Can My Horse Stay on a Forage Diet This Winter?

An equine nutritionist explains how to make sure your summertime easy keeper remains healthy this winter.
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horses eating round bale of hay in winter
Be aware of herd dynamics preventing a horse from eating enough forage during the winter, when supply is more limited. | iStock

Q: I purchased my first horse earlier this summer, and he seems to be a pretty easy keeper. So far, he does well on pasture with some additional hay here and there. As we head into winter, I am worried about him maintaining his condition. How do I know if he will be able to maintain his condition over the winter on just forage? If he can’t, what else do I feed him?

A: Congratulations on your new horse! It is smart to plan ahead to make sure your horse maintains condition over the winter. It is easier to make corrections early, before weight loss gets out of hand, than try to play catch-up later.

It’s difficult to predict if a new horse will need extra help to maintain weight, but some things can indicate they might struggle. These include their breed, age, personality, metabolism, dentition, and health history. It sounds as though your horse is already an easy keeper in the summer months so he will probably tend that way in the winter, too.

Thankfully, many horses handle the winter months well on a forage diet. Sometimes environmental factors come into play. For example, a particularly harsh winter where your horse must burn more calories to stay warm or feeding a forage with lower nutritional value and fewer calories might affect your horse’s nutritional requirements. These variables can cause a typically easy keeper to struggle.

If your horse has a full winter coat, it can be challenging to notice changes in condition until they are significant. Put your hands on your horse frequently to catch changes you can feel before they are easily visible. Evaluate his body condition score and monitor his weight with a weight tape so you can determine if his condition is changing.

As a basic rule of thumb, you want to feed at least 1.5% body weight per day as forage year-round. Some easy keepers can maintain their weight on less, but I generally do not go below 1.3%, and I am happy to feed more to those that can handle the calories. As the pasture becomes dormant and the grass dies, your horse will look for more forage from hay.

If you are relying on large round or square bales and giving unlimited access, it will be harder to judge how much forage your horse is eating. However, if you know the weight of the bale, the number of horses eating it, and their body weights, you can calculate how long that bale should last if they are eating 1.5 to 2% of body weight daily.

Horses in a group living situation might become pushier around food in the winter, when pasture grazing is scarce. If your horse is living in a group and is not separated for meals, make sure you’re distributing adequate hay, there are more hay sites than horses, and hay is far enough apart to prevent kicking. Watch herd dynamics to see if hierarchy is preventing certain horses from getting enough hay.

If you spot undesirable weight loss, you have a couple of options. Often, the easiest strategy is to feed more hay. However, some barns limit the amount of hay being fed, and with high hay prices and limited availability in certain areas, feeding more hay might not be an option.

Hay substitutes, such as hay pellets or cubes, are good options. Other sources of fermentable fiber, such as beet pulp, provide extra calories. In fact, beet pulp provides more calories per pound than the equivalent amount of hay and also undergoes hindgut microbial fermentation. Feeds that require hindgut fermentation are of added benefit in the winter because fermentation generates heat that helps keep horses warm during cold weather. It is like stoking an internal furnace.

Feeding extra forage might not be adequate for some horses. In these cases using a higher-fat, high-fiber senior feed or performance feed would be a good choice. These feeds are more easily digestible than hay with higher calorie contents, provide quality protein, and have the added benefit of being properly fortified. If fed at the right quantity, they provide all the vitamins and minerals a forage-based diet might otherwise lack.

Many concentrates have a minimum serving size of 5 pounds or more per day for an average sized horse to ensure all nutrient requirements are met. For most horses, if you are feeding 5 or more pounds of such a feed, it’s advisable to divided it into multiple servings. This prevents the small intestine from becoming overwhelmed and allows the feed to be properly digested and absorbed. Feeding larger quantities of a concentrate at once increases colic risk, and your horse will not be gaining maximum benefit from the feed.

Ideally, you want to separate horses when offering them supplemental feeds. However, not all horses come into a stall or enclosure, and separating them at pasture while they eat might not be feasible in all outdoor living situations. When that is the case, try using feedbags. You can put them on horses in a group situation and remove them once mealtime is over.

Take a moment to make sure your horse’s teeth are in good shape coming into winter. A dental issue might not be obvious when the horse is eating primarily soft grass, but when they switch to an all-hay diet, they become unable to chew the stiffer hay properly, which negatively impacts how well they digest it. Parasite control is also prudent in the fall months. Talk to your veterinarian about doing a fecal egg count test to determine if your horse needs to be dewormed before winter.

If your horse continues to maintain his easy keeper status, do keep in mind that he might need a ration balancer or similar product to ensure all his micronutrient needs are being met. Forage-only diets rarely provide adequate amounts of trace minerals. You can test your hay to see what nutrients it lacks.

With attention to detail and consistent monitoring, you will be well set to ensure your horse comes out of winter at a healthy weight and in good condition.

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Written by:

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an equine nutritionist who owns Clarity Equine Nutrition, based in Gilbert, Arizona. She works as a consultant with owners/trainers and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses and provides services to select companies. As a nutritionist she works with all equids, from WEG competitors to Miniature donkeys and everything in between. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. Growing up, she competed in a wide array of disciplines and was an active member of the U.K. Pony Club. Today, she serves as the district commissioner for the Salt River Pony Club.

One Response

  1. Great article. I am interested in learning more on eqine nutrition. Could you suggest a certified nutrition program?

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