As temperatures drop, horse owners should begin to make changes in their horse's feeding program in preparation for winter. But what alterations are needed? Here are some points to consider when preparing to adjust a nutrition program for the colder weather.
As the temperatures fall, horses will often decrease their water consumption per day. Ensure horses always have access to fresh water, and when temperatures dip below freezing, make sure to check all water sources for ice.
Also consider providing electrolytes and/or warmer water to encourage drinking. If adding electrolytes to water rather than via an oral supplement, provide a second watch bucket in case the animal won't drink the flavored electrolyte water.
The most common way to provide forage to a horse is by supplying them with hay. Depending on the type (grass or legume) and harvest time, hay can provide a significant amount of a horse's daily nutritional needs. In addition, hay provides the horse with the required fiber for hindgut health.
If hay is in short supply, consider integrating alternative forage sources--such as hay cubes, beet pulp, and complete feeds--to help stretch the forage supply. (Editor's note: See Alternative Fiber for Horses for more information on integrating these alternates.)
Additionally, there are many benefits to fiber in the winter besides providing nutrients. The heat created by hay digestion is greater than the heat of digestion from concentrates, which means that horses are able to save energy needed to produce body heat by consuming hay.
Monitor Body Condition
Without the use of a scale, an easy and effective way to monitor a horse's weight is by body condition scoring. This system estimates the fat present on the horse's body and will help horse owners adjust their feeding programs accordingly.
Aim to monitor a horse's body condition score every couple weeks leading up to and during the winter months. Longer, thicker hair coats can be deceiving of the horse's actual condition, so additional feed might be needed to maintain his weight during the colder months.
If a horse is over conditioned, reduce the amount of calories from grain before reducing forage amounts. If the horse is under conditioned, increase the amount of forage he consumes or change to a more nutritious type of forage. Additional calories from concentrates and/or fat sources might be needed to help a hard keeper maintain his weight.
Take Home Message
Colder weather requires horse owners to monitor a horse's nutrition program more carefully and possibly adjust it to meet the horse's nutritional needs. If specific questions arise when adjusting a feeding program for the winter, it's advisable to consult a veterinarian or equine nutritionist.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.