|Winter is right around the corner and it is time to think about maintaining horses through the winter, says Rebecca Bott, SDSU Extension Equine Specialist.
"At the start of the year we discussed body condition scores (BCS) and how the ideal scores for a horse at maintenance is 5 to 6. As the temperature drops, and wind chill and moisture increase, the grocery requirement of a horse to maintain that BCS will increase," Bott said.
Bott says that horses are typically hardy animals who can withstand cold temperatures, wind chill, and moisture (snow or rain) individually. However, she adds that if two or more of these factors happen at the same time, it increases the challenge of them maintaining body heat and condition. She encourages horse owners to assess their horses BCS frequently throughout the winter.
"It is much easier to maintain BCS, than to catch up if condition has been lost," she said. "This is especially difficult in the winter and for growing, gestating , lactating, and hard working animals that already have higher nutritional requirements than adult horses at maintenance."
Feeding in the Winter
Horses ferment fibrous feeds in their hindgut, explains Bott. The process of fermentation creates heat. Thus, she says, feeding roughages to horses helps warm them from the inside out.
"As temperature drops, horses require more feed to maintain themselves at their current state," she said. "Roughage is the number one go-to feed source for this because it provides gut fill, and more heat than other feeds during the digestive process."
She adds that grain can also be used as a supplement to provide extra energy during the winter months.
Because horses don’t adjust well to sudden changes in the diet, Bott says horse owners shouldn’t pile on extra grain in one day just because the temperatures drop.
"Look at longer term weather forecasts and make slow changes in diets that seem appropriate for the weather over a period of time," she said.
For more information on feeding, please refer to the iGrow Solution: Feeding Horses in the Winter, found at iGrow.org/up/resources/02-2015-2012.pdf.
Water is just as critical for horses in the winter as any other time. Water helps keep things moist and moving in the digestive tract. Without water, or with reduced intake, a horse is put at risk for colic. Break the ice off of all water sources twice a day or as needed so horses can drink. Cold water is much less enticing than warm water during the winter. In fact, horses are likely to consume more water if water tanks are heated.
Additional Methods for Maintaining Warmth
Feeding roughage is one important method for helping horses to stay warm in the winter. Horses can also be stalled in barns (provided there is adequate ventilation). Blanketing horses is another option. Be sure to select a blanket that fits properly, and secure all straps. If horses live outside, select a blanket that is water proof. With blanketing comes management. Check horses regularly to make sure moisture isn’t getting under the blanket. Be judicious removing blankets when the day warms so sweat doesn’t build up underneath and cause a chill. Run in sheds, and simple wind blocks are also excellent measures for protecting horses from cold.