Winter feeding tips for horses

Winter feeding for your horse doesn’t have to be daunting! There are many things you can do to ensure he remains in good health all season long.

Horses love the cold weather! You know they’re enjoying the brisk air when they buck and run as the temperatures fall. For horses living in southern states, where the mercury rarely dips below freezing, less preparation is involved. But in the north, horses can be subjected to frigid temperatures and lots of snowfall, and require more attention to their needs. Regardless of where your horse lives, consider the following these winter feeding basics when preparing for colder temperatures.

Forage considerations

As winter approaches, pasture becomes limited or nonexistent and horses must be fed hay. Hay loses many of its nutrients, including vitamins E and C, beta carotene (for vitamin A production), and omega 3 fatty acids. As well, horses get less direct sunlight in winter, which limits vitamin D production. It is therefore more important than ever to fill in these nutritional gaps by adding good vitamin/mineral supplements to winter feeding, including flaxseed meal for omega 3 fatty acids.

Alfalfa is beneficial for most horses because, when combined with grass hay, it boosts the overall protein quality. This helps protect immune function, and keeps body proteins such as muscles, hair, skin and hooves in good condition.

Maintaining gut health

Hind gut bacteria are responsible for producing heat through hay fermentation, so these microbes need to remain plentiful and healthy. A probiotic will feed the microbes, allowing your horse to more efficiently digest hay, generating not only heat but necessary calories. A good rule of thumb is to provide approximately 2% to 2.5% of body weight from forage, and never let your horse run out of hay for more than two hours. Horses are designed to graze virtually all day and night. Chewing produces saliva, which is a natural antacid for the continual supply of acid secreted by the stomach. Without anything to chew on, horses can develop colic, ulcers, stress-related disorders and behaviors, and may even have trouble losing weight (due to stress hormone production).

Feed concentrates

Depending on the condition of your horse, you may need to add concentrates to his diet. A growing or underweight horse, or a pregnant or lactating mare will need more calories than hay can provide. Consider adding a commercial feed. Do not rely on a coffee can to measure the feed; be sure to weigh it. Horses’ stomachs are relatively small and in most cases a meal should never exceed four pounds. For the easy keeper, it is best to avoid cereal grains such as oats, corn, or barley. And definitely avoid molasses-sweetened feeds. With all the hay your horse wants, you can simply make a small meal to serve as a carrier for supplements by using a low starch commercial feed, or a small amount of soaked molasses-free beet pulp.

Bran mash myths

Many horse caretakers enjoy including a warm bran mash in winter feeding regimens, with the good intention of offering “comfort food” to their horses. But this practice should be avoided for two reasons. First, consistency in the diet is critical to a horse’s digestive health. If you introduce bran once a week, you create a significant risk of colic because the hindgut bacteria haven’t had a chance to adjust. The second problem with feeding bran is that it has more phosphorus than calcium.

Winter hydration

Water consumption is critical aspect of winter feeding, so plan on heating your water supply. Horses will not drink enough cold water to prevent dehydration and impaction colic, so maintain water at 50ºF. Now is the time to get heated water buckets or an automatic temperature-controlled watering system. To encourage your horse to drink enough water, always provide access to salt.

Keeping up the senior horse

If you have an older horse, keep in mind that his joints need extra protection during the cold months. A good joint supplement is advisable to include in winter feeding routines, along with vitamin C for collagen production, since the older a horse gets, the less vitamin C he produces on his own. If he’s a hard keeper, be sure he is not competing with younger, more aggressive horses for his hay. Feed a quality senior feed, along with added flaxseed meal (use a commercial product such as Nutra Flax by Horsetech, since it is stabilized and has added calcium to adjust the calcium:phosphorus ratio). A vitamin/mineral supplement with added alfalfa for protein (unless his kidneys are compromised) is important to maintain his immune system. Additional fat from rice bran oil can be included as well. Avoid corn and soybean oils because they are high in omega 6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation.

As horses age, they are more inclined to develop dysfunction of the pituitary gland (commonly referred to as equine Cushing’s – see page 47 for more on this condition). The main symptoms are a long curly hair coat, increased urination and thirst, reduced muscle mass, increased susceptibility to infections, and tendency toward laminitis. Avoid starchy feeds and do not feed sugar or sugary treats such as apples or carrots.

Winter feeding doesn’t have to be daunting! Let your horse enjoy the winter by keeping his weight healthy through plenty of good quality grass and alfalfa hay. Add more calories if he needs them, a supplement to fill in the nutrient gaps, salt, and fresh, temperature controlled water. Do all this and you’ll have a horse whose good health will long outlast the cold months!

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Dr. Juliet M. Getty earned her Master of Science degree in Animal Nutrition at the University of Florida. She completed her doctoral coursework in Animal Nutrition at the University of Georgia, and continued her studies at the University of North Texas, where she earned her PhD. Winner of several teaching awards, Dr. Getty has taught comparative nutrition studies at the University of North Texas for 20 years. At the same time, she has been working in the field, consulting privately with horse owners to customize feeding plans that address a variety of health conditions. Recently retired from academia, she now resides in Denton, Texas, where she devotes herself full-time to equine nutrition. Through her consulting company, Getty Equine Nutrition, she provides consultations locally, nationally and internationally.