at risk. But, doing so removes the horse’s natural defence against the cold, so it’s absolutely vital that blankets are used to compensate for this lack of insulation.
It’s important to note that there are many different types of clip, where certain areas of the coat are shaved to suit the horse’s needs. For instance, a bib clip sees the chest and some belly hair removed but the rest of the coat left alone, ensuring the horse will still have natural warmth but will be able to partake in light activity. On the other hand, a hunter clip sees all but the saddle area and leg hair removed, allowing for heavy work at the expense of the winter coat.
As a result, different clips need different levels of rugging to make up for the amount of hair shaved. This means that, if you plan to clip your horse, you will need to assess what blankets you will need to provide beforehand as this may impact your decision. You may also need to provide stabling if you wish for your horse to have one of the more drastic clips.
For guidance on what type of rugging may be necessary for specific types of clip, please take a look at our guide to horse clipping.
Grooming and washing your horse
You will need to think about how to rug your horse after bathing, because they are vulnerable to catching a chill while their coat is wet or damp. It’s best to apply a moisture-wicking rug until they have dried out, even if you’ve used warm water. You can then replace this rug with their usual one. If you wash your horse before rugging for the night, take extra care to ensure they’re fully dry, as you don’t want to trap moisture under a heavy rug for a prolonged period.
Your horse’s diet
Depending on your horse’s diet, you may have to provide extra rugging for them. Generally, a horse will eat forage for up to 16 hours per day, which is processed in their digestive system to provide a natural level of body heat. Some horses, such as performance horses, may be put onto a rationed diet of hay or haylage, which means they aren’t able to generate as much heat. To compensate for this, it may be necessary to provide extra rugging that keeps them warm.
Horse rug temperature guide
While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to whether a horse needs to be rugged and what type and weight of rug is required, it is possible to give some general guidelines to inform your decision. You can use the table below to find some general temperature recommendations for your horse, but be sure to take all of the other factors we’ve discussed into account.
|Temperature||Stabled (clipped)||Stabled (unclipped)||Turned out (unclipped)||Turned out (clipped)|
|15⁰C and up||Zero-fill rug||No rug||No rug||No rug|
|10–15⁰C||Lightweight (100g) or zero-fill rug||Zero-fill or no rug||No rug||No rug OR lightweight (100g) or zero-fill if wet and windy|
|5–10⁰C||Middleweight rug (250g)||Lightweight rug (150g)||No rug or lightweight rug (100g)||Lightweight rug (150g) with neck cover|
|0–4⁰C||Heavyweight rug (300g)||Middleweight rug (200g)||No rug or light/middleweight rug (150–250g)||Middleweight rug (200g) with neck cover|
|-10–0⁰C||Heavyweight rug (300–400g) with neck cover||Middleweight rug (200–300g) with liner||Light/middleweight rug (150–300g) with neck cover||Heavyweight rug (300–400g) with neck cover and liner|
|-10⁰C and below||Heavyweight rug (300–500g) with neck cover and liner||Heavyweight rug (300–400g) with neck cover||Heavyweight rug (300–500g) with neck cover||Heavyweight rug (300–500g) with neck cover, liner, and under rug|
How to check if a horse is cold
It’s important that you know how to check whether your horse is cold, so you know when to add a rug or another layer. It is possible to carry out a couple of quick checks to see whether your horse is feeling chilly:
- Check if your horse’s hairs are standing on end: Just like your own hairs, if a horse is feeling cold, the hairs in their coat are likely to stand up, so be sure to carry out a visual check.
- Check under your horse’s rug: Put your hand beneath your horse’s rug and feel at the wither (base of the neck). If the area feels cold, your horse is likely feeling a chill.
Please note: Avoid checking your horse’s temperature on their legs or ears as you won’t get a true sense of their temperature. These areas are usually exposed, so won’t provide an accurate picture.
There are also a couple of tell-tale signs that can indicate your horse is too cold:
- Their rugging has slipped: If you spot your horse’s rugging has slipped or is out of position in some way, it’s likely that they’ll be feeling the cold on the exposed areas. Always adjust and secure the rug as soon as you notice it has moved.
- Their behaviour has changed: A cold horse may behave differently, usually because they’re trying to move to get warm. If you spot your horse is shivering, walking in circles, or is generally restless, they’re likely cold, so you need to rug them or add more layers.
Remember: Horses have a much wider thermoneutral zone than us, so they feel cold when the temperature falls below 0⁰C and hot when it exceeds 25⁰C, whereas humans have a much narrower zone that makes us more sensitive to variations. This means that you should never make a judgement on whether it’s too cold or hot for your horse based on your own feelings.
How to check if a horse is hot
It’s also possible for your horse to be too hot when they are wearing a rug, so it’s vital that you know how to quickly test check their body temperature and what warning signs to look out for.
To quickly test whether a horse is too hot in their rug:
- Check under your horse’s rug: Put your hand under your horse’s rug and feel at your horse’s wither (base of the neck). If their coat feels damp and they’re not cooling down after being worked, they’re probably too hot.
- Perform the pinch test: If your horse is hot, they may be dehydrated as a result of sweating a lot. Gently pinch the skin just above your horse’s shoulder and release it: if your horse is dehydrated, the skin will hold its pinched shape for a few seconds. If they’re fine, it should revert to its natural shape right away. Try to perform the test a few times in the same spot to be sure.
There are also some tell-tale signs that your horse is too hot, though some signs may be unavoidably present in the cool-down period after exercise. If they persist, your horse may be over-rugged.
- Their movement is sluggish or weak: If your horse is moving in a weak or laboured way, or they refuse to move at all, they could be overheated. A horse that is fatigued from heat will respond more slowly and seem sleepy.
- They’re breathing rapidly: A horse that is too hot can breathe heavily and rapidly. This can also happen after exercise, but if it continues for more than ten minutes’ recovery time, it’s likely they’re too hot.
- They are disinterested: If your horse seems disinterested in things that would normally get their attention, such as food, treats, and sounds, they might be overheating.
- Their heart rate is high: Again, this will happen after exercise, but if your horse has a heart rate that exceeds 36–44 beats per minute long after their recovery period, their body could be overheating.
Best practice tips
While you’ll always need to pay attention to your horse and their behaviour to see if they’re feeling too hot or cold, there are a couple of best practice tips you can follow to be more prepared:
- Install a thermometer or keep one handy: You may wish to attach a thermometer to your stable wall or keep one on hand so that you can check exactly what the temperature is. You can then refer to our horse rug temperature guide to get an idea of what rugging is needed.
- Keep track of the weather forecast: Keeping track of the weather in your local area will help you identify periods when light or extra rugging will be necessary and whether you need to bring turned-out horses back to the stable in adverse conditions.
Important note: If you identify that your horse is too hot or too cold in their rugging, you should take immediate action to ensure they’re comfortable and to prevent any further problems.
How to measure a horse for a rug
To measure your horse for a rug, you will need to use a soft tape and measure horizontally from the centre of their chest (A), around the shoulder, along the side of the body, to the end of the rump (B).
The measurement should be in inches (or feet and inches) to match UK sizing. Sizes increase in three-inch increments and you can use the horse blanket size chart below to convert your measurements.
|Horse measurement (inches)||UK horse rug size|
It should be noted that this is the method of measurement for UK sizing only, as European sizes are measured from the withers (back of the neck), along the back, to the top of the tail (points C to D on diagram). These sizes are also recorded in centimetres, which is something else to bear in mind if ordering a European rug.
As the table indicates, if your horse measures between sizes, it’s generally better to go for the larger rug than the smaller, unless your horse is narrow chested or quite petite. Should your horse be wide and chunky, it may be necessary to move up a size to accommodate their width. Those with larger shoulders might need a blanket with a gusset to provide freedom of movement.
Making sure your horse’s rug fits
Now that you’ve measured your horse and ordered a rug in a size that should fit, it’s time to see whether that’s the case by checking the fitting in person. It’s advisable to try the rug on top of a sheet to ensure it doesn’t get dirty, just in case it needs to be returned.
- Check the front of the rug: Your horse’s new rug should be positioned 2–4 inches in front of the withers so no extra pressure is felt and it doesn’t rub. Try to fit your hand down the front of the rug — if you can’t do this without forcing it, then the rug is too tight.
- Check the back of the rug: Try to get your horse to bend their head down to the ground. The rug should still reach the top of the tail — if it has ridden up, it’s too small. This is a key test for turnout rugs as it tells you whether they will be protected when grazing. If the rug is sitting down over the tail, it’s too big.
- Check the straps: Take a look at the rug’s belly straps. If you can adjust them so that there is a hand’s width between the belly and the straps, they’re a good fit. Should they be too long they could get caught in your horse’s legs and cause injury, while straps that are too tight could rub and restrict movement.
- Check the leg straps: Leg straps should be adjusted so that there’s a hand’s width between the leg and strap. Again, long straps could get caught in your horse’s legs and tight straps can rub and restrict movement.
Why is a good fit important?
Getting a good fit for your horse’s rugging is very important for ensuring their safety and wellbeing. If you were to buy a rug that was ill fitting, you might end up with a blanket that is too big and prone to falling off, leaving your horse exposed to the elements. Too small and it could be uncomfortable for your horse and restrict their movements, as well as not providing enough cover to the point that some of their body will be chilly.
How to wash and store horse rugs
When the warmer months of the year come around, there will probably be a time when your horse will spend longer without rugging or only requires light rugs. This is an ideal time to inspect, wash, and store the majority of your blankets until the colder months creep in.
1. Inspect and organise your rugs
Firstly, you’ll want to inspect the condition of all your horse’s rugs and sort them into piles — be sure to check all liners, buckles, and stitching.
- Rugs to wash: Wash as per step 2.
- Rugs to repair. If you cannot repair them yourself, the manufacturer or a specialist may be able to help. It might be best to wash them (step 2) after they’re repaired, to avoid causing additional damage.
- Rugs you no longer need: Rather than sending them to landfill, consider whether they can be sold, donated, or recycled, in which case you’ll probably need to give them a wash (step 2) first.
- Clean rugs: Store as per step 3.
2. Plan and start washing
Next, you’ll need to think about how you’re going to wash your rugs. Any large and heavy rugs will probably need to go to a professional equine cleaner, as they can damage your machine at home. You may wish to speak to fellow riders to see if anyone else needs to have their rugging cleaned as equine cleaners can sometimes offer bulk discounts.
Small, light rugs can be washed in a domestic machine as long as you put them in an equine laundry bag that prevents hairs and debris from getting loose and causing damage. You should also use a specialist rug wash detergent, as well as any reproofing solution if you’re renewing waterproofing. Always leave your rugs to dry naturally and never use a tumble dryer — you could end up shrinking them and removing any waterproofing properties of the fabric.
An alternative way of washing your rugs is to use a power washer. You’ll need to lay all your rugs flat on a large, flat concrete area; add specialist equestrian detergent to the tank; and then begin hosing them down. They should then be hung up to drip-dry somewhere, which will take a bit longer than if you used a washing machine, as they don’t get a spin cycle. This method is more time intensive than using a machine, so you’ll probably only want to do it if you have a few blankets to clean.
3. Store your rugs
Once your horse’s rugs are completely dry, you can store them for when they’re next needed. As you may be putting them away for an entire season, you’ll need to take some precautions for long-term storage.
Firstly, make sure there is no dampness whatsoever in the blankets, otherwise they’ll quickly suffer from mould and mildew when they’re stored away. It’s advisable to keep them in a bag or container where they can lie flat — vacuum packing is a handy space-saving solution.
Also, you need to store them in a secure place to ensure that rodents won’t make their home in the warm layers. Many riders will utilise a plastic bin, such as a feed bin, as storage, but you should be fine to put them on the middle or top of shelving. Wooden cupboards or lockers are also suitable if you have access to units that are large enough. If you are storing loose on shelves, be sure to check your rugs every few weeks for any critters nesting inside.
If you have a large number of rugs for your horse, it’s a good idea to store blankets of a certain type together in the same box, bag, or drawer and label them. This will make it easier to quickly organise them when winter arrives or when the weather takes a turn. If you share storage with others, you may also wish to add yours or your horse’s name to easily identify your rugs and avoid any mix-ups.
Rugging your horse correctly is essential for their happiness, health, and welfare. We hope this guide has introduced you to the importance of blanketing and the different types, as well as giving you an idea as to what approach you will adopt for your horse.
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