Cold Weather Feeding Tips

No matter what part of the country you live in, the weather has certainly gotten colder. Sure, some people have it worse than others, but there are certain adjustments everyone can make to help horses thrive in the cold months.

How Cold is Cold?

Someone’s perception of a “freezing cold day” in Florida might be a bit different than another person’s perception of a “freezing cold day” in Montana but let us not forget perception is reality (for us and our horses)! Horses acclimate to the area in which they live by developing a thermoneutral zone (TNZ), which is the ambient temperature range a horse can tolerate without having to expend energy to maintain their core body temperature.

Many things can cause horses to have varying thermoneutral zones. In the winter, we are most concerned about the low end, called the Lower Critical Temperature (LCT). A horse acclimated to Montana winters will have a much lower LCT than a horse acclimated to Florida winters, meaning they can easily withstand temperatures that dip below freezing without missing a beat.

Different elements play a role in determining the LCT for a horse (i.e. temperature, wind speed, solar radiation, precipitation, and humidity). It is often said that “a horse can withstand the cold, and a horse can withstand the rain, but they have a hard time dealing with weather that is both wet and cold”. Ambient temperature has the biggest effect on a horse’s TNZ, but there are other factors. For example: a horse with a long winter coat will have a much lower LCT than a horse with a slick show-ready coat; horses in fleshy body condition will tolerate the cold better than horses in poorer body condition; and adult horses can withstand much colder temperatures than young horses.

Feeding in the Cold

When the weather dips below a horse’s lower critical temperature, they begin to make physical changes on their own. The most visible are shivering and turning their hind end toward the wind or seeking shelter. They also begin to eat more. In fact, digestible energy requirements increase 1.25% for every 1°F drop below the LCT. The best way to meet this increasing need is to feed more hay. Hay creates more metabolic heat during digestion and therefore has a much larger effect on warming the horse from the inside. When the weather dips below a horse’s LCT they have an innate sense to spend more time eating, so be sure to offer extra hay at each feeding (if they don’t already have a continual supply of hay available).

Don’t forget water! Many horses stop drinking adequate amounts of water when the weather turns cold. Couple that with increased dry matter intake from all of that extra forage and you have a recipe for impaction colic. When given the option to drink icy water or tepid water, horses prefer to drink the warmer water. Ensure your horses drink through cold spells by using tank heaters to prevent ice formation. You can also feed a metabolic pH balancer such as Turbo Mag BCAA to help increase water intake.

Blanketing

Not all horses need to be blanketed, but some do. When a horse is in good body condition, allowed to grow a full winter coat, has shelter, and is acclimated to their climate they do not need blankets. In fact, your horse’s long hair is an excellent insulator. On the other hand, if your horse is kept under lights, clipped, or has a thin slick coat, a blanket will be a necessity. Your horse may also need a blanket if he is underweight, very young, or doesn’t have access to shelter. Always select the right blanket in terms of size, weight, and material; and be sure to remove it often to check for rubbing and wear spots.

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