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Feeding horses in winter

Feeding horses in winter

Feeding horses in winter

Horses tend to lose weight during winter. This is mainly because as temperatures drop, the amount of calories a horse needs to burn to stay warm and maintain their body temperature increases. In winter, pasture energy value and quality often declines which contributes to weight loss during winter.

For horses overweight, winter can be a chance to achieve some weight loss. For other horses, winter presents a significant challenge to keeping weight on. Feeding the right diet during winter will help keep your horses healthy and in good body condition, regardless of whether you want them to lose weight or are doing everything you can to keep the weight on. Here some top tips for getting through winter:

Prepare for winter early

If your horse gets too thin in winter, you should use late summer and autumn to get your horse in good shape for winter. Feeding a little more hay and appropriate ‘hard feed’ during this period will get some extra weight on your horse.  A little extra fat helps to insulate the body and will (slightly) reduce the amount of calories he needs to burn during winter to maintain body temperature. Also, they will have some body fat in reserve so that he can afford to lose a little weight over winter and still be in good shape come spring.

It is also important to get all horses onto a balanced diet (more on this below) before winter hits so that their immune systems are fully functional and can fight off any immune challenges that may come along. The healthier your horse is during winter the more chance he will stay in good shape right through the colder months.

Feed plenty of forage

Forage (hay, chaff and pasture) will keep your horse warm in winter. Horses digest in their hindgut in a process called fermentation. This process produces heat, and this helps a horse to stay warm during winter. Because of the ‘warming’ properties of forage, your horse will benefit from an additional feed of hay in very wet, cold weather.  Forage also provides your horse with many of the calories they will need to maintain weight during winter.

Don’t rug overweight horses

Keeping rugs off horses you want to lose weight will increase the amount of body heat they lose in cold conditions and therefore increase the amount of calories they will burn to maintain their body temperature. Winter is a saviour for fat horses, and in fact, it is a very natural cycle for horses to go through whereby they lose weight over winter. If you don’t allow them to lose some weight over winter they get caught in a cycle of gaining weight in spring, summer and autumn but not losing anything in winter, which means they will get fatter and fatter and become increasingly more prone to diseases associated with obesity, like laminitis.

Condition score your horse regularly

Don’t throw a rug on your horse in winter and leave it on for weeks on end without taking it off to check your horse’s body condition. It is also important to check the horse doesn’t have any injuries or sores that are covered by the rug.

Condition scoring involves looking at areas on your horse’s body such as the top of the neck, the wither, over the ribs and over the loin to assess the amount of body fat (which we call body condition) your horse is carrying.

So get rugs off as often as you can (daily is best) so you can check to see if your horse is losing, maintaining or gaining weight, which will then allow you to adjust their diet quickly as soon as you detect an unwanted change.

Adjust your horse’s diet to control body weight

If your horse is gaining unwanted weight, you will need to reduce or remove any high energy feeds like grains, pellets, sweetfeeds or oils in the diet. If your horse is losing weight that you don’t want him to lose, you may need to feed more calories in the diet. You can do this by:

  • Feeding more hay and if you’re not already doing so, feeding some lucerne hay. Lucerne is higher in calories than an equivalent quality grass hay and its higher protein. It also increases heat production during digestion which will help your horse stay warm.
  • Adding high energy feeds to the diet like pellets, cubes, sweetfeeds, oil or high energy fibres like lupin hulls or sugarbeet pulp.
  • Feed a diet that meets all essential nutrient requirements. An unbalanced diet that doesn’t meet your horse’s requirements for energy, protein, vitamins and/or minerals will mean your horse won’t be as healthy as it could be, and more prone to illness.

Beware of laminitis

For horses susceptible to laminitis (including overweight horses, horses with Cushing’s Disease or those who have previously had laminitis) winter can be a danger period. Seek veterinary advice if your horse is at risk of laminitis. Some management strategies to help reduce the risk include the following:

  • Restrict your horse’s access to pasture - Early hours of the morning up until a few hours after sunrise is best as pasture sugar levels are at their lowest.
  • Feed low sugar hay. This can be done by soaking the hay overnight and discarding the water, which will have sugar in it before feeding. Avoid hays made from ryegrass or cereals like oats, barley or wheat.
  • Avoid all feeds with grain or grain by-products in them.

Most feeds that claim to be ‘grain free’ are NOT. Read the label of all feeds carefully. If they contain anything like bran, pollard, millmix or millrun do not feed them to a horse prone to laminitis as these are high-starch by-products from the wheat milling process and are not safe for laminitic horses.

Add a little oil to the diet

A horse’s coat can become dry and dull during winter. To help keep the coat and skin healthy, add 1 to 3 tablespoons of oil to your horse’s daily ration. Cold pressed canola oil contains good levels of both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and does an excellent job of keeping winter coats healthy for horses on high forage diets.

Feeding a well-balanced diet in conjunction with good dental, hoof and veterinary care as well as a strict faecal egg counting program with a strategic worming regime will help keep your horses in top shape over winter and ready to gleam when spring arrives.

To view the Pryde's range of feed, including Pryde's BioMare Cubes, click here.