Winter months can be a hard time for horses young and old. Before you even think about food alone, be sure the horse has access to safe shelter from the coldest winds and driving rain. This might be a three-sided shelter or a bedded box stall, but the horse needs some place to avoid being soaked in rain and exposed to wind which will negate even the best feeding practices. Your horse may need a blanket as well to conserve heat especially if you clip him. In order to keep your horse healthy through the cold season, it is important to keep in mind several things about feeding horses in winter. Follow these winter feeding tips for horses to keep your herd healthy.
Low Temperatures Require More Calories
Horses, like all mammals burn calories to maintain body temperature. As the mercury level drops in winter, horses need to consume more calories per day to keep warm. For young and old horses this adds a considerable strain. First be sure your horse is eating 2% of its body weight in forage. Beet pulp is higher in caloric content than hay and can replace up to %50 of a horse’s diet in forage. Soaked with water, it will also help keep your horse hydrated. Another way to add calories easily, without creating a lot of excess energy, is to add fat. Rice bran is a good source of fat which is usually very palatable for horses. It is made of the outer brown layer of a kernel of rice, the nutritious part. This product is high in thiamine, B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, fiber and niacin. Because of this it is important to be sure the rice bran you buy for your horses has a balanced ratio between calcium and phosphorus. Also, due to the fact that it is 20% fat, the product will go rancid quickly if it is not stabilized-or processed with heat and pressure to extend its shelf life. Oils in the form of rice bran and corn oil can also be fed. Rice bran oil is %95 fat, but has almost none of the nutrients found in the rice bran itself. Further, the oil sometimes contains gums and waxes that cause it to settle with uneven distribution in a bottle and must be thoroughly remixed before being poured or pumped onto feed. Also, its messy. Buckets must be scrubbed routinely. Vegetable oils like corn and flaxseed oil are also options. A cup of corn oil contains two thousand calories! However, the palatability is generally not as good as with rice bran oil or rice bran itself.
Avoid adding extra starches and protiens to a horse in winter especially if the horse is not working at its usual amount. Frozen ground in arenas and trails may mean your horse is working less. If you use grains like oats, corn or barley to add calories, you will be adding calories in a form that creates a lot of hyper energy in horses. Hyper horses without an outlet for the energy are more likely to get hurt.
Feed in a Dry Sheltered Place
Feed that is tossed out in the elements is likely to become saturated or trampled in mud. You might throw out the correct poundage of hay, but if a fourth of it ends up covered in mud, your horse is not going to be getting all it requires. Further, if the animal must leave a protected space to battle winds or driving rains to eat, he may well skip meals or eat only part of them before retreating again to a more sheltered place. Lay down rubber mats under a shelter, or at the side of a barn that blocks the wind and feed there. Make sure that every horse has enough space to eat comfortably without being chased off by aggressive neighbors. If you are feeding mixtures in feed tubs, make sure small holes will allow any rain water to drain away, but not the food. Soggy feed tubs that saturate the feed may lead to the horse losing interest in his grain and supplements.
Provide Clean Unfrozen Water
Horses cannot properly digest and utilize feed without plenty of water. Keep water tubs under a slight shelter to help avoid freezing and place heaters in where needed. A muddy puddle of rainwater mixed with urine is not an appropriate water source for your horse. Snow will not provide nearly enough water either. At all times in all seasons it is equally important to be sure the horse continues to have plenty of clean water that he can access easily. Position water tubs near shelters so the horses do not have to make long treks to the opposite side of the field in the brunt of a raging storm to get water. They won’t go out and you risk dehydration and colic as a result. Use the suggestion of adding water soaked beet pulp to your horse’s diet to be sure he’s getting extra water.
Stick with a De-Worming Schedule
Based on your geographic area and the freezing cycles, parasitic worms will be in different stages of their development. The ground outside may be iced over, but inside the warm gut of your horse, parasites are enjoying a standard part of their reproductive cycle. Consult your veterinarian to be sure your horse is on the optimal de-worming program to kill the parasites in his system while breaking down the cycle of the worm’s population growth come spring.
Dental Care is Key
Check your horse’s teeth prior to the onset of winter. Older horses will need more routine dental work as their teeth are “longer” due to age and extended eruption of the dental capsule. Hooks, points, waves and other abnormalities of wear and age can make chewing not only difficult, but painful. Horses should have their teeth checked yearly. Some will need a float every 12 months while others may be able to go a couple of years before the naturally uneven wear reduces the effectiveness of the teeth in digestion.
Overall, watch your horse carefully taking note of his body condition score. Do not let your horse stand out in the pasture for weeks at a time without much attention. Get your hands on your horse a few times per week, removing the blanket if he wears one, and grooming him. Feel for any changes in his muscle tone and fat distribution. If begin to easily feel ribs along his side or see any dips forming behind the withers or above the tail, your horse needs to put on more weight. If in doubt as to how to help your horse restore his body condition, always consult a licensed veterinarian for advice. The horse is dependent upon its caretaker to be sure that it remains healthy at all times of the year. It is not normal for horses to lose weight during the harsh cold season. If it does, it is a sign of a lack of proper care. Follow the feeding tips above and you’ll be on the right track to giving your horse the best care even in the worst of weather.