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Horse Rugs Guide - Different Types Of Rug And When To Use Them

The main purpose of any horse rug is to provide your horse with protection. There are many different types of horse rugs available, each designed to protect your horse in different ways, whether it be to keep them warm, dry or clean, or even a combination of all three.

When you’re just starting out as a horse rider or owner, the varying types of horse rugs available can be pretty confusing, and it’s often difficult to know what kind of rug you should be using and when.

In this guide, we give an explanation and cover the basic uses of the following types of horse rug;

*Simply click on one of the titles above to be taken to that section of this guide.

For guidance on how to ensure you’re buying the right size horse rug, please see ‘How To Measure Your Horse For A Rug’.

Turnout Rugs

As the name suggests, a turnout rug is designed to keep your horse warm and dry whilst turned out in the field. This is an essential piece of equipment for any horse owner and you will likely need a range of turnout rugs for use in a range of conditions.

Outer fabric

Turnout rugs will usually have a synthetic, waterproof outer layer (some styles are simply shower-proof but these are becoming less and less common) with many modern rugs having a weave style that protects effectively against minor snags or tears becoming any worse over time; this is often referred to as ‘ripstop’.

Eskadron Turnout Rug Ripstop 300g

The strength and durability of a turnout’s outer material is measured in denier; the higher the denier of a turnout, the stronger and more rip-resistant the rug will be (for example, a 1200D turnout rug is more durable than a 600D rug). All turnout rugs should be breathable to allow perspiration to evaporate, keeping the horse at a comfortable temperature.

Weight

Turnout rugs come with varying thicknesses (or weights) of internal filling to provide the level of warmth needed by your horse. The level of fill you’ll need will depend on the time of year, temperature and weather conditions.

Lightweight summer turnouts usually have no fill at all and are simply designed as rain defence and wind protection for the horse on cooler days. Winter turnouts are usually available in 3 weights - light, medium and heavy. The amount of insulated filling in each weight of turnout rug will vary depending on the brand of rug you buy, however, lightweight winter rugs usually have around 50g - 150g of fill, whilst medium rugs have anywhere between 100g and 300g of filling, and heavyweight turnout rugs can contain anything over 300g.

Some heavyweight rugs are designed to have a varying level of fill across the different parts of the rug in order to trap heat over the horse’s back without the need for the additional bulk at the sides. This results in more warmth with less weight.

Horseware Rambo Vari-Layer Technology

The recommended turnout weight for use will also be affected by whether or not the horse is clipped, as well as a number of other factors, such as wind chill and the condition of the horse.

For more information on what weight of turnout to use in various weather conditions, please see this helpful guide from BETA.

Level of coverage

Varying fill weights aren’t the only way to increase or decrease the level of protection a turnout provides; different turnout designs offer different levels of coverage. The most common variable is neck coverage, of which there are 3 main options; Standard Neck, Combo/Full Neck or Detachable Neck.

Weatherbeeta Green-Tec 900D Detach-A-Neck Turnout

Standard neck turnouts don’t have any neck covering at all and are designed for use in milder conditions, whereas Combo or Full neck rugs will feature a fixed, integrated neck design for extra protection. Turnouts designed with a Detachable neck will have the ability to attach or remove an optional neckpiece (usually through the use of attachment rings or zips), giving users the dual benefit of both types of turnout in one. This can be particularly beneficial for those that live in areas of the world with more changeable weather, as the turnout can be quickly and easily adapted to fit the conditions.

There are also varying designs of tail flap available, with some wraparound or extra-large styles providing additional protection against the elements.

Movement

As the purpose of a turnout rug is to be used whilst your horse is active in the field, it’s important to consider the level of freedom the style of turnout you choose provides your horse, both in terms of playing and grazing. Plenty of turnouts are cut with shoulder darts or pleats to ensure your horse is not restricted in any way, and many Combo neck styles feature an extra or stretchy panel at the withers so as to aid comfortable grazing.

Horseware Rambo Optimo Turnout Rug

The most important thing when considering your horse’s comfort is to ensure the turnout rug fits correctly. If the rug is too small, it will lead to rubbing, and if it is too big and can slip, it can cause a safety hazard. For a guide to fitting your horse for a rug, please see ‘How To Measure Your Horse For A Rug’.

Fixtures and fittings

Like all horse rugs designed for prolonged use, a turnout rug needs to be securely fitted to the horse's body in order to provide effective protection and reduce the risk of it causing an accident in the field.

A turnout rug will have:

  • A front closure - usually a single or double strap, buckle or clip system that fastens at the chest. There are also various types of closure used to fasten the necks on Combo or Detachable neck turnout rugs, but a popular choice is touch tape (Velcro).
  • Surcingles - adjustable straps that hold the rug in place on the horse’s body. These can be ‘straight’ or ‘crossed’ under the belly - ‘crossed’ are normally better at preventing the rug from slipping.
  • Legs straps - elasticated and adjustable straps that go between the horse’s legs and then loop back around and attach to the back of the rug to keep the rear of the rug in place; especially handy when the horse rolls.
  • A fillet string (also called a tail cord) - a cord attached to either side at the back of the rug which the tail is pulled through. This is sometimes used instead of leg straps but won’t prevent the rug from slipping as effectively if the horse rolls.
  

Stable Rugs and Stable Sheets

Again, the clue is in the name with this one; a stable rug or sheet is designed to keep your horse clean and warm whilst stabled in cooler weather.

Outer fabric

Most cool weather stable rugs have a padded or quilted synthetic outer layer and, like turnout rugs, are available in a range of filling weights so the level of warmth can be tailored according to the conditions. However, unlike turnout rugs, stable rugs are not waterproof and are not intended for outside use.

Horseware Rhino Original Medium Stable Rug

Stable sheets are lighter in weight and are not padded or quilted. They are usually constructed in polyester or a poly-cotton blend and occasionally have lined shoulders to prevent rubbing or a full lining for extra warmth.

When choosing a stable rug for your horse, it’s worth taking into consideration how likely straw or shavings are to stick to the material - some fabrics will be better for this than others but the less cleaning required the better!

Weight

The available weights in stable rugs tend to follow the same pattern as that of the turnouts, with a lightweight stable rug offering 50g to 150g of filling, a mediumweight offering between 150g and 300g, and a heavyweight rug offering anything over 300g of filling. The weight you chose will again be dependent on the weather conditions and time of year, as well as the other factors mentioned above. If a horse is stabled both day and night, it will likely need a heavier weight rug during nighttime than it will in the day, as temperatures can drop quite drastically after dark.

Unlike stable rugs, stable sheets do not have any fill and are usually more appropriate for use in milder temperatures. Stable sheets still vary in thickness, with some featuring a fleece or microfibre lining to increase the level of warmth they provide.

Horseware Rambo Stable Sheet

For more information on what weight of stable rug you should use depending on the temperature, please see this helpful guide from BETA.

Level of coverage

While there’s not a great deal of variation in the rear coverage available on stable rugs - with most stable rugs having a small fixed tail flap or in the case of some lighter rugs, no tail flap at all - there are a range of neck styles available. Again, these follow the same rules as those for turnout rugs, with Standard, Combo/Full and Detachable neck variations on offer. The level of insulation these combo/full and detachable neck covers provide will vary in accordance with the weight of the stable rug you choose. Some neck covers are available for purchase separately and can be combined with any compatible stable rugs for your preferred level of heat retention.

Weatherbeeta ComFiTec PP Channel Quilt II Detach-A-Neck Medium
  

Fixtures and fittings

So as to provide adequate protection in the stable, a stable rug needs to have various attachments to ensure it stays put on the horse. Most stable rugs won’t have leg straps in the way that a turnout rug would, but they will have;

  • A front closure - usually a single or double strap, buckle or clip system that fastens at the chest. There are also various types of closure used to fasten the necks on Combo or Detachable neck stable rugs, but a popular choice is touch tape (Velcro).
  • Surcingles - adjustable straps that hold the rug in place on the horse’s body. These can be ‘straight’ or ‘crossed’ under the belly - ‘crossed’ are normally better at preventing the rug from slipping.
  • A fillet string / tail cord - a cord attached to either side at the back of the rug which the tail is pulled through in order to reduce slipping and movement of the rug.
  

Summer Sheets and Fly Rugs

In the same way that winter rugs are designed to protect your horse from the cold and rain, summer rugs are also designed to protect them from the elements, only, in this case, it’s sun, dust and flies!

Summer sheets are lightweight, breathable rugs, designed to protect darker horses’ coats from sun-bleaching and lighter horses’ skin from sunburn, whilst also providing effective protection from dust, biting flies and the heat of the sun. These sheets will usually be constructed in a woven poly-cotton blend and may feature mesh panels for maximum airflow on hot days. All summer sheets should provide a good level of UV protection and are often made in light colours to ensure as much of the sun’s heat is reflected back off the rug as possible, keeping the horse cool in the midday sun.

Weatherbeeta Summer Sheet Lite Combo

Summer sheets double nicely as lightweight stable sheets, and are also very useful for keeping your horse clean and cool whilst travelling or at shows.

Fly rugs or fly sheets, as one might expect, are primarily designed to protect horses from the irritation and misery caused by biting flies - a major problem in the summer months. Some horses are more sensitive to these insects than others and can even suffer from a condition called Sweet Itch - an allergic reaction to the bites from certain midges - which can cause intense itching and extreme discomfort. Fly repellents can only do so much in the way of fly prevention, and the best way to protect your horse against these pests and allow them to relax whilst turned out is to provide them with a layer of defence in the form of a fly rug.

Horseware Amigo Bug Rug

Fly rugs are most commonly constructed in a soft, tightly woven mesh fabric to ensure comfort, optimum breathability and effective insect protection. Like summer sheets, they are also frequently constructed in light colours and reflective fabrics in order to keep the horse cool and comfortable in the heat of the sun.

Level of coverage

Just like turnouts and stable rugs, both summer sheets and fly rugs are available with varying neck designs, including standard (no neck), full/combo (integrated) and detachable. As is the case with any rug, those that have a detachable neck will naturally be a more versatile solution, as the neck can be removed or added quickly whenever needed.

Fly rugs with a combo or detachable neck will provide better protection for those sensitive to flies, and there are plenty of styles that also offer full belly protection and increased coverage of the legs and hindquarters. Some rugs will even have a ‘hood’ style to the top of the neck cover, or will be supplied with a fly mask, to ensure maximum protection. These rugs are particularly good for horses who suffer from Sweet Itch or as a preventative measure against it, as they offer a more complete defence.

Horseware Rambo Sweet Itch Hoody Fly Rug
  

Movement

A fly rug is used during fly season in the same way as a turnout rug is used in cooler weather; to protect your horse while they’re turned out in the field. This means that you should also give consideration to how much freedom of movement the rug allows your horse, so they can play and graze comfortably.

Look for rugs cut with shoulder darts or a looser fit across the shoulders, and combo rugs that feature an extra panel at the withers for more comfortable grazing.

Weatherbeeta ComFiTec Airflow II Combo

Most importantly, make sure the rug fits correctly. An ill fitting rug can cause your horse a lot of discomfort. For advice on fitting your horse for a fly rug or summer sheet, please see ‘How To Measure Your Horse For A Rug’.

Fixtures and fittings

As a fly rug will be worn by a turned out horse for most of the day, it not only needs to be comfortable, it also needs to be secure, in order to provide adequate protection and reduce the risk of injury to the horse. Fly rugs will have;

  • A front closure - usually a single or double strap, buckle or clip system that fastens at the chest. There are also various types of closure used to fasten the necks on Combo or Detachable neck fly rugs, but a popular choice is touch tape (Velcro).
  • Surcingles - adjustable straps that hold the rug in place on the horse’s body. These can be ‘straight’ or ‘crossed’ under the belly - ‘crossed’ are normally better at preventing the rug from slipping but many rugs with extra belly protection will have 3 straight surcingles to hold the belly flap securely in place and will be just as secure.
  • Legs straps - elasticated, adjustable and detachable straps that go between the horse’s legs and then loop back around and attach to the back of the rug to keep the rear of the rug in place; especially handy when the horse rolls. While leg straps are less common on fly rugs than turnout rugs, plenty of fly rugs at least have attachments for adding your own if they don’t come supplied with the rug.
  • A fillet string / tail cord - a cord attached to either side at the back of the rug which the tail is pulled through. This is sometimes used instead of leg straps but won’t prevent the rug from slipping as effectively if the horse rolls.
  

Coolers and Fleece Rugs

Coolers are versatile, breathable rugs that can be used for a range of purposes:

  • To help bring a horse’s body temperature back to normal after exercise by wicking away sweat and allowing it to evaporate slowly from the rug
  • To wick moisture away from a wet horse’s coat after bathing (or an unexpected downpour!) to ensure they dry gradually, preventing chills and keeping them comfortable
  • To keep a horse clean and at an optimal temperature whilst travelling or before/at a show
  • To keep a clipped horse warm (despite the name) whilst being groomed
  • To prepare a horse for exercise in colder temperatures
  

Fabric construction/weight

There are many different types of cooler rug and the construction and material of each will vary depending on the main purpose for which it was intended.

Lightweight summer coolers are usually made of a woven, mesh or net fabric, in order to allow for maximum breathability on hot days whilst still providing enough coverage to ensure the horse cools gradually. Some mesh coolers feature an upper panel in a different, thicker fabric, in order to keep the horse’s back and loins warm, which makes them ideal for use in milder spring or autumn conditions.

Horseware Rambo Show Net Cooler

Waffle coolers are also a great choice for spring or autumn, providing a good balance of warmth and moisture-wicking for these seasonal temperatures. They can also be used to keep a horse clean whilst travelling or as an under rug when temperatures start to drop.

Weatherbeeta Waffle Cooler

Fleece rugs or coolers are better used in colder temperatures due to their thermal qualities. The thickness of the fleece fabric can vary dramatically depending on the style, so it’s worth checking if you’re buying a lightweight fleece, which would be more suitable for spring and autumn too, or a heavier weight fleece designed for use in proper winter conditions. Fleece coolers can also be used as a cosy liner under a turnout or stable rug, as they add minimal bulk and provide very effective protection from the cold. A fleece rug that’s on the heavier end of those available can even be used as a lightweight stable blanket on its own in milder weather, thanks to the excellent heat retention properties of fleece.

Weatherbeeta Fleece Cooler Combo

As these rugs are essential for the year-round care of your horse, ideally, you should own a range of coolers to suit the changing weather. However, if you are planning to buy just one cooler, make sure it caters to the lowest temperatures you will experience in your location, and use it sparingly (or folded into sections) in warmer weather when required.

Fixtures and fittings

Coolers don’t require quite as many closures as some other rugs, as they’re not designed for prolonged unattended use and don’t need to fit the horse quite as closely in order to fulfill their purpose. Coolers will most often have;

  • A front closure - usually a single or double strap, buckle or clip system that fastens at the chest. On combo or detachable neck coolers, the neck closures will likely be made of touch tape (Velcro).
  • Surcingles - adjustable straps that hold the rug in place on the horse’s body. These can be ‘straight’ or ‘crossed’ under the belly.
  • A fillet string / tail cord - a cord attached to either side at the back of the rug which the tail is pulled through.
  

Show Sheets and Show Rugs

Show sheets and rugs come in a range of fabrics and styles, from mesh, cooler style rugs to lightweight sheets and even quilted and fleece rugs. The primary use for these rugs is to keep your horse clean, at the right temperature and looking show-ready when travelling to/whilst at a show. The type you choose will depend on what time of year you are planning to compete, with the mesh and lightweight sheets being more suitable for summer use and the heavier quilted or fleece rugs providing more warmth in cooler weather.

Horseware Rambo Diamante Show Rug

What sets these rugs apart from their everyday counterparts is their smart, and often more decorative, designs. While an everyday fleece cooler simply needs to provide the right protection for your horse, irrelevant of what it looks like, the purpose of a show fleece is to ensure you also look presentable and professional in the show environment. For this reason, show rugs will often have extra embroidery or luxurious trims and embellishments, to help give your horse that extra ‘wow’ factor, whilst keeping them clean and tidy after your show prep.

Coverage, fixtures and fittings

As show sheets and rugs are not designed to be weatherproof or worn for long periods - and are mainly for use while the horse is tied up or being led in hand - they have quite a simple design. Most styles will be cut with a standard (no neck coverage) design and will not have a tail flap of any form.

Kentucky Horsewear Show Rug

They also fasten in the most basic way - like coolers - with a simple chest closure at the front, no leg straps, and a tail cord at the back. Show rugs come with or without surcingles to secure the rug under the body of the horse, and some are designed to be detachable so you can choose whether to use them or not… simple!

Exercise Sheets

Exercise sheets - sometimes confusingly referred to as competition sheets - are the most noticeably different type of horse rug in terms of cut and style, as they are the only rugs designed to be worn while a horse is being schooled or ridden.

Dark Horse Equestrian Classic Tartan Fleece Exercise Sheet

Exercise sheets come in various forms, depending on their main intended purpose, but all should be breathable to allow your horse to work comfortably. Most will start at the horse’s withers and be cut away at the sides to allow the riders’ legs to work effectively. They are usually designed to sit neatly underneath the saddle or to wrap around it, with a velcro closure at the withers, and will almost always feature a tail cord and holes for the girth to be passed through, in order to prevent the sheet from slipping.

Some exercise sheets are designed purely for the purpose of keeping a horse warm in winter during exercise, whilst others have more specific purposes that will affect the cut and construction. For example, if you were mainly wanting a sheet for hacking in the winter, you could opt for a fleece-lined sheet with a reflective or hi-vis outer in a waterproof fabric, to ensure you are seen in low light and your horse is protected from wet and cold weather.

HyVIZ Reflector Exercise Sheet

However, if the aim is to keep pesky flies off your horse while they work in warm weather, a much more suitable choice would be a mesh exercise rug to keep them cool, with fuller coverage in order to protect their neck, chest and shoulders from being bitten.

Amigo Flyrider

There are many variations on the main style of exercise sheet, with some preferring to use alternative designs. Quarter sheets are a popular choice for those who prefer a completely uninterrupted rider setup, as they start just behind the saddle and simply cover the horse’s quarters to provide a bit of extra warmth.

While this guide covers the basics of the most popular types of horse rugs, there are now many styles available that combine the features and benefits of more than one traditional style of rug, such as waterproof fly rugs that defend against flies and rain. There’s also a lot of cross over between the features and protection provided by stable sheets, coolers and exercise rugs, with all three being suitable for interchangeable use. However, this guide should give you enough information to make an informed decision about the essential rugs you need in your collection.

For information on fitting your horse for a rug, please see 'How To Measure Your Horse For A Rug'.

Genevieve de Lande Long - Horsemart
Horsemart Marketing Team
Published on 26-02-2021
Genevieve is the marketing manager for Horsemart. She'll keep you up to date with all the latest industry news and provide you with helpful guides and advice.