Depending on how cold the climate is where you live, feeding your horse during the winter months can require a good deal of attention. On the positive side, that attention means routine visits with your horse to monitor its condition.
Depending on your horse’s condition going into the season, you can then manage their diet to maintain its condition. A relatively young and active horse will have more muscle mass than an older or more sedentary one. Regularly feel the withers, back, hips and ribs to assure they’re not getting “bony” relatively to their warm weather condition.
The main goals of feed management in winter are—not surprisingly—comfort and nutrition. The inspections mentioned above are rough indicators of each. Besides checking a horse’s general musculoskeletal condition, you’ll want to keep an eye on the horse to see if its coat is “standing up”; an indication of an uncomfortable degree of cold. And, if your horse is shivering, you definitely have a situation that must be addressed.
On average, a horse can require about 25% more energy to maintain its health in the winter months, with the available energy equating to caloric intake. Factors like ambient temperature, exercise level and the horse’s age all factor into the equation.
Fortunately, most horses are designed for cold weather. Central to that design is their digestive process. When horses digest forage (in their hindgut), they generate warmth. To fuel this process, you’ll want to make sure your horse has plenty of chopped or long-stem hay, or forage-based pellets. The digestion of drier forage actually generates more heat from the horse’s biome. Richer feeds like alfalfa and clover are good for supplying nutrients but should not replace the hay entirely and may want to be avoided indoors altogether (see below). Likewise, green forage generates slightly less heat from this process.
As your horse’s caloric needs increase, it may become increasingly difficult for them to consume enough hay to meet that need. In this case, nutrient-dense feeds such as grain may also be recommended. But grain should only be used as a supplement, not a replacement. When adding grain to your horse’s diet, provide it in multiple smaller portions during the day. This will prevent gorging and potential digestive problems.
No matter the feed, your horse will need more water to support the digestive process. We talked a bit about this in an earlier post. But it’s worth repeating here: Be sure your horse’s water is checked routinely to assure it is ice-free and a palatable temperature. Also, as with all horse hydration regimens, make sure your horse has plenty of salt.
While we understandably focus on how our horse fares out of doors in winter, the indoor feeding regimen warrants some special attention too. The protein content of legume hays like alfalfa and clover can result in higher levels of ammonia in the urine. This can affect air quality in the stable when horses spend more time indoors. That’s not healthy for them or you. Dry grassy hays not only avoid this problem, but are also a welcome source of distraction when your horse is in its stall for longer periods.
By following these simple rules of thumb, your horse is likelier to have a healthy and happy winter season.