Welfare Corner: Rugging

This month, Beth Cooper from our Welfare Team talks you through the science behind rugging and why we shouldn't always be alarmed when we see a horse without a rug in cold weather. 

Around this time of year, we start to hear from members of the public who have spotted horses not wearing rugs. It’s also common for us to receive lots of calls over winter about horses without shelter or looking as if they haven’t been groomed in a while. However, these are not necessarily reasons to be concerned!

We’ll start with a bit of science. Horses, ponies, and donkeys have been found in some of the most extreme climates in the world, from Northern Siberia to African deserts. While different breeds are suited to different climates, a horse’s ability to adapt to its climate and environment is extraordinary.

Every animal has something called a Thermal Neutral Zone (TNZ), which refers to its ability to regulate its internal temperature without assistance. A human’s TNZ is generally between 18 and 30 degrees centigrade, but a horse’s TNZ is between 5 and 25 degrees. For humans, when the temperature drops into single digits it’s very chilly, but for horses and ponies anything over five degrees can still be balmy!

Like people, horses are individuals with individual needs. It's really important that we assess each horse in their environment and see how they’re coping with it. At Redwings, we only rug our horses that really need it – usually the horses that are very young, very old, or tend to lose a lot of weight over winter get an extra layer. The rest of our horses use their natural resources to stay warm – whether that’s the forage and feeds they’re given over winter, or through their own physiological resources like generating heat through digestion, or their thick, fluffy coats!

Did you know horses benefit from something called piloerection? Their body hair can lift and even rotate to trap warm air against the skin like a duvet. So, if you see ice or snow settling on the back of a horse (like in the image below), this is usually a sign that the hair is doing a good job of keeping that heat trapped against their body. 

Over the winter months you might see horses without rugs, that look very scruffy. They often look like they haven’t been groomed in a while, with thick hair that might have some mud on it. This isn’t necessarily a sign of poor welfare; the thick coat helps to keep them warm, and the mud can add another layer of protection! Brushing too often can remove the natural oils out of the horse’s hair; these oils are important to help horses stay waterproof.

It’s vital that owners check their horses regularly, to make sure that they are healthy and coping well in cold or wet weather. If a horse wears a rug, the owner should check under it regularly to make sure the horse isn’t too hot or too cold. It's also important to check that the rug isn't rubbing and that the horse is maintaining a good body weight underneath. There’s also no need to keep a rug on all winter – on warmer, sunny days, we like to take rugs off to let our ponies have a bit of time in the sun!

Signs that a horse isn’t coping in cold or wet weather can include:

  • Distinctive and rapid weight loss
  • Painful sores across the shoulders, back and rump – this could be rainscald, which needs careful treatment
  • Decline in demeanour, becoming dull and withdrawn
  • Persistent shivering, lasting for minutes at a time

Remember, every horse is an individual and whether you rug or don't rug your horse depends on their individual needs. Here's some examples of horses living at the Sanctuary and their needs throughout the winter.


Adoption Star Dolly is a 24-year-old cob and you can see how her thick coat keeps her warm even on very windy days! Dolly is kept rugless throughout the winter to help her shed the extra weight she gains throughout the summer months.


Fellow Adoption Star Cookie is a 23-year-old Native type, but he needs an extra layer in the winter to help him keep warm. He tends to lose weight easily, and has some dental issues, so a rug and some extra feeds over the winter help him to stay healthy.


Sher is a 24-year-old Arab cross, and as you can see, she copes well in the winter without a rug – even with a layer of snow on the ground! One of her carers, said: “Sher does really well with her weight in the winter. She also has Cushing’s (PPID) so can get a bit sweaty under her thick and curly coat. She might wear a sheet if the weather is really bad, but generally she does very well without one!”


Rosie is an 11-year-old Thoroughbred cross. Normally in the winter, Rosie manages to keep her weight on well by just eating her forage, but she needs a rug in really cold weather. This is a picture of her during the Beast from the East, when she needed some extra coverage.

For further advice on caring for horses in winter, including feed and pasture management, take a look at our Winter Horse Care blog by clicking here.

If you have any concerns about a horse, you can give us a call on 01508 481008 or email welfare@redwings.co.uk to chat with our Welfare Team.

Click here to read our previous Welfare Corner blog on microchipping.