There are a number of ways you can help keep your horse happy and healthy through the difficult winter weather.
Feeding - Forage
Forage should form the basis of any horse’s diet and this is because they have evolved to chew for up to 18 hours a day. It is really important to provide enough forage to help satisfy their behavioural needs, especially during winter when grass may not be readily available, or turnout time may be restricted. Forage also helps to keep the horse warm acting as an in-built heating system by creating heat as it breaks down in the digestive system.
Plenty of forage is also vital for a healthy digestive system which will help reduce the risk of colic and stomach (gastric) ulcers. It is ideal to provide your horse with unlimited forage at ground level but this system may not be appropriate for all horses if they need their intake restricted, for example if they need to lose weight.
In this case, you could split the daily forage ration up into several small holed haynets (if your horse doesn’t have back and neck problems) and hang them up throughout the day to extend feeding time.
Current recommendations are to feed around 2% of the horse’s current bodyweight in forage per day (24 hours). If weight loss is required then forage intake will likely need to be reduced lower than this. However, it is never advised to provide below 1.5% of the horse’s current bodyweight in forage per day without seeking vet advice. For example, a 500kg horse fed 1.5% of its bodyweight would be fed 7.5kg of forage per day.
Turning horses out all summer but then stabling them during the winter is common
practice at many yards. This adjustment in routine represents a significant change in the horse’s diet and exercise so must be completed gradually over 10-14 days to help reduce the risk of colic. You can start by bringing your horse in for a few hours a day with hay and then slowing increasing the amount of time to help avoid a sudden change from being out 24/7 to being stabled for a large part of the day.
Find out more about how you can reduce the risk of colic.
It can be difficult to notice small changes in your horse’s weight when you see them every day. By monitoring your horse’s weight fortnightly through fat scoring and weighing (either on the weighbridge or using a weight tape) you can react to weight fluctuations quickly by adjusting your management accordingly.
Feeding in the Field
You may need to feed additional forage for horses living out, depending on how much grass is available. When putting extra forage in the field, make sure there are more piles of hay than there are horses to help avoid conflict.
Feeding – does your horse need more than forage alone?
Many leisure horses do perfectly well on forage alone, but it is difficult to know exactly what amount of vitamins, minerals and proteins they’re receiving to ensure a balanced diet. It is recommended to feed a low-calorie balancer or vitamin and mineral supplement daily to horses that are fed a forage only diet to ensure they’re getting exactly what they need.
There are times when additional bucket feeds would be beneficial, for example elderly horses who struggle to chew forage or those who tend to drop weight during winter. Discuss whether your horse would benefit from additional bucket feeds with a nutritionist to help avoid overfeeding and save money by not buying unnecessary feed!
If concentrate feeds are really needed, feed them little and often to help reduce the risk of colic as horses have a relatively small stomach. Small concentrate feeds will start to be broken down effectively by the stomach. If fed in large amounts, concentrate food will pass unprocessed through to the large intestine which could lead to gastrointestinal problems.
The importance of ensuring your horse has a plentiful supply of fresh, clean drinking water shouldn’t be underestimated during the winter!
A 16hh horse needs at least 25 litres (6 gallons) of water per day, and some horses may need up to twice this amount.
Water plays an important role in hydration and digestion. If your horse doesn’t have access to enough water it can affect how food passes along the gut, increasing the risk of impaction colic. This occurs when a firm ball of feed material blocks the intestine.
It’s important to check your water troughs twice a day and to break and remove any ice. You could also fill containers with water so you have an emergency supply. If your horse is stabled, adding some warm water into their buckets can prevent the water from freezing overnight, and may encourage a horse to drink if they don’t like the colder water!
Find out more about the steps you can take to reduce the risk of dehydration.
To rug or not to rug?
It can be really tempting to rug our horses to keep them cosy, especially when we feel cold ourselves, but it is important to assess whether it is truly necessary. Horses don’t feel the cold like we do and naturally grow a thick coat in winter to keep them warm. Their coat also produces natural oils to help keep them waterproof. Many horses, especially breeds such as the native pony and cob types, can adapt well to winter weather and easily cope without a rug.
Horses naturally lose weight during the winter months but we can override this process by feeding them too much and over-rugging. This can result in the horse putting on excess weight all year round, which is worrying as weight gain more than doubles the risk of laminitis. Not rugging an overweight horse will help them lose weight naturally and help them avoid weight gain over winter.
Try not to overgroom un-rugged horses as this may strip the coat of the natural oils and reduce its waterproofing abilities. If ridden, ensure any mud is removed from the areas where the tack is fitted.
There are times where rugging maybe necessary. Breeds that tend to have a thinner winter coat such as a Thoroughbred or Arab, underweight, fully clipped, old or ill horses are more likely to require a rug for additional warmth in bad weather.
If your horse wears a rug it is important to remove it daily so you can check for signs of rubbing or soreness and then refit or change as necessary. An ill-fitting rug or one left on for too long without checking may cause discomfort or even start to rub and cause injury as shown in the image below.
Winter can increase the risk of your horse developing certain conditions, especially due to wet and muddy conditions. The most common winter ailments include mud fever and rain scald.
Preparing your pasture for winter can be really beneficial. Complete tasks such as removing weeds, checking drains and ditches are clear of debris and carry out any necessary fencing or water supply maintenance.
Droppings should be removed at least once a week to help keep exposure to worms (internal parasites) to a minimum.
More information on pasture management can be found on our website.
Mud, mud and more mud!
Wet weather brings a risk of fields becoming poached and muddy but there are steps you can take to help manage the mud. Laying down hardcore, wood chips or similar material in susceptible areas such as gateways and water access points can help a great deal. Rotate water and forage sources periodically to help to reduce poaching around these areas. Rotate grazing to avoid poaching or designate a field specifically for winter turnout, ideally well-draining fields and avoid over stocking.
The amount of turnout time may need to be restricted to prevent excessive poaching and reduce the risk of winter ailments developing. However, time out of the stable and daily exercise is important for the horse’s mental and physical health.