In parts of the world where winter is approaching, owners need to think about how their horses’ daily nutritional requirements will change, and how to adapt management practices so they will stay in tip-top condition right through until spring.
The low temperatures of winter put extra demands on the horse's metabolism. More energy is required for day-to-day activities in the cold compared to the same activities performed in a milder climate. Therefore in winter many horses and ponies need extra feed for maintenance, conditioning, and work. As well as expending energy simply keeping warm when it's cold, horses use more energy working when it is wet and muddy because of the extra effort involved in pulling their feet out of the mud, and the reduced ability to maintain body heat with a wet coat. In addition, many paddocks may look green, but don't contain much grass, while in other situations there is plenty of grass, but it is full of water with a low digestible energy content. Horses also tend to spend less time grazing when the weather turns cold.
Some equines, particularly ponies, do just fine in winter and need no real change in management. Many pony breeds evolved to deal with much colder climates than the regions where they now live, and they can thrive on a mere sniff of grain in any weather.
If you need to change your management to avoid winter weight loss, you need to start before the weight has really fallen off. It's too late when your horse is starting to look like a hat rack. Starting to monitor your horse’s weight at the end of summer will help you to notice quickly if he starts to drop off. If you have access to scales or a weight tape, use them every week or two and record your measurements to monitor changes. Alternatively, learning how to condition-score your horse will make you more aware of his ideal weight, and checking and recording his condition score on a weekly or every-other-week basis will ensure that you notice even small changes before they start to become a problem.
Winter is the time when many poor doers, especially Thoroughbreds and older horses, fall away. Horse kept outside in paddocks turn their back to the wind and rain when it's cold and wet and don't graze. As horses normally spend 14 to 18 hours grazing, a day or night spent in conditions like this drastically reduces pasture and energy intake. If the horse then uses more energy than normal keeping warm, it needs to burn body stores of fat to make up the shortfall. The end result is both weight loss and a hungry horse.
Giving the horse adequate shelter is important in both summer and winter. This may involve stalling at night, providing a run-in shed, or putting your horse in a paddock where trees provide shelter from wind and rain. Not all horses need to be blanketed to survive the winter, but it is essential with some. Horses that have been clipped for work, horses that do not naturally produce a good winter coat, poor doers, and old or frail horses should be blanketed to retain body heat throughout the winter months. If you compete or show the horse regularly and don't want to clip, you may need a blanket to keep the coat from getting too long. It is often necessary to keep two turn-out blanket so that if one gets too wet or muddy, you can change to a dry, warm blanket while the first one dries out. Remember that a leaking or badly fitting blanket is worse than no blanket at all. You need to keep on eye on the horse to make sure the blanket is staying where it's meant to be and fits snugly, without causing chafing.
This article was written by Kentucky Equine Research's Dr. Peter Huntington. For more equine nutrition information visit ker.com.