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Winter nutrition for horses

Photo by Heather Smith ThomasThere are many different types of feeds that can be utilized for helping a horse increase or decrease body condition, but the owner must be responsible for determining whether the horse is fat or thin, and make feeding decisions based on those factors.

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Good winter care involves adequate feed and shelter. Horses need more nutrients in winter to generate enough body heat during cold weather. If underfed, they rob body fat to create the needed energy and will lose weight.

Stephen Duren, PhD, with Performance Horse Nutrition, says water is also a crucial factor. In cold weather horse owners must make sure the horse has adequate water that’s not frozen.

“Horses should not have to depend on snow for their water needs,” says Duren. “Actual amount of water consumption will depend on how much dry feed they are eating. Horses require anywhere from seven to 10 gallons of water per day. This should be provided in a way that it won’t freeze before they drink it.”



It also helps if water can be kept warmer than ice-cold, or horses won’t drink enough.

“We see a lot of impaction colic problems when horses are not drinking enough water. Intake is better if the water is a bit warmer – such as 45 to 50 degrees – rather than near freezing,” he says.



Insulated water tanks, or buckets in which the water is warmed, can help ensure that horses drink an optimum amount during cold weather.

“Make sure thermostats are properly adjusted on a tank or bucket heater, to keep the water warm so it won’t freeze, but not too warm,” he says. The heating element must be properly grounded so there’s no stray electricity, or horses won’t drink. They are very sensitive to electricity.

“When horses no longer have pasture, their fiber intake becomes a major priority,” says Duren. “When people think about the type of feed that would be best to help the horse stay warm, they often feed more grain – but it’s actually the fiber component of the diet that’s more important. When fiber is fermented by bacteria in the hindgut, this produces heat because the process is not 100 percent efficient in this breakdown process. This heat is what keeps the horse warm. Conversely, grain is digested in the stomach and small intestine and absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, and stored in the muscles as glycogen. To utilize this energy source to keep warm, horses actually have to shiver.”

Feeding the horse more fiber is an easier and more effective way to generate heat.

As weather gets cold, the horse’s appetite increases and he craves more forage. On a cold night it’s always a good idea to allow him a larger portion of hay. Otherwise he may resort to chewing on fences or anything else he can reach, in his attempt to add more fiber to his diet to keep warm.

“Most horses in a maintenance situation (not working) need about 1.5 percent of their body weight in hay daily,” says Duren. “During winter months this should be increased to about two to 2.5 percent of their body weight, in dry hay per day. The forage will provide a significant amount of the additional calories needed in cold weather. If a horse is underweight from a fall riding program or needs to gain weight for any reason – or if the hay is not of sufficient quality, then any supplemental calories and trace minerals can be provided in a grain concentrate or some kind of low intake vitamin/mineral supplement.”

In many northern regions, horses are ridden less during winter because of snow and cold weather. This can be a great “down time” for horses to recover from hard work.

“Feeding programs for horses in winter are actually fairly simple,” says Duren. “You need to provide plenty of non-frozen water, plenty of forage, and just enough grain or supplement to balance the diet. You can use body condition as your tool to determine whether the horse actually needs a grain concentrate or just a ration-balancer supplement. Winter feeding is pretty simple; many people make it more complicated than it needs to be.”

You merely need to monitor whether the horse is gaining or losing weight, if you have a target goal for body condition.

Winter is a good time for horses to catch up if they’ve had a hard riding season. “They may need to heal up from things that happened during summer,” says Duren. “They now have some time off and can recover. The horse owner should not just feed hay and forget about them, especially competition horses. You can use this time to re-establish body condition that was lost during summer, and continue to provide essential nutrients to repair and rebuild tissue. Protein is thus very important, as well as the minerals and vitamins. These all have repair-type functions, which are very important to horses in the winter months as they recover from a season of hard work.”

Most people don’t think about these things.

“If they are not actively riding, they are not actively feeding for these goals,” he says. “A lot of horses in winter can use that time for good benefit. It’s a vacation, but you want them to come back to work next spring rested and healthy. Proper feeding is part of that. Not being ridden will certainly give them the rest they need, but to bring them back to optimum health – and readiness to go back to work – the owner should not forget to provide the additional supplementation needed, which typically includes protein, vitamins and minerals. Most horses don’t need a lot of grain, but there are a number of low-intake supplement products that are very adequate, feeding just a small amount.

“We feed a lot of those low-intake supplements here in the West, because our hay is so good. We just need a little bit of supplement and these are typically called ration balancing supplement pellets. Many different companies make them.”

If a horse is going into the winter a little thin, the time to try to correct this and improve his body condition is before the weather becomes really cold. When it’s cold, the horse expends more energy trying to keep warm, and it takes even more energy when he doesn’t have a layer of fat as insulation – losing body heat more readily.

“The energy requirements for a thin horse are higher,” says Duren. “It’s always best to evaluate body condition in the fall, when competition is winding down, and decide whether he needs to gain weight before winter.”

Young growing horses are in a different category because they need a certain type and amount of feed regardless of whether it’s winter or summer.

“They should be fed a diet for growth, all the time,” explains Duren. “As horses approach winter from foal to weanling, or from weanling to yearling, the nutrient requirements as a percentage of his diet are decreasing, and his appetite (and his ability to eat more) are increasing. Most of the time this takes care of any additional needs for winter. The exception might be a foal that’s weaned late in the season and you’re experiencing a severe winter. Then his body condition becomes an important factor.”

Good winter care involves adequate feed and shelter. Horses need more nutrients in winter to generate enough body heat during cold weather. If underfed, they rob body fat to create the needed energy and will lose weight.

Stephen Duren, PhD, with Performance Horse Nutrition, says water is also a crucial factor. In cold weather horse owners must make sure the horse has adequate water that’s not frozen.

“Horses should not have to depend on snow for their water needs,” says Duren. “Actual amount of water consumption will depend on how much dry feed they are eating. Horses require anywhere from seven to 10 gallons of water per day. This should be provided in a way that it won’t freeze before they drink it.”

It also helps if water can be kept warmer than ice-cold, or horses won’t drink enough.

“We see a lot of impaction colic problems when horses are not drinking enough water. Intake is better if the water is a bit warmer – such as 45 to 50 degrees – rather than near freezing,” he says.

Insulated water tanks, or buckets in which the water is warmed, can help ensure that horses drink an optimum amount during cold weather.

“Make sure thermostats are properly adjusted on a tank or bucket heater, to keep the water warm so it won’t freeze, but not too warm,” he says. The heating element must be properly grounded so there’s no stray electricity, or horses won’t drink. They are very sensitive to electricity.

“When horses no longer have pasture, their fiber intake becomes a major priority,” says Duren. “When people think about the type of feed that would be best to help the horse stay warm, they often feed more grain – but it’s actually the fiber component of the diet that’s more important. When fiber is fermented by bacteria in the hindgut, this produces heat because the process is not 100 percent efficient in this breakdown process. This heat is what keeps the horse warm. Conversely, grain is digested in the stomach and small intestine and absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, and stored in the muscles as glycogen. To utilize this energy source to keep warm, horses actually have to shiver.”

Feeding the horse more fiber is an easier and more effective way to generate heat.

As weather gets cold, the horse’s appetite increases and he craves more forage. On a cold night it’s always a good idea to allow him a larger portion of hay. Otherwise he may resort to chewing on fences or anything else he can reach, in his attempt to add more fiber to his diet to keep warm.

“Most horses in a maintenance situation (not working) need about 1.5 percent of their body weight in hay daily,” says Duren. “During winter months this should be increased to about two to 2.5 percent of their body weight, in dry hay per day. The forage will provide a significant amount of the additional calories needed in cold weather. If a horse is underweight from a fall riding program or needs to gain weight for any reason – or if the hay is not of sufficient quality, then any supplemental calories and trace minerals can be provided in a grain concentrate or some kind of low intake vitamin/mineral supplement.”

In many northern regions, horses are ridden less during winter because of snow and cold weather. This can be a great “down time” for horses to recover from hard work.

“Feeding programs for horses in winter are actually fairly simple,” says Duren. “You need to provide plenty of non-frozen water, plenty of forage, and just enough grain or supplement to balance the diet. You can use body condition as your tool to determine whether the horse actually needs a grain concentrate or just a ration-balancer supplement. Winter feeding is pretty simple; many people make it more complicated than it needs to be.”

You merely need to monitor whether the horse is gaining or losing weight, if you have a target goal for body condition.

Winter is a good time for horses to catch up if they’ve had a hard riding season. “They may need to heal up from things that happened during summer,” says Duren. “They now have some time off and can recover. The horse owner should not just feed hay and forget about them, especially competition horses. You can use this time to re-establish body condition that was lost during summer, and continue to provide essential nutrients to repair and rebuild tissue. Protein is thus very important, as well as the minerals and vitamins. These all have repair-type functions, which are very important to horses in the winter months as they recover from a season of hard work.”

Most people don’t think about these things.

“If they are not actively riding, they are not actively feeding for these goals,” he says. “A lot of horses in winter can use that time for good benefit. It’s a vacation, but you want them to come back to work next spring rested and healthy. Proper feeding is part of that. Not being ridden will certainly give them the rest they need, but to bring them back to optimum health – and readiness to go back to work – the owner should not forget to provide the additional supplementation needed, which typically includes protein, vitamins and minerals. Most horses don’t need a lot of grain, but there are a number of low-intake supplement products that are very adequate, feeding just a small amount.

“We feed a lot of those low-intake supplements here in the West, because our hay is so good. We just need a little bit of supplement and these are typically called ration balancing supplement pellets. Many different companies make them.”

If a horse is going into the winter a little thin, the time to try to correct this and improve his body condition is before the weather becomes really cold. When it’s cold, the horse expends more energy trying to keep warm, and it takes even more energy when he doesn’t have a layer of fat as insulation – losing body heat more readily.

“The energy requirements for a thin horse are higher,” says Duren. “It’s always best to evaluate body condition in the fall, when competition is winding down, and decide whether he needs to gain weight before winter.”

Young growing horses are in a different category because they need a certain type and amount of feed regardless of whether it’s winter or summer.

“They should be fed a diet for growth, all the time,” explains Duren. “As horses approach winter from foal to weanling, or from weanling to yearling, the nutrient requirements as a percentage of his diet are decreasing, and his appetite (and his ability to eat more) are increasing. Most of the time this takes care of any additional needs for winter. The exception might be a foal that’s weaned late in the season and you’re experiencing a severe winter. Then his body condition becomes an important factor.”

Good winter care involves adequate feed and shelter. Horses need more nutrients in winter to generate enough body heat during cold weather. If underfed, they rob body fat to create the needed energy and will lose weight.

Stephen Duren, PhD, with Performance Horse Nutrition, says water is also a crucial factor. In cold weather horse owners must make sure the horse has adequate water that’s not frozen.

“Horses should not have to depend on snow for their water needs,” says Duren. “Actual amount of water consumption will depend on how much dry feed they are eating. Horses require anywhere from seven to 10 gallons of water per day. This should be provided in a way that it won’t freeze before they drink it.”

It also helps if water can be kept warmer than ice-cold, or horses won’t drink enough.

“We see a lot of impaction colic problems when horses are not drinking enough water. Intake is better if the water is a bit warmer – such as 45 to 50 degrees – rather than near freezing,” he says.

Insulated water tanks, or buckets in which the water is warmed, can help ensure that horses drink an optimum amount during cold weather.

“Make sure thermostats are properly adjusted on a tank or bucket heater, to keep the water warm so it won’t freeze, but not too warm,” he says. The heating element must be properly grounded so there’s no stray electricity, or horses won’t drink. They are very sensitive to electricity.

“When horses no longer have pasture, their fiber intake becomes a major priority,” says Duren. “When people think about the type of feed that would be best to help the horse stay warm, they often feed more grain – but it’s actually the fiber component of the diet that’s more important. When fiber is fermented by bacteria in the hindgut, this produces heat because the process is not 100 percent efficient in this breakdown process. This heat is what keeps the horse warm. Conversely, grain is digested in the stomach and small intestine and absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose, and stored in the muscles as glycogen. To utilize this energy source to keep warm, horses actually have to shiver.”

Feeding the horse more fiber is an easier and more effective way to generate heat.

As weather gets cold, the horse’s appetite increases and he craves more forage. On a cold night it’s always a good idea to allow him a larger portion of hay. Otherwise he may resort to chewing on fences or anything else he can reach, in his attempt to add more fiber to his diet to keep warm.

“Most horses in a maintenance situation (not working) need about 1.5 percent of their body weight in hay daily,” says Duren. “During winter months this should be increased to about two to 2.5 percent of their body weight, in dry hay per day. The forage will provide a significant amount of the additional calories needed in cold weather. If a horse is underweight from a fall riding program or needs to gain weight for any reason – or if the hay is not of sufficient quality, then any supplemental calories and trace minerals can be provided in a grain concentrate or some kind of low intake vitamin/mineral supplement.”

In many northern regions, horses are ridden less during winter because of snow and cold weather. This can be a great “down time” for horses to recover from hard work.

“Feeding programs for horses in winter are actually fairly simple,” says Duren. “You need to provide plenty of non-frozen water, plenty of forage, and just enough grain or supplement to balance the diet. You can use body condition as your tool to determine whether the horse actually needs a grain concentrate or just a ration-balancer supplement. Winter feeding is pretty simple; many people make it more complicated than it needs to be.”

You merely need to monitor whether the horse is gaining or losing weight, if you have a target goal for body condition.

Winter is a good time for horses to catch up if they’ve had a hard riding season. “They may need to heal up from things that happened during summer,” says Duren. “They now have some time off and can recover. The horse owner should not just feed hay and forget about them, especially competition horses. You can use this time to re-establish body condition that was lost during summer, and continue to provide essential nutrients to repair and rebuild tissue. Protein is thus very important, as well as the minerals and vitamins. These all have repair-type functions, which are very important to horses in the winter months as they recover from a season of hard work.”

Most people don’t think about these things.

“If they are not actively riding, they are not actively feeding for these goals,” he says. “A lot of horses in winter can use that time for good benefit. It’s a vacation, but you want them to come back to work next spring rested and healthy. Proper feeding is part of that. Not being ridden will certainly give them the rest they need, but to bring them back to optimum health – and readiness to go back to work – the owner should not forget to provide the additional supplementation needed, which typically includes protein, vitamins and minerals. Most horses don’t need a lot of grain, but there are a number of low-intake supplement products that are very adequate, feeding just a small amount.

“We feed a lot of those low-intake supplements here in the West, because our hay is so good. We just need a little bit of supplement and these are typically called ration balancing supplement pellets. Many different companies make them.”

If a horse is going into the winter a little thin, the time to try to correct this and improve his body condition is before the weather becomes really cold. When it’s cold, the horse expends more energy trying to keep warm, and it takes even more energy when he doesn’t have a layer of fat as insulation – losing body heat more readily.

“The energy requirements for a thin horse are higher,” says Duren. “It’s always best to evaluate body condition in the fall, when competition is winding down, and decide whether he needs to gain weight before winter.”

Young growing horses are in a different category because they need a certain type and amount of feed regardless of whether it’s winter or summer.

“They should be fed a diet for growth, all the time,” explains Duren. “As horses approach winter from foal to weanling, or from weanling to yearling, the nutrient requirements as a percentage of his diet are decreasing, and his appetite (and his ability to eat more) are increasing. Most of the time this takes care of any additional needs for winter. The exception might be a foal that’s weaned late in the season and you’re experiencing a severe winter. Then his body condition becomes an important factor.”


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