How do I prepare my horse for winter?

The longer nights, plummeting temperatures and wet conditions mean that caring for our horses is more challenging and takes a little extra effort. So now is an excellent time to re-evaluate your horse’s diet and management to ensure they remain healthy and in optimal condition over the upcoming months.

Weight and Body Condition

Assessing your horse’s weight and condition regularly during the winter is extremely important. The easiest way to monitor your horse’s weight is to use a weigh-tape every few weeks. Although this might not be accurate in terms of your horse’s exact weight, it will help you monitor if they are gaining or losing weight. In addition to weighing your horse you should also assess their body condition score (BCS) regularly. When evaluating your horse’s BCS remember to feel the body, not just look at it – thick, woolly winter coats or heavy rugs can often hide weight loss, and you don’t want to be surprised when your horse sheds its winter coat in the spring!

Although horses are very adaptable to cold weather, they will burn more calories just staying warm and as a result can lose weight during the winter. If your horse is losing too much weight you will need to increase the calorie content of the diet. This can be achieved by ensuring high quality forage (hay/haylage) is fed ad lib, feeding the recommended amount of a suitable hard-feed and/or adding some extra oil to the ration. On the other hand, if your horse is a “good-doer” winter can be the ideal time to allow their condition to drop off naturally, meaning that they can safely gain a little weight the following spring.

Forage

For many horses winter means spending more time in their stable and turn out, if allowed, is often restricted. However, even just a few hours in the paddock can be immensely beneficial for your horse. It will get their circulation going, provide an outlet for any pent-up energy, can help to reduce anxiety and enable them to socialise.

If your horse is stabled for the majority of the time they will require a plentiful supply of preserved forage (i.e. hay or haylage) to help satisfy their appetite, avoid boredom and ensure their digestive system remains healthy. Likewise, if your horse is living out they will need additional forage to compensate for the reduction in grass quality and quantity during the winter. Another benefit of feeding plenty of forage is that it actually helps to keep your horse warm. This is because the microbes and bacteria in the horse’s hind-gut produce heat when fermenting forage – acting just like an internal hot water bottle.

Most horses will need to consume around 2-2.5% of their bodyweight in forage and hard-feed daily and it’s a good idea to weigh out exactly what you are feeding your horse in both forage and hard-feed every once in a in a while. Ideally, you should provide your horse with hay or haylage ad lib (i.e. as much as they will eat).

However, if your horse is a “good-doer” feeding good quality ad lib forage may result in excessive weight gain. In these cases, it’s important not to overly restrict forage intake as this can increase the risk of problems such as colic, gastric ulcers and and oral stereotypies. Instead choose a late-cut variety of hay and soak it for 12 hours to further reduce its calorie and sugar content. If you find that you are still struggling with your horse’s weight, forage intake can be restricted slightly (i.e. 1.5% of bodyweight or approximately 7.5-8 kg of hay/day for a 500kg horse). However, when forage intake is restricted it’s important to try and make it last as long as possible. Ideally, aim to feed a small hay net several times throughout the day and last thing at night. Double netting, using small holed hay nets, can also be a handy tactic to slow down quick eaters.

Hard-Feed

The amount of hard-feed your horse needs during the winter will depend on their weight, condition and workload.  For example, a hunter in hard work will typically require significantly higher levels of hard-feed compared to a horse that’s only ridden at weekends.

Even if your horse is a good-doer don’t be tempted to only feed forage, especially soaked hay, as doing so will mean that your horse isn’t receiving optimal levels of all the essential vitamins and minerals, which can result in problems such as poor hoof condition.

Feeding RED MILLS Grocare Balancer will address any nutritional deficiencies in the forage and ensure that your horse receives a highly concentrated source of amino acids (protein), vitamins and minerals, including elevated levels of biotin. Feed balancers are designed to be fed at a much lower rate than normal mixes and cubes (i.e. 100g/100kg bodyweight or roughly two tea cups/day for a 500kg horse) and so provide fewer calories making them ideal for “good-doers” and horses in very light work.

At the other end of the scale, horses that tend to lose weight over the winter can be equally challenging to feed.  To help maintain weight and condition these horses will benefit from a feed specifically formulated to promote weight gain and support muscle development such as our Conditioning Mix. This highly palatable, oat free mix is high in calories, provides excellent levels of energy-dense oil and contains high quality protein. Poor doers will benefit from being fed several small meals of Conditioning Mix and ideally you should divide the daily ration into two or three meals (i.e. no more than 2kg per meal for a 500kg horse).

Spending long hours in the stable may mean that your horse becomes more highly strung, particularly if they already tend to be very “fizzy” in nature. Nervous, anxious or stressy horses often “waste energy” and as a consequence lose weight.  In these situations feeding a diet that’s high in digestible fibre and oil, but low in starch, can be extremely beneficial.  Horse Care 10 is a low starch cube that provides controlled energy from a unique blend of super fibres and added oils. Horse Care 10 also contains Acid Buff, yeast and prebiotics to help support digestive function and reduce the risk of stress-associated gastrointestinal problems such as colic, diarrhoea or gastric ulcers.

Water

Horses will often reduce their water intake as temperatures fall, this combined with a drier diet (i.e. less grass and more conserved forage) can lead to an increased risk of impaction colic. It’s important to regularly check your horse’s water source and where possible keep the water source warm. Researchers have noted that water warmed to four degrees Celsius results in greater water intake. If you are concerned about your horse’s water intake try adding hot water to the water buckets a couple of times each day or consider installing a tank heater.

Shelter and Rugs

The mountain of different rugs have definitely appeared outside most stables at this stage and the most frequently asked questions are – does my horse need a rug and if so, how many? Many horses can live quite happily outside all winter providing they have adequate shelter from the elements, are rugged (if needed) and have a regular supply of forage and hard-feed.

If your horse has gained a little too much weight during the spring and summer, winter is the perfect time to kick start weight loss. The colder weather will mean that your horse burns off some of their excess weight keeping warm, so if possible try not to rug them or use as light weight, breathable rug to prevent them getting too wet and muddy. However, horses that have a low BCS, those prone to weight loss and horses that are clipped will all need rugs.

With winter feeding, as with many things, preparation is the key. If you have any questions about your horse’s diet or would like some advice on formulating a winter feeding plan please don’t hesitate to contact the Connolly’s RED MILLS Nutritional Team.


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Julia studied Equine Science at the University of Limerick, graduating in 2007. She then moved on to complete a Masters of Science project on equine e ...

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Laura studied Equine Science at the University of Limerick, graduating with a Bachelors Degree in 2009. She then went on to spend two years working wi ...

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