Winter Feeding Practices for Horses

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During cold weather, horses require additional energy intake to maintain internal body temperatures and keep warm. The exact energy increase depends on the length and severity of the cold period. Oftentimes horses, when living with typical winter weather patterns in our region, may experience a dramatic drop in temperature for one or several days before it returns to moderate, normal temperatures. When environmental temperatures drop below 45 degrees (known as the critical temperature), significant amounts of the horse’s energy intake will be used to maintain internal body heat. When wind chill and moisture are factored in, the critical temperature drops even further. Although a thick winter coat may serve well to protect against the cold and wind, when it becomes wet, the horse’s critical temperature may increase as much as 10 to 15 degrees. As a general rule, for every 1 – degree F drop below the critical temperature, a horse will need a 1% increase in digestible energy (DE) or calories. As an example, when factoring in wind chill, the “feels-like” temperature is 25 degrees F. This would equate to a 20% increase in energy needs for the day.

The safest way to increase energy intake during cold weather is to increase their amount of hay consumption. Because fiber is digested in the cecum and large intestine through a microbial fermentation process, the by-product of forage consumption is heat production. So, increasing the amount of hay they consume can help supply the extra calories needed to maintain body temperature, and can also be a heat source in of itself. Horses should consume a minimum of 1.5 to 1.75% of their bodyweight per day in forage during cold weather. If the temperature remains low for many days, adjustments to the concentrate amount may be needed also, especially for thinner horses or hard keepers. This can be done by slightly increasing the amount  of the normal concentrate or by topdressing with 4 to 8 ounces per day of vegetable oil or a commercial fat supplement. Try to avoid big changes in the diet during cold weather by adding bran or other mashes not typically included in the daily ration. Most cold weather colic episodes occur from sudden changes in the diet from the normal feeding regime or from a horse’s decreased water consumption. Although mashes can help increase water consumption, stick with a mash made from the normal concentrate or with a pelleted forage similar to the hay that is already being fed. Allow the mash to soak for at least 15 minutes to permit enough time for the feed to expand, reducing the chance of choke or gas colic. To encourage normal water consumption, offer water between 45 and 65 degrees when possible and keep ice removed from water tubs.

Cold Weather Quick Tips:

1. Increase hay intake 24 hours prior to forecasted cold weather.

2. Determine the critical temperature and adjust energy intake accordingly.

3. Increase hay intake for horses in good body condition and “easy keepers.”

4. Increase forage and concentrate intake for thinner horses and “hard keepers”.

5. Supplement with fat to increase energy density of concentrates.

6. Feed the same concentrate or similar forage pellet as a mash during cold       periods.

7. Offer 10 gallons of warmed water daily if concerned about water intake.