These changes mean your horse may require extra care and attention to remain not only physically healthy, but mentally stimulated.
Feeding - forage
During winter months it is likely that a horse’s grass intake reduces due to not being readily available or restricted turn out. Therefore, it is important to provide enough forage to help satisfy their behavioural needs. Forage should form the basis of any horse’s diet as they have evolved to chew for up to 18 hours a day, it also helps to keep the horse warm acting as an in-built heating system by creating heat as it breaks down the fibre in the digestive system.
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 ad hoc forage at ground level, but this may not be appropriate if daily calories need to be reduced, 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.
It is recommended to feed around 2-2.5% of the horse’s bodyweight in forage per day (24 hours). It is never advised to provide below 1.5% of the horse’s current bodyweight in forage per day without seeking vet advice. If weight loss is required, consider feeding a lower calorie forage. Research has shown that feeding your horse 50% hay and 50% barley straw will contribute to weight loss1. However, always make these changes gradually and ensure your horse’s teeth are in good shape before introducing straw as it does take more chewing - this will also 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 body conditioning scoring and weighing (either on the weighbridge or using a weight tape) you can react to weight fluctuations quickly by adjusting your management accordingly. Get hands on and learn how to fat score your horse.
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 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 digestive problems.
Horses aim to keep their central (core) temperature around 38°C, no matter what the environmental conditions are; this is known as thermoregulation. They feel cold or hot when the air temperature falls below 0°C or rises above 25°C1,2 (although this temperature range can vary slightly from horse to horse, being dependent on age, breed, feeding regime, and body condition). When the temperature is within this range (known as the thermoneutral zone), horses can warm themselves up and cool themselves down using little to no additional energy. During the winter months some horse may require rugs to help them keep within this range.
Horses which are more likely to require a rug for additional warmth in bad weather include:
- Breeds that have a naturally thinner winter coat such as a Thoroughbred or Arab
- Underweight horses as this will prevent them increasing their metabolic rate and using more energy to keep warm, leading to further weight loss
- Fully clipped horses are unable to use their coat for natural insolation, therefore it is important we compensate this my providing an appropriate rug
- Old or ill horses typically have more difficulty regulating their body heat. Older horses may also have difficulty maintaining their weight and experience an arthritic flare up from the cold and damp, which reduces movement and reduces the creation of body heat.
The importance of ensuring your horse has a plentiful supply of fresh, clean drinking water shouldn’t be underestimated during the winter! Adult horses can drink between 24-36 litres (approximately 3-4 buckets) of water per day and this can increase to 40-45 litres (approximately 5-6 buckets) per day, with an increase in forage.
Water plays an important role in hydration and digestion. If your horse doesn’t have access to enough water, is unable to drink as the supply has frozen, or doesn’t consume 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 the taps freeze. 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!
Endless rainy days have become a typical feature of winter, meaning our horses are more likely to be spending time in wet, muddy paddocks, which can increase their risk of developing certain conditions. The most common winter ailments include mud fever and rain scald. Checking your horse every day for these conditions can prevent them from becoming serious and easier to manage.
Changes to routine
Turning horses out all summer and 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 management. Any changes to a horses routine 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 slowly 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.
With less daylight hours and poor weather to contend with, it can often be a challenge to maintain your horse’s fitness and some owners decide to give their horses a rest period during this time or ride significantly less. In these circumstances, it is vital that care is taken during the change period.
Wet weather brings a risk of fields becoming poached and muddy but there are steps you can take to help manage the mud. 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.
All horses when out at grass will need access to shelter, either natural such as thick hedges or tree lines, or a man-made field shelter. Even if you think your horse doesn’t use it, on a cold, windy day they are likely to seek a wind-break. If natural shelter is accessible in your pasture, it is important to ensure this is not poisonous to your horse and consideration given for any trees that lose their leaves during winter, making them inadequate for shelter. For more information see our advice on appropriate horse shelter.
- Dosi, MCM., Kirton, R., Hallsworth, S., Keen, JA., Morgan, RA.(2020) Inducing weight loss in native ponies: is straw a viable alternative to hay? Veterinary Record 187, e60.