Feeding Horses in Winter (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Care and Management by Heather Smith Thomas. This book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

A horse's nutrient requirements increase with cold weather; he needs more calories to generate heat to keep warm. Mature horses in good condition usually don't need grain, however, if they have good winter pasture or grass hay. A little alfalfa hay can be added during cold weather since digestion of protein creates more heat. Young horses and broodmares may need grain and/or alfalfa hay along with their pasture or grass hay to provide the extra nutrition they need. A horse being ridden in winter also will have higher requirements than the idle horse.

You want your horse carrying adequate flesh through winter without losing or gaining weight. If he gets too fat by spring it will be harder to get him back into top shape and he will be more prone to saddle sores, cinch sores, and other rub spots under tack. Soft movable skin over the fat is tender and more easily injured, taking longer to toughen up. A horse that loses too much weight can be equally hard to get into good summer condition because he has to gain weight as well as fitness.

A horse with a thick hair coat may look plump; you can't always tell by looking at him how fat he actually is. You should check his body condition periodically, using your fingers along his neck, withers, ribs, and hips to determine how much flesh is under all that hair. Stand beside his midsection and run your fingers under the hair against his ribcage. Doing it both directions gives a clue about how much fat covering he has. If he has a thick hair coat, face his head and push your fingers against the lay of the hair until you can easily feel the skin over his ribs, rubbing firmly back and forth over several ribs.

If you can't feel each rib individually, he may be too fat. If you feel a layer of soft tissue between the ribs and skin but can still feel each rib, he has the right amount of fat covering. If his ribs are quite prominent and there is no soft layer of tissue over them, he is too thin. Check him often enough that you could increase his feed before he loses this much weight.

You also can check his backbone and hips with your fingertip test. If no extra flesh exists between the skin and the bones, he is too thin. Another place to check is along the top of his neck at the base of his mane. This will be quite thick and fleshy on a fat horse. Some horses develop bulges of fat alongside the tail head when they become overweight.

In cold weather, feed more hay, not more grain. A horse can maintain heat better if you increase his hay, giving him all the hay he can eat rather than increasing his grain. Corn is not necessarily a good winter feed. It is high in energy but not very useful for heat production. Oats have more fiber and produce more body heat during digestion than an equal weight of corn.

Feed at least twice a day and make sure the larger feeding is given in the evening. Nights are colder and longer. Horses need plenty of roughage at night or they'll start chewing on fences or bedding. You can increase the hay ration another 10 percent for every ten degrees below freezing.

If a horse is cleaning up all his good hay, still looking around for more to nibble on, and is an easy keeper (one you don't want gaining extra weight), you can feed him a few pounds of a more mature grass hay in addition to his regular hay to keep him busier at night and provide the extra heat he needs in cold weather or during a wet spell. Horses are always hungrier when they are wet and cold than when weather is mild or dry.

Check all hay for moldy spots. Bales on the top layer of an uncovered stack can become moldy, as can bottom bales that draw moisture from the ground. Since winter days are short, it may be dark at feeding time and difficult to tell whether the hay is moldy. Always open your bales in the daylight to know exactly what you are feeding and sort your hay when you can see it. If you must feed hay after dark, sort it ahead of time.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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