With winter upon us, the nights have drawn in, the temperature has dropped and the winter coats are well and truly in use, for both horse and rider! At this time of the year it’s important to make sure that your horse’s nutritional needs are met to ensure that they stay healthy and in good condition throughout the colder months. Read on for advice from Lisa, our nutritionist, on how to feed your horse in winter, for optimum health and performance.
As the temperature falls in autumn and winter, there is a loss of nutrients in the grass your horse may be grazing and consequently there is a need to supplement your horse’s diet in winter. First and foremost it’s essential to replace what is missing from the grass with an alternative form of forage such as hay or haylage. This forage will then provide your horse with his essential calories throughout the winter months.
What you can do now
If your horse has been out on grass all summer, it is advisable to start introducing hay or haylage into his diet gradually. This is because the microbes living in the hindgut need to adjust to the change in forage, to help avoid digestive upset. Additionally, checking your horse’s condition now and body scoring him or her using a suitable body condition scoring chart (such as that available from KER – https://ker.com/tools/library/horse-body-condition-score-chart/) – will help you to assess your horse’s dietary needs for the winter. You will then be able to check this occasionally throughout the winter months to ensure your horse is not losing weight.
Whether it’s spring, summer, autumn or winter, forage should always be the foundation of your horse’s diet.
The horse’s digestive system has evolved over many centuries to process a high fibre, forage based diet. The fibre in the forage consumed is broken down into energy by the billions of microbes residing in the horse’s hindgut, through a complex fermentation process. During this fermentation, heat is released, which is particularly important in winter as it helps to keep your horse warm from the inside out as the temperature drops.
So, in effect, as well as supplying essential calories, winter forage helps to keep your horse centrally heated!! This central heating helps to prevent a loss in condition and the better quality the forage, the more heat is generated.
The amount of good quality forage your horse needs over winter is an important consideration. Horses need to eat about 2% of their body weight per day, so with a 100% forage diet that’s 10kg per day for the average 500kg horse!
Ideally forage should be provided as a constant supply, or ‘ad lib’. This can be easily done by putting hay or haylage out in the paddock over the winter, in addition to what the horse receives if he is stabled overnight or during the day. A constant supply of forage will ensure your horse’s gut microbes are kept healthy and healthy microbes = a healthy horse.a
The Benefit of Balancers
Whilst a forage-only diet can easily meet the energy (calorie) requirements for most horses in light – moderate work, it is unlikely to provide a fully balanced supply of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) or essential amino acids such as lysine, which is often low in UK forage.
To give your horse the micro-nutrients and essential amino acids he or she needs, a good quality feed balancer (such as Smart Balance) is a great addition to your horse’s diet.
A balancer is a nutrient dense feed designed to be fed in very small amounts, and when fed alongside forage, will balance your horse’s diet and ensure your horse’s daily vitamin, mineral and essential amino acid requirements are met for optimum health.
The balancer you choose should contain only wholesome, nutritious ingredients to provide superior nutrition without the use of cereal by-products, fillers and GMO ingredients. Balancers often contain other beneficial ingredients such as probiotic live yeasts, which have been shown to enhance fibre fermentation, allowing your horse to get the most out of his forage diet and further enhancing his health over the winter months.
A forage and balancer only diet may not satisfy the energy or protein requirements for some horses over the winter, for example, elderly or hard working horses who may start to drop a little weight, or young horses that need extra energy and protein for growth.
Feeds that contain good quality sources of fibre and suitably cooked cereals (such as highly digestible micronised cereals), should help such to gain weight and condition and are a great way to add extra calories into the diet.
Micronised cereals contain calories in the form of non-structural carbohydrates (starch), which are easily broken down to sugars in the small intestine and released into the bloodstream as an energy source. If the energy released exceeds the horses’ requirements it will then be laid down as fat.
Smart Condition Muesli is a great option as it supplies cool conditioning energy which is low in sugars and starch, for competition, showing & weight gain. Designed to be fed alongside Smart Balance, Smart Condition is easily fed according to work done or weight gain needed, without compromising a balanced diet.
Winter check list
In summary, to keep you horse happy, healthy and in great condition throughout the winter months, it’s essential to consider these key points:
- Make sure your horse has plenty of good quality forage, fed in a constant supply to meet daily requirements.
- Add a good quality balancer to optimise nutrition and health.
- Add in extra feed if your horse struggles to maintain condition on a forage only diet.
Always remember healthy microbes = healthy horse!!