Rugging Traditions

From bearskin saddle blankets to hoods resembling knight’s caparisons to magnetic ‘therapeutic rugs’, we’ve come a long way in the history of horse-rugging and, since we are now looking forward to finally casting off those winter turnout rugs with sighs of relief, this is a timely moment to consider the rugged horse in the history of art.

Prior to the eighteenth century, horse rugs were basically large ornamental public-occasion heraldic-patterned or ‘parade’ coverings that would also have kept horses warm.

These date back to BC [before the birth of Christ], to our friends the Scythians. Art from outside Europe tells a similar story around the world, and images of the non-Western rugged horse proliferate in Persian, Mughal, and American Indian horse cultures.

In the West, from the twelfth century to the sixteenth centuries, ‘caparisons’ or long capes, frequently embroidered with the coat of arms of the horse’s rider, were a part of the horse armour known as ‘barding’ and when combined with a felt layer underneath, they could deflect and lessen the damage of arrows during battles and tournaments.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rugs, blankets and sheepskin pads for stabled racehorses, carriage horses, hunters and ‘park’ horses became de rigeur, and were employed on a daily basis by Regency era grooms.

The Illustrated Book of the Horse, in 1875 notes that: “Clothing [for horses] assists and is indeed indispensable, for obtaining a bright smooth coat, and for protecting horses from chill when they return to their stables after violent exertions.”

These are amusingly referred-to as horse ‘day suits’ and ‘night suits’.

This novel practice of rugging was, of course, intrinsically linked to the breeding of the thin-skinned English Thoroughbred and the cross-bred hunter.

This is evident in many hundreds of portraits of racehorses in their stables from the late 1700s onward into the early twentieth century, when photography [largely] replaced painting in the portraiture of famous and influential Thoroughbred horses.

Interestingly, the specialist racehorse portraitists, from John Dalby, Gordon Douglas Giles, George Stubbs, Benjamin Marshall, Samuel Spode, John Wooton, James Seymour, Emile Volkers, John Frederick Herring Sr. and Jacques-Laurent Agasse, through to Alfred Munnings, have all depicted their beautiful subjects with cast-off rugs beside them.

This curious convention seems to imply to the viewer that this most valuable horse has a rug, (probably several) but so perfect is its conformation, that it must been seen as it were – ‘naked’ – so its rug has been temporarily removed in much the way it might be for any serious buyer or breeder on a stable tour; a convention that thus gives these portraits a certain realism.

In Image A we see ‘Caractacus’, a Derby winner of 1862 looking more than slightly miffed his manger has been filled with an inedible stable rug!

I like the contrast with the Degas shown in Image B ‘At the stables: horse and dog’ of 1865, for the way in which the French master subverts the ‘cast aside rug’ convention by framing the horse’s head and shoulders only, rather than the usual horizontal stance. This gives us a much more intimate and personalised introduction to the individual horse and its canine friend. 

Cut-to-fit horse blankets were first manufactured in 1857 by the pioneering Troy Woollen Mills in Troy, New Hampshire. Amazingly, you can still get the ‘Troy 5A’ lined burlap stable rug, which says much for its enduring design, manufacture and materials. Next came the simple canvas New Zealand rug, which I remember as a teen.

Rugs today are lighter, more waterproof, and durable, and come in a bewildering array of weights, linings, cuts, combos and features.

Technology has been a strong focus, with the latest being intelligent sensors in the rug that provide a read-out on temperature, sweat and activity to an app on the owner’s mobile phone.

This latest technology reflects the fact that horses have a wide thermo-neutral zone which means that a horse feels cold when the weather creates temperatures below 0°C and they feel hot when it reaches 25°C.

This ‘thermo-neutral’ zone is huge compared to ours. Also, eating fibre keeps them warm as heat is generated by breakdown of food either inside the cells of the body or by its fermentation within the hindgut. Our lack of familiarity with these two equine adaptations to the cold explain our tendency here in in Australia to over-rug our horses.

Despite the differences between our temperature ‘set points’, tactful and considered rugging have become important care items for all types of horses and ponies. It is a practical way of keeping away chills and other illnesses. In fact, in the early twentieth century in some US states horse blankets ‘were the law and the blanketing of working horses was mandatory.’  Interestingly, in New York City this law is still on the books.

The horse rug, (in life and in art!) is an important topic; especially considering that besides your saddle, your horse’s rugs are probably the next most ‘technical’ and expensive articles in his or her wardrobe. With the Norwegian Veterinary Institute having recently shown that with symbol training, horses are able to choose between ‘rug on’ ‘rug off’ and ‘no change, perhaps the future lies in us asking them how they feel?


Wikipedia: ‘Carparison’ accessed 20 june 2018.

  1. Sidney, The Book of the Horse; (thorough-bred, half-bred, cart-bred) Saddle and Harness, British and Foreign. 2nd. ed. Reprint by Wilshire Book Company, Ca. p. 503

Fran Jurga; Feb 6 2017 Accessed 17 June 2018

Image Captions:

IMAGE A: Samuel Spode, Caractacus [Derby Winner] 1862. Image source

IMAGE B: Edgar Degas, At the stables: horse and dog, 1865. Image source