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Winter Horse Care - A Simple Horse Feeding Checklist

Creating A Winter Feeding Plan

A horse standing in a winter fieldCold temperatures can place stress on our horses as they deal with shorter days, temperature fluctuations, rain, snow and mud. By developing a winter feed management plan you can help reduce the effects of winter weather on your horse(s).

Know the Score

Before winter weather settles in, it's important to evaluate the body condition of every horse you are responsible for.  Dr. Don Henneke developed a nine point Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system which can be used across all breeds and disciplines to determine if a horse has a BCS of 1-Poor to 9-Extremely Fat. This method assigns a numerical value to the fat deposits on a horse's body in relation to its musculature in six key areas: the loin, ribs, tailhead, withers, neck and shoulders.

Ideally a horse should begin the winter with a BCS of 5. According to Dr. Marty Adams, Southern States Equine Nutritionist, "If a horse has a score lower than a 5 he or she will not have adequate fat to provide insulation against heat loss in cold weather." This lack of fat will cause the horse to burn more calories to stay warm with the result being additional weight loss and stress for the horse.

By knowing your horse's BCS you will be able to anticipate his feed needs this winter to make sure he doesn't get too fat or too thin. Keep in mind winter can be a tricky time to manage your horse's condition as thick hair and heavy blankets can mask weight loss or gain. Therefore in addition in keeping an eye on the five key areas, you should also put a weight tape on your horse every 30-60 days to monitor how your horse is weathering the winter.

Provide Plenty of Water

As temperatures drop lower and lower, horses are at a greater risk of impaction colic. Why is this? Horses drink less water when it's cooler, eat more hay than grass and there may be less water available as water troughs and other water sources freeze. To combat dehydration make sure there is plenty of clean, fresh, unfrozen water available at all times.

Offer your horse warm water to drink from an insulated or heated bucket. If you don't have a special bucket use hot water straight out of the hose. Horses drink best when the water temperature is between 45-65° F. If your horse still isn't interested in "traditional" water sources, trick them into getting more water into their system by offering wet hay, adding salt/electrolytes to feed, or adding additional water to their feed. Remember a horse at maintenance requires 10 to 12 gallons of water a day.

Add Calories

For some, winter puts a halt to riding time. Lack of ring lights, frozen or snow covered rings can significantly change your horse's exercise regimen. Generally a reduction in your horse's activity level would warrant cutting their feed. However, that's not the case in the winter. In fact, your horse may need to consume more calories each day to provide energy to keep warm during cold weather. Increasing their grain intake slightly, feeding more forage or adding a high energy supplement like rice bran oil or pellets, will add more calories to your horse's diet.

Turn up the Heat

Giving your horse additional forage in the winter will not only help meet the increased energy needs, but will also keep your horse warm in the winter via microbial fermentation. As horses digest forages in their hindgut, bacteria ferment the fibrous portions of the forage. A helpful by-product of fermentation is heat. Consuming forage truly raises the horse's body temperature to help combat cold winter temperatures. Therefore, the more hay you feed your horse the better able he will be able to maintain his body temperature.

Additional Considerations

Providing your horse with shelter and using a turnout blanket will help with your feed management plan. Anything you can do to help your horse conserve energy and not work 24 hours a day to maintain body temperature will help your horse maintain body condition through winter. As horse owners we can't control what the weather will bring our way, however we can make sure our horses are prepared to handle whatever comes.

Do you have questions on how to alter your feed program for winter? To speak to one of our agronomists or livestock specialists in your area find your local Southern States store.

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