As the temperature drops, many horses will require a little extra energy as they use up more to keep warm. This obviously depends on many factors such as breed, age, body condition, size and health status for instance. But if a horse is going to lose condition, then it’s most likely to happen in the winter.
Those at risk are generally horses that are older, young, thin, have poor teeth or a low body condition score and, of course, those that have been clipped.
For most horses, for every degree Celsius the temperature drops below freezing, an extra 1% of energy is required to maintain bodyweight. A good way to supplement extra energy for horses that need it is to slightly increase the amount of hard feed, or alternatively, add in a high fat feed such as linseed. Linseed is ideal as it’s palatable, low starch and provides quality protein which may be lacking in forage or pasture during the winter.
If your pasture coverage remains good and the grass quality high, then many horses and ponies will not need supplemental forage – in other words hay or haylage – except if there is snow. If your horse is stabled and only getting hay, feeding it soaked or steamed is recommended to reduce respiratory disease. The alternative is to feed haylage.
Many people still like the idea of giving a horse a warm bran mash once a week. I’ve never been a big fan, as the sudden addition of a moderate-large feed of something the horse is not eating on a daily basis, or which hasn’t been slowly introduced to the diet, is a risk for upsetting the bacteria in the hindgut. And I would definitely avoid bran mashes in horses prone to colic or laminitis.
However, there is no reason why you cannot treat your horse on a cold day or after hard work to his normal feed – whether it be a concentrate, chaff, high fibre cubes or balancer with the addition of some warm water.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamin and mineral intake from pasture and forages may be borderline for many horses during the winter, and especially for horses with chronic conditions such as Cushing’s and equine asthma. Both these conditions result in low plasma vitamin C. Horses affected will benefit from supplementation, especially during the winter months.
While horses may not visibly sweat as much in cold weather, they still lose water and electrolytes which need to be replaced. There is a belief that hot horses should not be allowed to drink cold water. Most horses do not suffer any ill effects from doing so – out hunting they often drink happily from cold streams. However, one study conducted in America showed that, while in the summer ponies drank equal volumes of warm and cold water, in winter they appeared to drink more when the water was warm compared with when it was cold.
What does this mean in practical terms? It suggests that at competitions during the winter, while there is no harm in offering cold water straight out of the tap, horses may be more likely to drink if the water is slightly warmer — between 15-20°C is ideal.
If you have a horse or pony that is prone to impaction colic, then a heated water trough/bucket might be worth considering.
Atypical myopathy typically occurs in autumn and winter when horses ingest fallen sycamore seeds.
If you have sycamores bordering or in your paddocks, consider moving your horses off these paddocks. If you are unable to, fence off as large an area around the tree as is practical. Risk and severity are related to the number of seeds ingested – and whilst the seeds do carry with the wind, the concentration will almost certainly be highest near the tree.
The horse’s feet grow more slowly in winter than in the warmer months. So it is especially important to ensure your horse grows good quality horn in the winter – as this will be what your horse is standing and exercising on come next season. A supplement that’s high in biotin and supplies adequate amounts of microminerals is a good starting point.
I have written a detailed piece about rugs which is on my Facebook page. Many horses are rugged too heavily, and this reduces the amount of energy they need to use to keep warm which can be a component in obesity. Don’t judge the need for a rug based on how you feel. The horse has a coat and is much larger than we are, so they can retain heat much better than we do.