Winter feeding for health and comfort
Feeding in winter presents more challenges than feeding the rest of the year. During the depths of winter, there is often little grass for grazing. Grass becomes important for providing Dobbin a little something to pick while waiting for us to return home after dark on another short winter day. Without grass we are providing every bite he eats. Even though it is cold, dark, and late and - for you lucky ones - dinner is waiting: the horses still have to be fed. We try to feed on a schedule so Dobbin's anxiety level does not rise while waiting!
What and how much to feed depends on the condition of the horse. While winter cold will increase the amount of calories needed for maintenance, only if the horse is in marginal condition will additional feed be needed. The primary reason we feed more in the winter is to make us feel better. When we see Dobbin standing out in the cold, we feed a little extra to compensate for being unable to bring him into the house. When evaluating the condition, we must use the flat of our hand. The winter hair coat can give us a false visual impression that the horse is in good condition. The center of the rib cage is the place to feel for a fat cover. Here we feel for the amount of fat over the ribs. We want to feel the ribs but with a soft layer. Fat and moisture under a healthy skin layer will make it easy to move around. This horse is doing well and does not need additional feed during cold weather. If the ribs feel hard to the flat of our hand, there is little fat. This horse needs additional conditioning so will need to have its ration re-evaluated.
The horse should be maintained by feeding hay. In the winter hay provides warmth as well as calories. Eating hay and digesting it takes time which keeps the intestine constantly full. This helps to maintain good bowel movement. The digestion of hay also generates heat. The slow consumption of hay (compared to grain), keeps digestion going on continuously. This 'heat of digestion' provides a couple of degrees of warmth to the host for as long as hay is in the digestive system.
If the horse is being worked, it may have the need for additional calories. This can be provided by feeding a better quality hay. Hay of some quality should be available at all times. When there is no pasture available, a constant source of hay provides the horse with something to nibble. They will pick at even low quality hay, just to have something in their intestine. Roughage in the intestine make the horse feel better, both from the introduction of bicarbonate from chewing, and the slight temperature increase from digestion.
If an excellent quality hay is being fed, such as a second or later cutting of alfalfa, the amount fed should be divided into at least two feedings. Just as with grain, the lush low fiber hay will digest quickly and the additional protein can cause irritation of the stomach which may lead to the formation of ulcers. In addition to being about twice as high in calories as the average grass hay, alfalfa is also usually quite high in protein. Protein in the feed is the most common cause of loose stools in the otherwise healthy horse. But if fed in smaller amounts with grass hay, there should be little problem.
So how do we feed our horses. It all depends on their condition. If they do not need additional conditioning, continue to feed them pasture and hay. This must equal 2 % of their body weight (20 pounds for an adult) just to meet the needs of the intestine to stay active. Very few horses will be satisfied with that amount and would prefer at least twice as much. If they are losing condition due to winter, hard work, etc., start feeding some higher quality hay. Starting slowly, feed ½ percent of their body weight in high quality hay. After a couple of weeks re-evaluate and, if there is still a need for condition, increase the amount of good quality hay.
If the better quality hay is unable to put the condition you prefer on the horse, we may have to start feeding grain. Regardless of your approach, using hay of varying qualities will usually do an excellent job of maintaining body condition. The cost of a ration based on hay will be less than a ration based on lots of grain and a lower quality hay. The challenge to the horse owner is to find quality hay as it is needed. However, Dobbin will be more content on such a high roughage ration and will look great.
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