Winter Feeding: Top tips from TopSpec

WINTER can be a challenging time with deteriorating weather conditions, dark nights and limited grazing. Feeding correctly will help to keep horses healthy and in good condition.

Feed ad-lib forage

During winter, when grazing is in limited supply, frozen or covered by snow, it is important to provide alternative sources of fibre (e.g. hay, haylage or chop) to aid digestion and keep the hindgut working efficiently.

Fibre is continually fermented by the microflora in the hindgut and this process produces heat. So, before reaching for extra hard feed in the cold weather, allow horses access to ad-lib forage.

Horses with poor teeth will need a hay/ haylage replacer, as they will be unable to chew long fibre effectively. A soft, short-chopped grass will help for a while but, before long, pre-ground fibre will become necessary. This can be supplied by using a high fibre mash or good quality fibre cubes.

Maintain a consistent routine

Maintaining a consistent routine can be tricky in the winter. Intermittent changes in the forage source provided (i.e. between grass and hay/ haylage) can upset the hindgut microflora.

If daily turnout is not available, try to offer short periods of in-hand grazing. If this is not possible, feed a grass chop on confined days to keep a consistent supply of forage (grass) to the hindgut.

Feed a balanced diet

Although forage is the foundation of a horse’s diet during the winter, it is important to balance this diet with optimum levels of essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals and trace elements, that will be lacking in a forage only diet. Basing hard feeds on a suitable feed balancer or multi-supplement is an excellent way of doing this.

Feed for condition

For those that need to gain weight, provide good quality hay or haylage ad-lib and base hard feeds on a top specification, conditioning feed balancer. The feed balancer will improve the utilisation of the rest of the diet, which will reduce the requirement for additional hard feed. The high-quality protein included will promote muscle development and topline when combined with working in the correct outline.

For highly strung horses, or those needing a low sugar/ starch diet for other reasons, a cereal-grain-free, low sugar and starch blend, e.g. conditioning cubes can be added. If higher starch levels can be tolerated or ‘fast-releasing’ energy is needed, then an exceptionally nutrient-dense, high calorie flaked blend may be a good option.

Use winter to help with weight loss

For horses that are overweight, take advantage of the poorer quality grass by maximising turnout time and avoid over-rugging. When conserved forage is needed, use low nutritional quality hay (e.g. late-cut meadow hay).

The amount of hay can be restricted if necessary, but to no less than 1.5% bodyweight (total forage as fed) over a 24-hour period. Haynets with small holes or double netting can slow consumption and help to avoid horses standing for longer than six hours without forage. A low-calorie, unmolassed straw chop, as a partial hay/ haylage replacer, may also help by extending forage availability.

An appropriate top specification ‘lite’ feed balancer or multi-supplement (with minimal calories) will supply the micronutrients needed to balance the work done on a restricted regime.

Maintain hydration

During colder weather, it is common for horses to reduce their fluid intake. This, combined with a change from fresh to conserved forage, more time spent in the stable and a reduction in exercise, can increase the risk of colic.

Ensure that frozen water buckets/ troughs are broken at least twice-daily. Feeding soaked feeds, e.g. mashes, are ideal for tempting fussy horses.

Article supplied by nutritionists from the TopSpec Multiple Award-Winning Helpline. They can be contacted, free of charge, on 01845 565030.

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