winter diet

As the beautiful days of fall turn short and cold, it’s time to think about your horse’s winter diet. Here’s a few tips to ensure he gets the nutrients he requires all season long.

Horses are temperate climate animals and handle cooler weather well. But cold temperatures require nutritional change, and for some horses, this can be challenging. During the harsh months of winter, horses need more calories to maintain body condition and keep warm. On the other hand, if they are ridden less during the winter, their caloric requirements may actually decrease. Many horses go from pasture to hay as their primary forage source, and those that live primarily outdoors will require more calories than horses that spend most of their time blanketed and living in a barn. These are all factors to consider when planning your own horse’s winter diet.

Getting started

When considering feed adjustments for your horse this winter, start by recording his current weight. Using a weight tape, measure and record how much he weighs. Monitor your horse’s body condition weekly to see if he is losing or gaining weight throughout the season, and adjust his feed accordingly. If you’re worried about planning his winter diet, talk to your veterinarian now about any concerns you may have, before the cold weather sets in.

Hydration is essential to proper digestion

Supplying your horse with clean water should always be a priority – even in the winter. Drier feed such as hay contains less water than grass, so horses need to make up the difference in water content. Frozen water doesn’t do your horse any good, and snow is a poor substitute, since warming it to body temperature requires a lot of energy. To ensure he’s staying hydrated, provide warm water several times a day; or ideally, use a heated stock tank or water bucket. A horse requires five to ten gallons of water per day and will consume about 30% more if it’s warmed. Making loose salt available will also help prevent dehydration, which can lead to an impaction colic.

Feed your horse quality hay

When increasing feed, many caretakers turn to grain to keep their horses warm – but this isn’t ideal. Digesting grain produces very little heat, so it does little to keep him warm. Hay, on the other hand, produces a great deal of heat. Providing a bit of extra hay, especially in a slow-feeder bag, will keep your horse’s body temperature up when the weather is bitter. It’ll also keep him occupied when grazing isn’t an option, making him less likely to chew on your barn!

In most cases, hay should be the basis of a winter diet. But quality is key. Hay that is too coarse is harder to chew and will usually supply less nutrition per pound than a finer, more leafy variety. Conversely, very rich leafy hay may provide too many calories for an easy keeper. Having your hay analyzed will provide you with some direction.

How much hay does he need?

A run of cold, wet windy weather will significantly increase your horse’s caloric requirements. Providing extra hay will help keep him warm, and be much appreciated.

Generally, a horse should consume 1½ lbs to 2 lbs pounds of hay/forage per 100 lbs of body weight. An easy keeper should consume 1½ lbs, and a harder keeper should be close to 2 lbs.

Adding balancer ration and fat to feed

Most horses that are fed an adequate amount of hay don’t need a lot of extra calories. But what if your horse isn’t getting the nutrients he needs? In these cases, the addition of a “balancer” ration, fed at the recommended rate, can help supply adequate and balanced nutrition to your horse’s winter diet without packing on the pounds. If you do need to increase your horse’s grain to maintain body condition or weight, make sure you don’t feed too much at one time. Do not give him any more than five pounds in one feeding, and be sure to check the label or feed tag for the recommended amount.

In some instances, as with a very hard keeper, feeding adequate calories in the winter is a challenge. One way to increase a horse’s caloric intake without spending a fortune is to add fats or oils to his diet. Give him a high fat feed (some can be as high as 12% fat) or add a healthy high quality oil, such as flaxseed, directly to his grain ration. Fats/oils work well because they provide 2.5 times more calories than proteins or carbohydrates. They are more “calorie dense”, meaning they supply more calories in a smaller volume of feed.

Additional tips for winter feeding

  • Consider your horse’s individual needs. Pregnant mares, as well as young, growing and old horses require closer monitoring and specialized feeding programs that include a higher plane of nutrition.
  • Make sure his teeth are in good shape. If he has a “smooth mouth” due to advanced age, providing forage or grain in the form of senior feed, pellets or mashes may be necessary.
  • Talk to your vet about a de-worming program. Your horse should be on a targeted deworming program, so consult your veterinarian to set one up. No need to “feed the worms” this winter.
  • Supplement with vitamin E. Since vitamin E degrades rapidly in stored hay, supplementing with 1,000 to 2,000 IU daily is a good idea in the winter.
  • Feed him warming foods. A warm mash, beet pulp and/or bran will be very welcome on a really cold night.

Following these general guidelines will help you plan your horse’s winter diet before the snow falls, so you can spend time enjoying  the season!