By Dr. Katie Young, Equine Nutritionist, Purina® Mills, LLC
Now that winter is approaching and temperatures are dropping, horse owners must consider winterizing their horses. During the cold season, horse owners must provide winter horse care to make sure their animals receive proper feed, water and shelter to stay healthy and comfortable.
Many horse owners believe that when the weather is cold, horses need to be fed rations containing more corn, because they think of corn as a "heating feed." However, corn and other cereal grains do not cause the horse to become warmer; they simply provide more energy (calories). Hay, which contains more fiber than grain, provides more of a "warming effect" internally as more heat is released during digestion of fiber than grain starches. Therefore, horses are better able to maintain body heat if adequate hay is provided in the diet as part of winter horse care.
Good quality hay is important during cooler weather when pasture grasses are short or not growing. Horses need at least one percent of their body weight per day in roughages to maintain a healthy GI tract, but two percent or more may be appropriate during cold weather, especially when they live outdoors.
Although grain does not provide as much of an internal warming effect as hay, it is often necessary to supplement winter rations with additional grain to boost calorie supplies. Cold temperatures increase the amount of calories needed to maintain body weight, as well as support activity or production. And because a horse may digest feed less efficiently as the temperature drops, additional feed helps maintain body weight and condition. It is important to maintain a body condition score of five to six (moderate to moderately fleshy) as a layer of fat under the skin provides insulation. Further, horses in moderately fleshy condition require less dietary energy for cold weather maintenance than thin horses.
In general, feeding an additional 1/4 pound of grain per 100 pound body weight to non-working horses will provide adequate calories during cold, windy and wet weather. Working horses may require up to an additional 1/2 pound of grain per 100 pound body weight, depending on workload, to maintain body weight. Purina® Ultium®, Strategy® GX, Strategy® Healthy Edge®, Omolene #200® or Omolene #500® horse feeds provide added fat and calories versus grain alone.
Senior horses are often unable to chew hay completely due to poor teeth and less efficient digestion and absorption of nutrients. Purina® Equine Senior® horse feed contains enough roughage and added fat to ensure older horses meet their fiber and calorie requirements without depending on long-stemmed hay or grass.
Water should always be readily available to the horse. Snow is not a sufficient substitute for water, as the horse cannot physically eat enough snow to meet its water requirement. Ideally, available water should be between 45 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is too cold, the horse may drink less, thereby decreasing water and lubrication in the gut and increasing the chance of impaction-induced colic. If the horse drinks less water, it may also eat less feed, resulting in loss of body weight and condition. Finally, if a horse is forced to drink very cold water, its energy requirement will increase because more calories are required to warm the water to body temperature.
Another consideration in cold weather is housing or shelter. In general, even in cold climates, horses are happier and possibly healthier outdoors. Closed and heated barns are often inadequately ventilated. Horses living in poorly ventilated stables tend to develop respiratory diseases more often than those maintained in pastures, even during cold weather.
Horses adjust to cold temperatures with little difficulty. In the absence of wind or moisture, they can tolerate temperatures near 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and even colder if shelter is available. Horses living outside should have access to adequate shelter from wind, sleet and storms. In severe cold, horses will group together to share body heat or take brisk runs to increase heat production. A long, thick coat of hair is an excellent insulator and serves as the first line of defense against cold temperatures. Horses living outdoors during winter should be allowed to grow natural, full winter coats.
Many horses are given the winter off from work due to cold weather, the rider's lack of time, or for a break after a heavy show season. However, if horses are let off for too long, they may lose the fitness level they gained over a year's work. To prevent the winter slump, here are a few suggestions:
1. Longe horses once or twice a week. This not only provides exercise, but an opportunity to brush, clean hooves, check for injury and evaluate overall condition.
2. If time is available and weather permits, ride horses whenever possible. Keep in mind that horses are not in the same shape and do not have the stamina as they do in the warmer season therefore; you cannot work as hard nor expect as much. Be sure to cool horses down completely after work to reduce the risk of pneumonia, cold or colic.
3. Another option is to check with local stables to see if their facilities are available to non-boarders. Often, stables allow outside horses and riders to use indoor and outdoor arenas for a fee.
Winter may not be the easiest time of year for enjoying your horses, but with proper feed, water, shelter and conditioning, horses will make it through comfortably and be ready to go again as soon as the weather allows.