Tips for feeding horses in the winter (Animal Science Update)
As the days get shorter and the weather gets colder I start to get more questions as to what horse owners can do to keep their horses from losing weight and how to keep them warmer.
I have written several articles on winter care and feeding in the past, but I thought it would be a good idea to remind you of these tips you can use in the winter when feeding your horse.
• In the winter all horses need extra energy to help keep them warm. Horses’ energy (or caloric) intake will generally increase about 25 percent during the winter months.
They will start to utilize this energy for maintaining body warmth than their normal expenditure. Usually this can be accomplished by feeding extra hay.
This is the most important thing to realize about winter-feeding—horses need extra hay!
This will help keep them warm through the heat of fermentation produced in the hindgut (cecum and colon) when digesting/fermenting forage. Shivering also helps animals thermoregulate, but they require energy to do so.
• Many people will ask what kinds of feed to use to increase my horse’s energy during the winter? Easy keepers will be fine on good quality free choice grass.
Hard keepers would need free choice good quality grass hay or grass/legume (alfalfa or clover) mix plus grain supplement.
Horses still in training should be fed similar to the hard keeper, plus electrolytes if they have been sweating because of their heavy hair coat.
• Is reduced food quality a reason to supplement? Yes!
Poor quality hay has reduced vitamin and mineral content. Supplementing a poor quality hay diet with a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement specifically formulated for horses is a good idea during the winter months.
This is true even if this is normally the horse’s diet.
Be careful when buying special “winter supplements.”
Most of these are just multi-vitamin/mineral supplements, but cost more because they are called “winter supplements,” really any multi-vitamin/mineral will do.
• Are there other reasons to supplement?
If a horse is stalled continuously some may become extremely stressed.
The stressed horse will have a decreased immune function and/or potentially develop gastric ulcers.
Keeping hay in front of them at all times will help decrease the risk of ulcers when stalled.
Providing a vitamin E supplement (around 1000 IU/day) will help decrease the stress and increase the immune function during this period of time.
• Rice bran can be added to diets in the winter. This is good for adding energy, fat and fiber to the diet.
Rice bran is very palatable so it will also stimulate a picky horse to eat and will increase the energy density of the diet.
This is particularly beneficial to the horse that could use a little extra weight, or is still in training.
• Do not be afraid to feed alfalfa! Alfalfa is a great way to increase the protein level of most forage sources.
Feeding an alfalfa/grass hay mix is a great source of hay for that ‘hard keeper’ or that horse that is still growing or in training.
The common misconception about alfalfa is that it will cause a horse to be excitable. This is false!
The main nutrient in alfalfa is protein and protein is not used as a main energy source (only 10 percent of the horse’s total energy comes from protein).
Extra protein is not necessarily needed for horses in the winter unless, again, the horse is still growing.
The average horse can maintain themselves on about 10 percent protein in the total diet.
If you have no forage available other than poor quality grass hay (which is probably only 6- to 8-percent protein), you may want to increase the protein level by adding alfalfa.
Hope these tips help you thought the winter!
Good luck and if you are like me, you are wishing for an early spring!
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