10 Essential Winter Feeding Tips
Along with the noticeable drop in temperature, winter brings with it a loss of nutrients from grass and the need to replace what is missing through feed. Follow these essential tips from Castle Horse Feed nutritionist – Lisa Elliott MSc - to keep your horse happy and healthy throughout the winter months, by making sure their nutritional needs are met.
Provide good-quality forage
Forage should always be the foundation of your horse’s diet which during the winter can be provided as hay or haylage. Forage quality can vary greatly, so it is important to ensure you are feeding the best quality you can find.
The fibre in forage gets broken down through a process of fermentation by billions of microbes in the hindgut, which provides a source of energy for the horse for work and condition, but also releases heat, keeping your horse warm from the inside out. This central heating will help maintain condition and the better the quality of the forage, the more heat that is generated.
Plenty of good-quality forage in winter helps keep the digestive tract functioning well and keeps those all-important gut microbes who thrive on fibre, happy and healthy, and the healthier the microbes the healthier your horse will be too.
Make sure forage is truly ad-lib
To maximise digestive health and condition through the winter, forage should be fed on a truly ad-lib basis so that your horse has constant access to it. If your horse is stabled for longer periods during the winter, then the use of slow feeders and double hay nets can help ensure that forage is always available on an ad-lib basis. Additionally, if your horse is turned out during the winter then putting hay or haylage out in the field will also help to ensure they have access to a continuous supply.
Consider forage enrichment
If your horse is stabled over the winter for longer periods of time, consider offering a variety of forages and fibres. Research has shown that this forage enrichment can help stimulate natural foraging behaviour and help reduce stereotypical behaviour. Additionally, feeding more varied forages can help promote a rich and diverse hindgut microbial population which creates better stability within the hindgut microbial community to help optimise your horse’s health.
Optimise fibre digestion
Enabling your horse to get the most of their forage in winter by potentially enhancing the digestion of fibre can be beneficial to increase energy availability. Yeast based prebiotics are scientifically proven to support the hindgut microbes and help enhance fibre fermentation, so consider feeds and balancers which contain these to help optimise winter health and condition
Supply essential micronutrients and protein
Feeding ad-lib forage is an excellent way of keeping your horse in good condition, but forage alone is unlikely to provide a fully balanced supply of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and is often lacking in quality protein such as lysine. Essential micronutrients and protein can be provided by feeding a high specification balancer. Further supplies of good-quality protein, for example for older, harder working or growing horses and ponies in winter, can be provided by linseed and soya.
Monitor body condition
Regular use of weight tapes and a suitable body condition scoring chart are essential to monitor your horse’s condition over the winter months. Recording body weight and condition in this way will help you assess your horse’s nutritional needs throughout the winter and adjust the diet as necessary.
If your horse is overweight, use the winter to your advantage to shift those extra lbs ready for the spring. Horses will burn off their fat reserves to keep warm in the chilly winter months, so allow this to happen naturally rather than adding extra feed and try to avoid over-rugging to help your horse lose weight.
Provide additional feed if necessary
At the other end of the scale, horses that are struggling to hold weight and condition during the winter will often need extra feed. Look for feeds which supply essential micronutrients and contain sources of highly digestible fibre, such as beet pulp and soya hulls which are an excellent way to add extra calories, along with sources of oil such as linseed and soya. If your horse is in harder work, providing some micronised cereals can be beneficial to meet their energy needs whilst helping to maintain body condition.
Make all dietary changes gradually
If your horse needs extra feed to maintain condition during the winter, make sure any dietary changes happen very gradually, to help prevent digestive upset. Ideally changes should be made over 2 weeks, introducing the new feed very slowly to allow the gut microbes time to adjust.
Increase water intake
Water is the most important nutrient in your horse’s diet, but horses are naturally inclined to drink less during the winter. Water troughs and buckets can become frozen when the temperature drops, so making sure ice is broken regularly in winter is essential. Adding hot water to warm the water above freezing, has been shown to increase water consumption by 40%. So, think about warming your horse’s water (ideally to between 7 - 18⁰C) to help increase drinking over the winter months for optimum hydration.