Horses enjoy cold weather and the relaxation that winter brings, but it takes more than hay to keep them healthy during the colder months. Optimal nutritional planning will help them enjoy the season and emerge in good condition when spring arrives.
Hay is Not Enough
Hay cannot compare in nutritive value to fresh grass. Once grass is cut, dried and stored, it begins to lose vitamins C, D and E, beta carotene (for vitamin A production), and omega-3 fatty acids. Normally, your horse produces vitamin D when he is exposed to sunlight. But spending more time indoors, combined with shorter daylight hours, can induce a vitamin D deficiency that leaves bones, joints and muscles unprotected. Therefore, a vitamin supplement, along with ground flaxseed (to provide omega 3s), will fill in the nutritional gaps created by hay-only diets.
Contrary to popular opinion, alfalfa it is not higher in sugar than grass hay. It is high in protein, but this is a good thing. At a moderate intake (approximately 10-30% of the total hay ration), it boosts the overall protein quality of the diet, keeping your horse’s muscles, joints, feet, skin, hair and bones fed, and protecting his blood and immune function. Alfalfa also serves as a stomach buffer against developing an ulcer, a common occurrence when a horse is stalled during the winter after being used to full-time turnout.
Offer Hay Free-Choice
Cold weather increases the metabolic rate, which means that horses need to burn more calories to maintain a normal internal body temperature and a consistent weight. When you provide hay free-choice, you will notice that your horse naturally consumes more to help stay warm and account for his higher energy need. Free-choice is always best (regardless of the season or condition of your horse) because it allows your horse to self-regulate his intake and eat only what his body needs. Consider testing your hay; choose hay with low sugar and starch levels for the insulin resistant, laminitic, or overweight horse.
For More Calories, Add Concentrates
For many horses, hay will not provide enough calories to maintain normal body condition. A high-fat commercial feed is fine for healthy horses. For the easy keeper or insulin-resistant horse, avoid sweet feeds and those that contain oats or corn. Beet pulp, alfalfa pellets or low-starch commercial feeds are excellent alternatives. Fatty feeds such as rice bran, ground flaxseed,or chia seeds offer the most concentrated source of calories. Avoid corn or soybean oils, since they promote inflammation due to their high omega-6 fatty acid content.
Older Horses Need Special Attention
Your older horse may need a joint supplement along with vitamin C to help produce collagen (the protein found in bones and joints), since less vitamin C is produced by the body as horses age.
For the aged hard keeper (or any hard keeper, for that matter), be sure there is no competition from more aggressive horses for hay. Feed a senior feed, along with added ground flaxseed. And be sure to check your horse’s teeth. Poor dental health is the number one reason for weight loss in older horses.
- Use a prebiotic (fermentation product, not live microbes) or a potent probiotic (one that contains billions--at least 109--colony forming units, or CFUs) to keep the hindgut microbial population healthy.
- When feeding bran mashes, or any added feed, feed it every day. Consistency will prevent colic. Keep in mind, however, that bran (rice or wheat are most common) is very high in phosphorus in relation to calcium. Therefore, use a commercial product with added calcium or feed alfalfa to counteract the elevated phosphorus content.
- Provide fresh, temperate water. Never rely on snow to meet your horse’s water needs. Water should be kept at a palatable temperature to encourage drinking and prevent dehydration.
- Remember to provide salt. Salt blocks, free choice granulated salt, or adding two tablespoons of table salt to your horse’s meals per day (divided between meals) will keep his body in proper water balance.
Juliet M. Getty, PhD, is an internationally respected, independent equine nutritionist who believes that optimizing horse health comes from understanding how the horse’s physiology and instincts determine the correct feeding and nutrition practices. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at her website www.gettyequinenutrition.com, as well as from Amazon.com and other online book retailers. Getty’s website also offers a generous stock of free, useful information for the horse person. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Plus, for the growing community of horse owners and managers who allow their horses free choice forage feeding, Getty has set up a special forum as a place for support, celebrations, congratulations, and idea sharing. Share your experiences at jmgetty.blogspot.com. Reach Getty directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.