How Will You Feed Your Horse This Winter?

January 28th, 2013 9:03 PM | No Comments

By Erika Druker,

As winter continues on, it’s important to keep in mind what kind of calories our horses are taking in, and whether it benefits them or not. I recently had the opportunity to interview equine nutrition expert, Robin Koehler.  Robin is currently the Assistant Professor of Equine Studies at the University of Findlay. She earned her BS in Animal Science at Montana State University and earned her Masters in Animal Science at University of Kentucky where she conducted equine nutrition research.

I asked Robin some common questions posed by many of us equine lovers, such as what is a healthy diet for a horse during the wintertime. “Horses benefit going into the winter months with a little extra energy stored in their adipose (fat) tissue.  This is especially true for horses that live outside or horses that don’t grow much hair due to blankets.  With the Hennike Body Condition Score (BCS) system, most horses should hover around a 5; however, horses that need additional energy to stay warm will come through the winter months in better condition if their BSC is increased by .5-1 prior to the ambient temperatures dropping to freezing or below.” The BCS system is a scale ranging from 1-9, with a 9 being extremely obese and a 1 extremely underweight.

As the cold rolls in, don't forget to change your horse's diet!

Robin continues, “Many horses will pack on extra weight on their own if they have access to ample forage in their diet.  The horse is able to extract a significant amount of energy from the fiber found in forage through microbial fermentation in the large intestine.  This process also produces what is termed the ‘heat of fermentation,’ which is valuable heat for the animal to regulate the proper body temperature when the outside temperatures fall.  This is why feeding additional hay (say an additional 5-10 lbs) on those really cold, windy days is recommended.  The horse’s gut thrives on forage so in order to promote healthiness it is better to increase the amount of hay eaten or even change to a higher quality hay, than it is to feed grains or to feed more grain than hay in the diet.  If grass/hay doesn’t maintain a horse’s weight or allow a horse to gain additional weight, adding an energy dense feed is recommended.  This is where grains (starch) and fats can be implemented in the diet to contribute to energy production in the body.”

One thing many people discover (especially with horses that live primarily outside) is when it comes time to take their blankets off you notice your horse has either become ribby or has gained more weight.  Robin’s response to this entailed, “When trying to put weight on a horse, a dental exam is advised since the mouth is the first part of digestion.  Feeding higher caloric hay like a legume (alfalfa) rather than straight grass hay is advantageous to a skinny horse, or horse that is considered a hard keeper.  Beet pulp and fat supplements also work well. On average a horse should be consuming 2-2.5% of its body weight per day and the higher the percentage of hay to grain, the safer the diet.  A horse that needs to shed a few pounds should receive ample exercise, and it is better to decrease or eliminate the grain.  Using a lower calorie hay can be helpful as the horse will still have plenty of forage to consume without the additional calories that an alfalfa would provide.”

As the temperature continues to drop, keep in mind your horse’s diet. Your horse can only perform well when the right nutrition is put into their body! Finally, Robin left me with the importance of forage in a horse’s diet and to “always strive to feed not only good quality hay, but plenty of hay especially in the winter months.”

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