Written by:

Get advice on maintaining your horse’s balanced diet during the winter.

Thumbnail for Cold Weather Feeding Advice

Clix photo

Providing a balanced diet for your horse during the winter has its challenges. And while there are some general rules of thumb, which all horse owners should keep in mind, each horse has individual nutrition requirements, depending on age and activity level, among other considerations. Here, the experts from Kentucky Performance Products offer advice on feeding horses during the winter.

Top 10 Winter Nutrition Tip

1. As pastures fade, switch from green grass to dried hay slowly. It takes the horse’s digestive tract about two weeks to acclimate to new forage.

2. Even if grass is not covered in snow, don’t rely on pasture as your horse’s sole source of nutrition in the late fall and early winter, as it lacks adequate vitamins, minerals and, in some cases, energy.

3. The best way to warm your horse up in cold weather is to feed additional good quality forage. Hay supports an increase in body temperature better than concentrates do, and hay helps keep your horse’s digestive system in good working order.

4. Winter pasture and dried forages lack essential vitamin E. To protect your horse’s antioxidant status when he can’t graze on green grass, supplement with natural vitamin E. Natural vitamin E is superior to synthetic vitamin E because it is absorbed and retained in the tissues at a much higher rate.

5. Ensure your horse is drinking enough water in the cold weather. They need to drink at least five litres for every 100kg of body weight per day to stay healthy. Their requirements increase if they are ridden. Here are three easy ways to ensure your horse is getting enough water in the winter:

  • Hay contains much less moisture than grass, so be sure you provide an unlimited source of clean water to encourage additional water intake. Soak hay in room temperature water and feed it moist when weather conditions permit.
  • Monitor the temperature of your horse’s drinking water, and don’t allow it to get too cold. The ideal temperature for drinking water is between 45°F (7°C) and 65°F (18°C). Offer even warmer water (up to 90°F/32°C) to senior horses or poor drinkers.
  • Add warm water to your normal textured or pelleted meal.

6. Provide adequate levels of salt. Salt stimulates the thirst response and helps keep horses drinking. At rest, a horse should be eating about 50 grams of salt per day, either in the feed or from a salt block. If your horse continues to work during the winter, supplement with a well-balanced electrolyte. (See page 16 for more on salt block options.)

7. Horses begin to struggle to keep warm below certain temperatures. For a clipped horse, or one with a summer coat, the temperature is 41°F (5°C). For a horse with a thick winter coat, the temperature is 18°F (-8°C). An easy guideline to follow is that a sedentary mature horse will need two per cent more high-quality forage for every degree the temperature falls below the lower critical temperature. Small or older horses will be less tolerant of cold temperatures.

8. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, so you can prepared with enough hay and water supplies in advance of cold periods and storms. (See “Storm Warning” on page 50 for more advice on preparing for winter storms.)

9. Begin to feed additional forage at least 24 hours prior to periods of extreme cold or winter storms.

10. Try your best to stick to your normal feeding schedule during inclement weather. When making feed changes, do so slowly over several days, as this will decrease the risk of digestive upset.

 

CONSIDERATIONS FOR HORSES WITH SPECIAL NEEDS

Preventing winter weight gain in easy keepers

  • Some horses gain weight when given a winter break from trail riding, training, and/or showing.
  • Monitor your horse’s weight carefully during breaks and, if necessary, back off on concentrates.
  • When you feed less than the recommended amounts of a commercial concentrate, you need to supplement with a complete vitamin and mineral pellet to ensure your horse’s nutrient requirements are met.
  • Never cut back on hay to reduce calorie intake; instead, change to a more mature grass hay that will provide plenty of fibre but less energy.

Dealing with weight loss in hard keepers

  • Long hair coats often mask weight loss, so monitor your horse’s weight carefully. Regular body condition scoring is beneficial. Don’t wait to increase calories; do it at the first sign of weight loss.
  • Provide free-choice high-quality forage 24/7, when possible.
  • When additional calories are needed, add a high-fat supplement to the diet. But avoid feeding large amounts of concentrates high in starch and sugar, as they increase the risk of colic and laminitis.
  • Provide a digestive tract supplement to ensure digestive health and stimulate the appetite.

Managing horses with metabolic issues

  • Research has shown that cold weather causes greater variability in a horse’s insulin levels. Additionally, horses tend to exercise less when it is cold, which can cause insulin levels to increase.
  • Continue feeding a low starch and sugar diet throughout the winter months.
  • If your horse is on medication or supplements to help control metabolic disease, continue to use them as prescribed.
  • When additional calories are needed to keep your horse warm in cold weather, increase the amount of grass hay you feed.
  • If you need even more calories to maintain body weight or provide energy, add a high-fat supplement that is low in starch and sugar to the diet.
  • Keep a close eye on your horse and check in with your vet if you see any foot soreness or other out-of-the-ordinary behaviour.

GETTING READY FOR WINTER

Clean out your feed room
A clean feed room will help to reduce feed losses due to insect and rodent damage. It will also give you more room to store and properly manage your feed, hay, and supplements.

Stockpile concentrates (sweet feed and pellets)
There is nothing worse than running out of feed in the middle of a winter storm. Planning ahead and keeping enough feed on hand will reduce the number of times you have to venture to the feed store on treacherous roads, or beg your farm store to send a truck out in dangerous weather.

Fill your hayloft with good quality fibre
The best way to keep your horse warm in the cold weather is to offer him or her plenty of good quality forage. Having an adequate supply stashed away for the winter is optimal, but if you can’t store enough to last the season, be sure you have a reliable source lined up so you don’t run out.

Take a supplement inventory
What supplements do you need to maintain your horse during the winter? Some horses require additional vitamins and minerals when pasture grasses are no longer available. Other horses need additional energy and digestive support during cold winter months. Take an inventory and order what you need so you have it on hand when your horse needs it. Check the expiration dates on the supplements you currently have. Discard all expired supplements. Review storage instructions to prevent damage from freezing.

Protect medications
We all have an assortment of equine medications and supplements in our feed rooms. You are not going to have a good day when you reach for a medication only to find it has expired or is frozen. You also don’t want to run out at a crucial time. Inclement weather can stress horses and cause an uptick in injuries and illness, so be prepared! Review all your medications and toss those that are expired or damaged. Store them according to the directions on the container.