With the onset of winter, you may need to adjust your horse’s feeding to keep him healthy and correctly nourished through the colder months.
Winter energy requirements
In colder weather, some horses may need to eat more to maintain their condition. This depends on many factors – a horse with a good coat who is well sheltered should be fine even in freezing temperatures. But horses with short coats, or who are out in wind or rain, must be monitored in case more calories are needed.
Older horses, or horses in poor condition, may well need extra. Depending on their ability to chew, you can add good-quality hay or green, leafy lucerne, or feed chaff, soaked beet pulp, cooked barley, hay replacer cubes or senior ration. A thick coat can conceal the first signs of weight loss, so it’s helpful to assess condition every week or two using a piece of string. Stretch it around the horse at carefully measured points –the base of the neck, the girth circumference and the stomach behind the last rib – and measure the string.
In nature, horses go into winter in good condition and come out of it slightly leaner. For healthy horses it’s wise to follow nature’s rules and not let them get overly fat during winter, or you risk laminitis when the spring grass comes through.
The importance of forage
The fermentation process that takes place in the hindgut when fibre is digested produces a lot of heat, effectively warming the horse from the inside. Because of this, the starting point for supplementary winter feeding should always be adding more good-quality hay, lucerne or other digestible roughage.
A horse with access to ad-lib forage will have a means of keeping himself warm around the clock. You know the quantity of the night-time grass feeding is correct when there is just a little left in the morning.
Owners who blanket their horses in the evenings should always check them two or three hours later to ensure they’re not sweaty or overheating from the warmth generated by eating hay.
Preventing impaction colic
Dr Adrienne Viljoen from Fourways Equine Clinic advises that horses’ dental work must be up to date going into winter so that they do not struggle with feeding. Stock up on good-quality hay, as far as you can, given the drought and the grass shortage. “This is especially important for horses prone to impaction colic, who need hay that is easy to chew and to digest,” she says.
Having fresh, clean water available at all times is essential, as horses are fussy drinkers and they drink less in cold weather. Viljoen says she has seen good results from owners who have taken the time to teach their horses to drink water that has been flavoured, either with a little molasses or with other palatable alternatives. “Some horses will drink an entire bucket of water because they like the taste,” she says.
Other helpful hints include soaking hay, which also softens it and makes it easier for feeding; wetting concentrates; and adding a couple of tablespoons of salt to the feed. Movement is essential, so even in wet or freezing weather, if you can make your horse safe and comfortable in turnout, it will reduce the risk of impaction colic.
Introduce any new forages gradually. With the grass shortage you might end up switching forages during winter, or adding a supplementary one. Plan ahead and do the changes slowly, over three weeks, so that you give your horse’s digestive system time to properly learn to cope with the new forage.
Vitamin E supplementation
Research is discovering vitamin E to be increasingly important in horse health, especially for horses in hard or prolonged work. Fresh green grass has high levels of vitamin E, but these decrease as it matures. Vitamin E levels drop anywhere from 30 to 80% when grass is cut and baled, and are lost over time with storage. This means during winter, a lack of vitamin E is more likely to become a problem. Vitamin E deficiency increases the risk of muscle damage during exercise, can contribute to the development of neurological disorders, and lowers resistance to disease.
Although horses usually store enough vitamin E to cover for four months of shortage, a deficiency will be exacerbated when the diet is low in selenium or the horse is working hard. For working horses, it is definitely worth supplementing when fresh feeding is not freely available. If you’re unsure whether your horse needs supplementation, your vet can measure vitamin E with a blood test or you can have the total diet, including concentrates and hay, analysed by a nutritionist.
Supplementing with oil – anywhere from a quarter cup to a cup per day – gives winter coats a healthy sheen and provides digestible calories. There are omega-balanced oils available on the market for equines. Alternatively, linseed oil (the edible variety, not the one used for oiling wood) is well balanced in terms of omegas and so is canola oil. Crushed linseed is another good source of oil – you can crush it at home in a coffee grinder. It can be fed freshly ground, stored in a sealed container in a cool place for a few days, or in the freezer for a few weeks. With any new supplement, start with small amounts and build up gradually.
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Text: Jassy Mackenzie