This is the time of year where we’re meant to be relaxing with our loved ones and spending quality-time with our horses. It’s also the season where the weather makes caring for our four-legged partners much more tedious...and cold.
Information on feeding your horse, when temperatures begin to fall, has been muddied with a storm of trends, internet chatter and old-school practices. All this noise makes the science of what actually matters when feeding your horse, hard to find.
Knowing which recommendations to follow and which myths to skip past, is the first step to a simpler and low-stress feeding routine this winter - and we’re here to help! From the truth about how much to feed, to the importance of adequate nutrients, consider these 5 cold weather equine nutrition myths debunked.
I can stop worrying about electrolytes and how much my horse is drinking, now that it’s not so hot outside.
Dehydration is a common problem for horses in the winter, and added electrolytes can help encourage your horse to drink more. Very cold water can discourage horses from drinking enough in the winter. In fact, studies have shown that, when given the option to drink icy water or tepid water, horses prefer to drink the warmer water. This is a good time to consider adding heaters to your water troughs.
An electrolyte and metabolic pH balancer, such as Turbo Mag BCAA, can also help increase water intake. We recommend adding it to your feed, or dosing orally in paste form. Use caution around mixing electrolytes into your horse’s water as some horses can become discouraged from drinking due to the salty taste. So, adding electrolytes to cold water, that’s already less favorable to your horse, only creates an added challenge.
The average 1,000-pound horse requires just over five gallons of water per day. With less pasture and more dry forage, that means nearly all of their hydration needs to come from drinking. Tracking water consumption is important all year round, but it is even more critical during these cold months. A dehydrated horse consuming more calories through dry hay has an increased risk of impaction colic.
I’m not riding as much in the winter and my horse isn’t getting a lot of exercise, so I should cut back his hay.
Actually, in general, you need to feed more hay when it starts to get cold. If you and your horse are taking a little break this winter, make sure you’re still feeding plenty of forage. Your horses should have access to plenty of clean, quality hay throughout the day and night. The process of digesting forage actually creates metabolic heat and keeps them warm from the inside.
When temperatures drop, your horse’s body has to work harder to stay warm. So, even if your horse moves less in the winter, their body could still be burning the same, or more, calories as they do in months of normal exercise. Allowing your horse to constantly graze on hay provides a good source of fiber and calories that they need to maintain a healthy weight. This also comes with the added bonus of supporting normal, healthy digestion and a balanced gut, since horses are designed to be grazers.
If we’re not riding as much, I should not be feeding alfalfa.
Alfalfa is generally higher in protein and more calorie-dense than grass hay. If you have a horse that’s a hard keeper, is older or picky, or prone to ulcers or metabolic issues, alfalfa may be an important piece of a proper winter diet. Compared to most cool season grasses, alfalfa is actually lower in sugars which makes it a convenient choice for horses prone to metabolic disorders. The high calcium content makes it a smart choice for horses needing some extra buffering for stomach acid, and the quality amino acid profile makes it a smart choice for the aging horse that needs help with muscle tone.
Keep in mind, alfalfa provides more calories per pound. So, it’s generally not the first choice when free-feeding hay. If you have an easy keeper and are trying to provide constant access to forage, we recommend free-feeding a quality grass hay and rationing alfalfa.
Important note: If alfalfa is normally a large part of your horse’s diet and you choose to cut it back, be sure to do so slowly, and work with an equine nutritionist to ensure you are not causing nutrient needs to become out of balance.
Since I buy my hay from the same place all year round, it’ll be similar in quality even through the winter.
Hay quality, availability and types can vary widely among suppliers. High quality hay will be richer in nutrients and more calorie-dense. However, keep in mind, hay quality is not determined by the particular cutting, but rather by the stage of maturity at the time it was cut. As grasses and legumes continue to grow, the amount of valuable nutrients decreases. Hay cut at a later stage of maturity will be lower in digestible fiber and nutrients.
Hay quality can vary widely from supplier to supplier. Many feed stores will work through multiple suppliers, in the event one is experiencing shortages. Weather challenges across much of the hay harvesting regions adds yet another hurdle for hay suppliers to maintain consistent cuttings. So, even if you buy your hay from the same store or hay broker, there could be a lot of variability from load to load.
We recommend keeping at least 3-4 months of hay on-hand when possible. So, stock up well before winter, if you can. We strongly recommend having your hay tested to determine its nutritional value. An equine nutrition consultant can help interpret your forage analysis and identify any gaps.
Okay, so as long as my horse is getting enough calories from their hay, then I can at least cut my grain/feed back if they’re not getting a lot of exercise this winter.
Cutting back on your grain may cause your horse to fall short on essential nutrients they need to stay healthy. Horse feeds are formulated to be fed at a specific amount per day, also known as a “feeding rate”. Meaning, a feed only meets your horse’s requirements when fed at the levels recommended on the label. If you drop below the recommended daily amount, then your horse could be lacking in the critical nutrients they need to stay healthy.
When you add in the increased challenges of finding nutrient-dense hay during the winter, it’s safe to say that most horses will need some level of supplementation to meet their requirements.
Feeding rates can vary significantly between brands and even among product lines from the same brand. If you’d like to keep your horse on a feed through the winter, be sure to check the feeding rate on the feed tag, and choose what’s right for your horse.
Some feeds will have much higher rates and need to be given in large volume, often as an added fiber and/or calorie source. In contrast, other feeds are formulated primarily to provide the benefits of added nutrients, without a lot of added calories. This option would usually be our recommendation for easy keepers with constant access to forage throughout the winter. Intensify Omega Force is the lowest feeding rate option from Bluebonnet Feeds, and our most popular feed overall.
If you do have a hard keeper and want to feed more concentrated feeds this winter, look for a quality product with a high feeding rate and higher fiber content, such as: Intensify Senior Therapy, Horseman’s Elite Senior Care, or Equilene Pro Care (with added digestive support).
Want to cut out the calories from concentrated feed or grain altogether? Consider adding a diet balancer, like 101 Diet Balancer. This option is great for horses on a forage-only diet, or those that need a calorie-restricted way to consume important vitamins and minerals.
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