Every year, countless horse owners deal with the issue of “rugging.” Whether shorn or not, many horses are rugged for even the most minimal temperature variations. A study now points out that the goodwill of animal owners is not always to the benefit of the horse.
The goodwill of horse owners
A horse’s body is able to withstand temperatures below the freezing point thanks to an effective thermoregulation system. The winter coat of a horse protects the body while it rains, snows, or the wind blows over the stables and fields. Nevertheless, most horse owners are equipped with a variety of rugs that find their use in different situations like a rug for cold winter days, one after riding to sweat off and one to protect against insects.
Horses do not feel cold in the same way as humans
The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is a temperature range in which a living being can keep its body temperature on a constant level without adaptation reactions of the metabolism. For an adult horse living in a temperate climate zone such as in Germany, this is between 5 and 25°C. Humans, however, need temperatures between 25 and 30°C to neither freeze nor sweat without clothes on.
Since horses cannot express themselves verbally, animal owners often rug their horses, because they feel cold themselves. According to study leader Kim Hodgess, a MSc student from Duchy College, UK, this happens at temperatures where the horse’s body does not yet need the protection of a rug. This could potentially lead to overheating of the horse’s body.
The effect of the blanket on horses
The research team used regularly rugged horses to find out which rug had what effect on a horse’s body temperature. Ten horses were kept in a stall, while two others were kept at pasture. There were two control horses in the stable and at pasture, which were unrugged. The other horses were given either sweet itch rugs, fleeces, or light, quilted rugs.
The results showed that the temperatures of the horses wearing different rugs differed significantly. The body temperature of the horses with sweet itch rugs increased by an average of 4.2°C. Whereas the temperature of the horses with the fleeces increased by 11.2°C and the horses with the light, quilted rugs increased by 15.8°C. When the temperature dropped below the thermoneutral zone to 4 to 4.5°C, the rugged horses had a body temperature of 24 to 30°C, whereas the control horses only had 12.5 to 18.5°C.
As a result, some rugs can raise the horses’ body temperature so high, that the heat no longer feels comfortable to them. If you rug a horse incorrectly over a long period of time, it can affect its body temperature regulation. That is why it is very important to choose a proper rug or blanket to preserve the horse’s individual needs and comfort.
Outlook on further research
With the results of this study, new questions arose. Kim Hodgess and her research team aim to investigate these in the future. Since the sweet itch rug had little to no impact on the horse’s thermoregulation, the question is whether this might change with larger sample sizes, warmer weather conditions, or differently colored sweet itch rugs. More research in this field will help to continually improve the welfare of horses.