2019-01-10 / Opinions

Horses during the winter

Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent

Much like it is for cattle, forage is the primary part of a horse’s diet and is often fed in the form of cool season grasses, legumes, and warm season grasses. While it is impossible to provide exact recommendations regarding the nutritional needs of all horses in our area – due to differences in breeds – there are general nutritional concerns that must be addressed as the winter months approach. During this time of year, horse owners, at a minimum, need to insure their horses have access to adequate energy supplies and adequate levels of clean water.

During the winter months, horses will generally require roughly 25 percent more energy to maintain body temperature and body function without decreasing body mass or creating nutritional stress. For every degree Fahrenheit the air is below the horse’s lower critical temperature (LCT – the temperature below which the horse will start to use more energy for maintaining body warmth than their normal expenditure), the caloric needs will generally increase by about 1 percent. However, the LCT of a given horse is dependent upon the temperatures to which it is accustomed, the amount of body fat, and protection provided by shelters. A good rule of thumb is if a horse is shivering it is a strong indication that its LCT has been reached. If cold stress is sufficiently prolonged – more than one or two days – and the increased energy needs are not met, the horse will start to lose weight and be more susceptible to parasites and disease. Other factors that will alter caloric needs include the activity level, housing, and age of the horse.

During the winter, horses should be provided at least 1.5-3 percent of their body weight in forage. This usually comes in some form of hay which should be quality tested prior to feeding it to any livestock.

Furthermore, horses should have access to salt and clean water. Providing higher-calorie supplemental feeds like grain-based concentrates or high-fat supplements – rice bran or edible oils – may be necessary to maintain body weight on forage alone or if the quality of forage is low. Horses confined to stalls should be fed lower energy grass hays to allow for the best intake and to counter not only feed monotony but to reduce incidence of stomach ulcers or conventional behaviors associated with confinement and stress. Higher-protein legume hays should be minimized to prevent air quality issues due to the increased ammonia excretion in poorly ventilated barns. Horses that are kept outside should be offered forages in feeders under three sided shelters to minimized hay losses and provide protection from the elements when feeding. Higher energy forages – alfalfa or clovers – mixed with grass hays are recommended for outdoor horses due to increased energy demand.

Aside from energy and water needs of horses during the winter, horse owners may want to consider other supplementation. Management and feeding changes may dictate the need for supplements that would not be required in summer months. Supplementing a poor quality hay diet with a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement specifically designed for horses is always a good idea during the winter months. However, there are no specific “winter supplement” requirements and products that claim such benefits are expensive and not necessary. Carefully evaluate label claims and avoid products that do not give a complete and specific list of ingredients. Vitamin and mineral supplementation should be added to lower quality forages to prevent imbalances and ensure proper bodily function. Digestive aids may also be necessary for animals confined to stalls for long periods of time. Psychological stress can lead to stomach ulceration and impaction that can lead to death. Preventative measures like feeding papaya and other buffering supplements have been touted. However, the amount of research available on these products is limited and it is crucial to pay attention to the ingredients in the products.

The major nutritional concerns of horses during the winter months focus on adequate calories to maintain good body condition and adequate water intake to prevent impaction colic. Obviously every situation is dissimilar so analyze your horse’s activity level, housing, and body condition to determine if a change in feed is necessary. For more information on horse nutrition call the local extension office at 706-678-2332.

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