- 27th August 2019 by Rowen Barbary
As the nights slowly begin to draw in many horse owners will start to worry about how their horse will cope this winter, so it is essential to plan ahead to ensure your horse stays fit and healthy.
Preparation is key to make certain that your horse stays in good condition from Autumn through the Winter and well into Spring.
Before the start of winter your horse should be in good condition as it is much easier to maintain condition in winter than to try to gain additional weight. A heavy winter coat can hide a thin horse so it is important to check your horse’s body condition regularly and if your horse is prone to losing weight during the winter, try increasing his body weight prior to the winter months. Ideally a horse should be moderately fleshy to fleshy as you head into winter with a condition score of about 3.5.
All horses have a critical temperature, which is dependent on condition and if the outside temperature falls below this the horse must then produce extra heat to maintain its body temperature. The critical temperature can be used to estimate changes in a horse’s nutritional requirement relative to falling temperatures, cold winds, and wet hair.
For a horse in moderate condition with a good winter coat in calm weather the lower critical temperature is just below freezing, at approximately -1°C. As temperature drops maintenance energy requirements increase, increasing even further in the presence of wind and even more so in both wet and windy weather.
Adjusting Energy Intake
The horses diet plays a major role in keeping him warm, healthy and in good condition during the winter months. Forage should be the forefront of any horses diet and there are many options available to you to increase the fibre content of the horses diet if grass is limited including hay, haylage, chaffs and high fibre feeds.
The poor weather we have experienced this summer has resulted in a hay shortage, putting a premium on the prices and due to the subsequent late cut the hay is likely to be off poor quality. Unfortunately without having your hay regularly analysed the energy value and nutrient content is unknown, which can result in your horse losing weight but as a general rule for every ten degrees below freezing you can increase the horses hay ration by another 10 percent.
By providing your horse with ad-lib fibre this will help maintain a healthy hindgut and body temperature in cold weather, as heat is produced through the digestion of feed. The greatest amount of heat is released when microbes in the hindgut digest high fibre feeds, which help keep the horse warm.
Hay alone is usually insufficient to supply the energy demands for a horse to maintain his body weight, so you may consider adding extra calories to the diet. In the coldest months, many mares are in the second and third trimester of pregnancy, a time when a great deal of foetal development and growth is occurring. It is necessary to supply the brood mare with extra nutrients to enable correct foetal growth and development.
Keep in mind that older horses have additional needs during the winter. Older horses with poor dentition will struggle to chew and digest fibre from hay or haylage efficiently so in this case a forage replacer should be used. Many horses are also kept in work throughout the winter season and with heavy conditions underfoot they have to work harder, so will need additional concentrates to meet with their nutrient requirements.
Oils or fat supplemented diets are an excellent way of providing the horse with the additional calories required for improving and maintaining condition, and will also provide over twice the energy as the same amount of cereals. Antioxidants such as Vitamin E must be included when adding extra oil to the horses diet with many high fat supplements taking care of the increased requirement by incorporating Vitamin E.
Stabling versus Wintering Out
Many people reduce turnout during the winter months meaning that horses are confined to their stable and while some horses can cope quite well with this it may lead to irritable or excitable behaviour in some which can result in weight loss. A major problem with stabled horses is boredom so if possible you should try to turn out daily or walk in hand.
If you decide to winter your horse out your must provide your horse with adequate food, water and shelter enabling the horse to escape from the elements and rug up where appropriate, especially if the horse lives alone. For horses in good condition and wintering out at grass a general purpose vitamin and mineral supplement should be used to maintain essential micronutrient supplies.
Most horses cope very well with colder temperatures. A full winter hair coat is perfect for insulating the horse against the cold winter weather. However, that insulation is lost if the coat gets wet. Providing shelter allows the horse to stay dry on wet, snowy days and, ultimately, allows them to stay warm.
Putting a rug on a horse also helps it keep warm and there are a variety of rugs available. These can be very beneficial, especially for horses that do not have a full, healthy winter hair coat. However, rugs also can be detrimental because a rug prevents the horse’s hairs from standing up (their natural defence against cold weather), and using too light a rug will actually cause the horse to get chilled.
Remember that grass growth slows down once the soil temperature drops to 5°C and the falling nutrient levels in the grass results in less feed energy that can be used to generate heat. This can contribute to a horse losing weight during winter. It is essential to check all water sources and remove ice daily as horses may decrease their consumption of cold or freezing water during the winter leading to an increased risk of colic, so make sure your horse is consuming at least 10 gallons of fresh clean water each day.
By ensuring your horse is kept warm, healthy and in good condition he will come through the winter well, ready for the season ahead.