Ask the expert - Article by Tash from Hands on Horses
Horse rugs... it can be such a contentious topic, with the longstanding battle between brands, combo or detachable, shape, fit and weight. All these things come in to play when thinking about your next rug for your horse.
But have you ever stopped to think about how wearing a horse cover affects your horse physically? And that they could be in pain?
I’m not here to argue if we should rug or not, I know there are plenty who don’t agree with rugging at all on the basis that it’s 'not natural'. My comment would be; neither is a saddle, bridle OR a rider. The fact is, we have domesticated our horses, and if you choose to rug, then it should be no different than making sure your saddle or bridle fit correctly. The horse's rug must fit and sit in all the right places. When you think of the amount of time a rug can be on a horse, compared to the time a saddle is on... it baffles me how much the importance of a horse's cover fit is overlooked.
There are plenty of rugs out there that we think ‘fit’ our horse, but when we look at our horses' muscle development - or lack of - in certain places, there are tell tale signs that maybe we are damaging them with our rug choices.
Hands up if you know the cervical trapezius!
One of my pet peeves is the damage that some rugs can cause to the cervical trapezius muscle in our horses.
There are increasing reports of pain in horses' cervical region. Researchers explain how neck pain or dysfunction can impact horses' gait, movement, behaviour and even soundness:
"Affected horses may have a history of a general decline in performance, neck pain and stiffness, an unwillingness to work on the bit, subtle hind limb gait abnormalities and lack of impulsion, and possibly forelimb lameness... While some horses are presented for a decline in performance or resisting work, other horses are more dramatic in their presentation. These horses may stop and refuse to go forward and may even rear and flip over backwards if the rider continues to ask in more forceful ways."
Here's a rather gorgeous engraving by Alexander Shapcott, which we have used to highlight the cervical trapezius area which can be affected by horse rugs:
A badly fitting rug can impinge muscle development
Now, while good correct training comes in to play with horses' muscle development, I have seen plenty of well schooled horses who still seem to be lacking the muscle right in front of the wither. They have beautiful back muscle and coverage over the top of the neck - except right where the rug join sits.
Long-term use of an ill-fitting rug, especially one that is too heavy, can potentially cause irreversible damage to the horse's muscle and cause the tissue to die.
A badly fitting rug can cause discomfort
As a bodyworker, I see far too often the sensitivity that some horses have, just in front of their wither.
Often after treating a horse, I will see the owner carry the rug towards a rather angry or grumpy looking face, and I will be told, “Oh he's funny like that, he's always pulled that face.”
We need to be listening to our horses more. They are always talking to us in their own way. Maybe it’s not that they 'hate being covered'... maybe they just hate that particular cover, and how it feels.
You wouldn’t expect your kids to wear shoes that didn’t fit and not complain about them would you? Horses are constantly reacting to their environment, and I believe that we need to listen better.
How to choose the right rug for your horse
I think we need to be more concerned with fit, and also the weight, of our horse rugs.
I have rehabbed plenty of horses with this muscle atrophy, who have then bounced back to develop and grow that muscle again - but it won't last if we keep putting the same heavy, ill-fitting rugs back on.
Remember how Einstein defined stupidity as doing the same thing but expecting a different result...
So if you’re wanting to fix that repressed and dying muscle in front of your horse's wither, to help them build a beautiful, strong and elegant topline, you need the right recipe:
Correct training, a great equine bodyworker, and a horse rug that doesn't damage that muscle!
Slide your hand under your horse's rug in front of its wither, and see how much pressure is there. One client told me last week that she tested an older rug and it felt like two kilos weight on her horse's cervical trapezius - and yes, her horse was pinning her ears and tossing her head. She said she took that rug off, and got her nztack rug out instead - on checking the same area there was just the weight of the fabric and no downward pressure.
Here's a photo of a well fitted Duke 100gm combo horse rug - you can see it is sitting lightly in front of a high wither.