As we approach the cooler months, we need to consider adapting our horses’ feeding regime to satisfy their energy requirements in cooler weather.
In cold weather, horses need additional energy to maintain their internal body temperature and stay warm. The exact amount of energy each horse needs depends on the severity and extent of the cold period. When temperatures (including wind chill) drop below 0°C (referred to as the critical temperature), horses use a significant amount of energy to maintain body heat. Wind chill, moisture and coat thickness will affect the critical temperature. For each 1°C decrease below the critical temperature, the horse requires a 1% increase in digestible energy to maintain a consistent body temperature.
Additionally, during cooler temperatures, grass growth is inhibited and becomes rapidly depleted of natural forage and nutrients. Horses rely on us to provide them with a nutritionally adequate diet. To ensure your horse is being looked after during the winter months, several key factors must be addressed; water, fibre and essential nutrients.
Water should be the first consideration in the diet of any horse. A horse weighing 500kg, living in a cool, comfortable environment, who is not in work or lactating, requires a minimum of 25 – 35 litres of fresh, clean water per day. Those in training, nursing a foal, growing or pregnant will drink a higher volume, so it’s important to keep troughs clean, full and accessible.
Impaction colic is a risk at this time of year. This type of colic is mainly caused by dehydration, as horses tend to drink less in cooler temperatures as they’re not sweating, and additionally they’re consuming a diet predominantly of of hay – which has a 10% water content – instead of grass, which is made of 80% water.
When horses drink cold water, their bodies expend additional calories to warm their tissues back up from the heat loss that is incurred, so they instinctively drink less when the temperature is cold.
Research has shown that horses drink the most water when the water temperature is between 7 and 20º C. Keeping your horse hydrated will keep the fibre in their digestive system hydrated, allowing it to be broken down efficiently by intestinal bacteria, and less likely to ball up and cause a blockage in the large intestine.
Adequate fibre intake is the next consideration in feeding horses during winter. It is recommended that horses receive a minimum of 1.5% of their body weight in hay (fibre) per day. For a 500kg horse, this equates to 7.5kg of hay per day.
Fibre is needed to keep the digestive system functioning. Without hay or other forage, horses will seek other sources of fibre to satisfy their needs, including bedding, timber fences or trees. Adequate fibre is even more critical during the winter months, as digestion and fermentation of forage produces heat that helps the horse maintain body temperature. Consumption of grain does not produce large amounts of body heat during digestion.
One problem that may arise with horses during the winter months is chronic weight loss. This can occur either by not feeding enough hay, or by feeding poor quality hay. In both cases, the horse will have trouble getting enough calories to maintain body weight. In the case of not feeding enough hay, the simple remedy is to provide all the hay the horse will consume during the day. If weight loss is still an issue, better quality hay must be fed.
Lucerne hay typically contain higher calories than meadow hay. Beet pulp is another fibre substitute; HYGAIN MICRBEET® and HYGAIN® FIBRESSENTIAL® are high in well-fermentable fibre and low in sugar, providing digestible energy between that of good quality hay and grains.
Winter is a critical time to supply protein, trace minerals and vitamins, since pasture – a good natural source of nutrients – is depleted. The common source of supplemental protein, vitamins and minerals is from fortified feed concentrates. When choosing a feed concentrate, you have to make sure you’re feeding the recommended amount. If you are feeding one third of the amount recommended, you are getting only a third of the intended nutrients for that type of horse.
If the recommended amount is too high in calories for your horse, then feed a concentrated balancer instead. HYGAIN BALANCED® is an all-round pelleted balancer concentrate, designed to be fed at a much lower rate, but still provide the horse with adequate nutrients.
- Strive to keep your horse in a good body condition prior to winter, as extra body fat provides an additional insulating barrier against wind, and also serves as an energy reserve.
- Increasing forage and concentrate will be necessary for horses of poor condition.
- Winter is also the time when the stables and barns may be shut up in an effort to make the environment less draughty. Good ventilation is more important than providing a little more warmth, so be sure to provide good airflow in your stable, even in winter.
- Increase the dry-matter content of the diet 24 hours prior to forecasted cold conditions.
- Supplementing fat is beneficial to increasing the energy density of concentrates. HYGAIN® RBO® Equine Performance Oil® is a unique blend of pure rice bran oil, omega essential fatty acids and natural antioxidants, formulated for all horses.
Older horses and those in poor condition have additional needs during the winter. Starting them on a high caloric diet in the autumn can help them maintain weight during frigid weather. Look for one with a fat level of 7% or more, such as HYGAIN TRU CARE® and HYGAIN® EQUINE SENIOR®, as it will provide the extra calories needed to keep these horses from losing weight during the winter.
Get a free personalised diet analysis for your horse: Fill out the five easy step Hygain Nutrikey form at the link below, and have a nutrition consultant assess your horse’s diet.