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Winter Feeding Tips

With less grass and reduced access to grazing through the winter, here are some tips to help make sure your horse doesn’t go short of what he needs.

 

Maintaining Fibre Intake

  • If they’re of good nutritional quality, hay and haylage can be relied upon to provide your horse with a reasonable calorie contribution and, depending on the severity of the weather, fewer additional calories may be needed from hard feed.
  • For good-doers, it is still wise to try to find later cut, stalkier hay or haylage as this is less digestible and likely to be less nutritious.  Poorer-doers will benefit from softer, leafier earlier-cut forage as this is more digestible and generally more nutritious.
  • For horses with higher energy demands, or those who are poor forage-eaters, additional or alternative fibre sources may be necessary.  Alfalfa chaff is a good source of digestible fibre and quality protein so can be fed to replace some of the forage ration.
  • Soaked sugar beet pulp is also a good source of digestible fibre and can be fed mixed with alfalfa or oat straw chaff in a separate bowl to give your horse a choice of forages in the stable.  Soakable combinations of beet pulp and alfalfa are also good for providing additional digestible fibre and can be more conditioning than beet pulp alone.
  • High fibre cubes or nuggets may also be offered as a fibre source and are ideal fed in ball-type anti-boredom toys.
  • Where hay or haylage is in really short supply, be wary of feeding oat straw as a full or partial replacement as its high indigestible fibre content may compact in the gut causing colic.  For good-doers, it can be mixed with hay or haylage to help avoid the risks of compaction while reducing overall calorie intake.

 

Feeding Good-doers

  • All forage is likely to be lacking in some essential nutrients so feed a balancer to supply vitamins, minerals and quality protein to support health and well-being without adding to the waistline.  This is more beneficial than a token gesture of mix or cubes, which provide some calories that good-doers probably don’t need but not enough of the vitamins and minerals which they do.
  • Maintaining a fully balanced diet, by feeding a low-calorie balancer alongside forage, even through the winter months, will support healthy hoof growth ready for the spring and summer when workload increases.
  • Provide shelter from wind and rain but don’t over-rug fat horses, rather let them use some body reserves to keep themselves warm and hopefully lose some weight before the spring grass comes through again!
  • Avoid allowing the laminitis-prone access to grass on a bright sunny morning as, even in winter, the sunshine can cause the grass to produce sugar which is stored as fructans and an excessive intake of fructans can cause laminitis.
  • Lightly molassed vitamin and mineral licks are useful to allow groups of field or barn kept horses to supplement their diets with essential nutrients in which grass and other forages may be lacking.

 

Feeding Poorer-doers

  • Anticipate winter weight loss and start to give a compound feed earlier as maintaining condition going into the winter is easier (and cheaper, in the long run) than trying to make up lost ground during the coldest months of the year.
  • Keep these horses warm to limit the amount of energy they use to maintain body temperature.  Do as much as possible to encourage forage intake as heat is provided internally when fibre is fermented in the hindgut.
  • Always feed the recommended amount of a compound feed to ensure the diet is fully balanced with protein, vitamins and minerals as well as calories (energy).
  • Choose specially formulated conditioning feeds to promote or maintain condition as these will be more effective than simply feeding more of your existing feed or adding straights, like barley.
  • Divide the daily amount of compound feeds into as many small meals as possible.  Large meals overload the digestive system, reducing digestive efficiency and risking problems like colic or laminitis. 
  • Avoid adding large quantities of chaff or sugar beet pulp to compound feeds as this increases the overall size of the meal.  These can more safely be fed in a separate bowl as a forage alternative.
  • Where additional calories are required, oil is a useful addition as this is a concentrated source of calories, is non-heating and does not significantly add to the volume fed. 
  • A “slosh” of oil will help improve coat shine but 250 – 500ml are necessary to make a significant calorie contribution.  High oil supplements offer a mess-free alternative and some contain supporting antioxidants to help the body utilise the oil more efficiently.
  • Oil is also a useful source of calories for horses who require a low starch diet, like those prone to laminitis, gastric disturbances or muscle dysfunction.
  • Consider feeding a prebiotic, especially to those spending lots of time in the stable.  This will help support digestive efficiency, gut health and fibre digestion.

 

Water

  • Break and remove ice from field water troughs and consider adding hot water to stable buckets as horses often don’t like drinking really cold water.
  • Consider soaking hay or feeding soaked beet pulp and wetting hard feed as ways to get more moisture into your horse.
  • If your horse gets really sweaty, add an electrolyte supplement to his drinking water or wet sloppy feed to help replace salts lost in sweat.

 

As with feeding at any time of year, the key is to keep the diet balanced at all times and be prepared to change if your horse’s condition or workload dictate.  Remember to keep a constant eye on condition by taking rugs off and having a feel as well as stepping back in the day light to take a thorough look.  If you are ever unsure, call or email us, including a photo if you can, and we'll assess your horse's current diet and only recommend changes if they are really necessary.