Each winter I recieve a number of email messages asking me questions about feeding horses during the cold winter months. While I always answer the individuals personally, it occurred to me that others may benefit from this information.
The horse is a grazer by nature. Given the opportunity, he will spend most of his time at his favorite pastime! During the summer months of plenty many horses who live out, depending on type and workload, can happily exist on pasture with little or no additional feeding. However, the pasture that may provide your horse with adequate nutrition through the summer stops growing in the winter and it's nutritional value is at it's lowest. This, combined with the fact that horses keep warm in winter by generating energy, will mean that your horse will need lots of good quality hay to maintain condition.
In order to prevent wastage, hay is best fed from a feeder, which lessens the chance of it blowing away or getting trampled in to the mud. However, a group of horses around a hay feeder may fight and indeed one individual may dominate and keep the others away. In this situation, it would be better to place the hay in piles on the ground, separated enough that the horses cannot kick out at each other. Always make one more pile of hay than there are horses, so that everyone gets a fair share.
Hay can be hard to find, or very expensive, in some areas of the country, especially in the winter, and I have been asked what would be a suitable alternative. In Britain, many alternatives are available, such as bagged "chop" or chaff which can be added to the feed to increase the fiber or roughage content in the diet, or "Horse Hage" which is a dry-processed and bagged form of haylage. Horse Hage is particularly useful for horses with a dust allergy as it is dust-free. I have not seen these for sale or advertised for feeding to horses in the U.S. however.
What I have seen, and indeed used, here in the U.S. are hay and alfalfa cubes. Hay cubes have the added advantage of being easier to transport and store. Some companies now produce cubes that are a combination of hay and grains, providing a balanced diet in a variety of formulas.
The Confined Horse
Someone asked me what she should do if her fit competition horse suddenly had to be kept stabled because of bad weather. Although the rules of feeding say that any feed changes should be made gradually, equine nutritionists agree that it is imperative to cut back the amount of feed immediately. The supply of energy, particularly starch should be replaced with a low-energy feed. Many horses suffer azoturia after a cold snap has kept them confined to their stall on full ration.
I recently saw advertised in a horse magazine something called an Equi-Ball. Basically it was a heavy duty rubber ball that had a compartment inside. The idea is that you put hay or alfalfa cubes in the compartment, and then as your horse rolls it around his stall with his nose, the cubes drop out one at a time, providing both nutrition and entertainment for horses stabled for long hours in the winter!
It is very important that your horse receives an adequate amount of water in winter months. He may not be as inclined to drink as he is in the summer, in fact he may even be reluctant to drink very cold water. Every effort should be made to ensure he is getting enough. Dehydration in winter can lead to colic.
Heating coils can be purchased for buckets and tanks to keep the water from freezing. Failing that, a trick we used to use in England was to float a football, excuse me - a soccer ball - in the water trough. Even if the water froze over, as it did a few times, the horses were able to push the ball out of the way and drink through the hole in the ice left by the ball. One caveat here - don't fill your water trough all the way to the top or the first high wind will send the ball flying across the pasture and defeat your plan.