Cold Weather Feeding

Even if you live in a warm weather climate, the change from summer to winter can have an effect on your horse. As the mercury plunges, horses need to generate 10 to 20 percent more energy to maintain the same body temperature and to maintain body weight.

Because a long winter coat can mask obvious signs of a deficiency in body fat reserves, your horse could effectively be malnourished without your knowing it. If the horse’s ration does not provide adequate nutrients in the form of non-soluble carbohydrates (fibers), fat and protein, body fat reserves will be utilized followed by withdrawal of protein from muscle tissue.

The thinner a horse gets the less body fat, which serves as insulation, it has to stay warm. In order to stay warm, the thin horse needs even more energy. If the ration continues to be nutritionally deficient, death may be the disastrous end result.

Symptoms of ?starvation syndrome? may include depression, weakness, decreased body temperature, a dull, rough hair coat, cold extremities, dehydration, inability to rise from a prone position and, interestingly enough, lack of appetite. Equine dentistry is also crucial during winter as a sudden change in a horse’s ability to grind feed and hay can quickly cause a dangerous situation.

Most idle, adult horses that are in good health going into the winter can do well on their summer ration of good quality, free-choice hay, plus a balanced salt/vitamin/mineral supplement and fresh water, with the addition of a concentrate for added calories as needed. It is vital that the horse’s current body condition and the possibility of health problems be evaluated regularly by palpating (firmly pressing) the rib and back areas.

The ideal body condition, which is measured on a scale of one (emaciated) to nine (obese), should be at 5.5 to 6.5 during the winter. At this body condition one can feel the ribs over which there will be a moderate layer of fat. In the summer, the ribs should not be visible, but should be easily felt with palpation. The winter hair coat masks visual appraisal, making palpation necessary. A slight or no fat cover is a signal that the horse is too thin–between a two and four on the body condition scale.

If you suspect body condition is not up to par, have a veterinarian conduct a physical exam to determine whether the problem is diet related or if there is a medical issue. Regardless, more calories will need to be provided to regain body weight. The horse may need stalled and/or blanketed in the coldest weather as he regains body condition.

Contrary to popular belief, many horses do not need concentrate feed if they are not being ridden and are in good body condition. Hay generates more body heat per pound than a concentrate. A 1,000-pound mature, idle horse will need from 20 to 35 pounds of good quality hay (grass/alfalfa if available) per day. Under severe cold weather conditions additional hay or a concentrate feed should be provided. A word of caution–if hay is over-mature when harvested, it will be less nutritious (lower digestible energy content), which can result in a loss of body condition regardless of what seems to be a sufficient feeding.

No matter what the season or region in which you live, having access to water is essential. A horse typically requires a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water per day, which should be available on a free-choice basis, regardless of whether it is stabled or pastured. Also, ensure water is maintained at a temperature above freezing, as horses will drink less or in some cases not at all if the water is very cold or iced over.

Make sure there is enough salt and minerals provided in the total program to encourage appropriate drinking. Do not rely on free-choice white or trace-mineralized salt to meet salt and mineral requirements during the winter. Balanced salt/vitamin/mineral granular mixes and blocks are more palatable than plain salt and are recommended. Be sure to monitor consumption of all free-choice products by keeping track of the amounts of the products and dates placed in the pen.

Exercise keeps horses eating and drinking normally, so make sure your horses get plenty when the weather permits.

For more information about the feeding and care of horses, visit ADM Alliance Nutrition?s online equine library at For free feeding suggestions for your horses, call the Equine Nutrition HELPLINE at 800-680-8254.

Reprinted with permission from ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc., 1000 N 30th St, PO Box C1, Quincy, Illinois, USA 62305-3115; 800-680-8254; Judith A. Reynolds, Ph.D., P.A.S., Dipl. A.C.A.N., is the Equine Nutritionist and Equine Product and Technical Manager for ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc.

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