During the winter horses can drop condition due to reduced nutrition in grass and lower temperatures. Providing the right nutrition and management helps promote condition, so if your horse drops weight in winter, follow these guidelines to keep your horse in excellent health.
Good nutrition will support body condition, but it’s important to be aware that horses naturally lose weight in winter due to their metabolic cycle. This ensures they go into the spring leaner, so they can gain condition through spring, summer and autumn without becoming overweight. They can then go into the winter with some fat reserves to use, becoming leaner again by spring. Seasonal weight fluctuation is perfectly normal and preventing it could be bad for your horse’s long-term health. So, if your horse does drop a little, try not to become focused on feeding him up and piling on lbs he doesn’t need. However, if your horse is a poor doer in winter, it’s important to maintain a suitable body condition for optimum health.
Good quality forage is key, because fibre provides essential calories for condition and its breakdown releases heat, keeping your horse warm from the inside out. This heat helps maintain condition and better quality forage generates more heat.
Feeds which contain sources of highly digestible fibre, like beet and soya hulls, are an excellent way to boost condition along with oil sources like linseed and soya. For horses in harder work, providing some micronised cereals can be beneficial to meet energy needs whilst helping to maintain optimum condition.
Thermoregulation and Rugs
As a warm-blooded mammal, horses maintain a core body temperature of around 38⁰C through a process called thermoregulation. The ambient temperature around the horse affects how well they do this. At certain temperatures your horse will start to feel the cold and will need extra energy from feed to generate heat to maintain core temperature. This is known as the Lower Critical Temperature (LCT) and for horses in the UK is around 0 – 5ºC depending on breed, condition, age and coat thickness. The LCT for a clipped horse is 6ºC or more. Below LCT horses need additional feed and rugs to maintain condition, which is important if your horse has dropped weight. Older horses are less efficient at thermoregulation, so if your poor doer is older, keeping him warm through appropriate rugging is essential.
Over-rugging can be counter-productive so is best avoided. Human LCT is much higher than horses (25ºC) so try not to rug your horse based on how cold you feel. A hot horse will be uncomfortable, stressed and eat less, which compromises condition. Rugging sensibly according to their LCT is a better approach.
Dehydration will affect physiological processes and reduce digestive efficiency. In winter horses normally drink less, so it’s important to make sure they are always fully hydrated, particularly if your horse has lost condition.
Break ice regularly in water troughs and buckets and add hot water to warm up drinking water. Adding a tablespoon of salt in feed will also stimulate thirst and increase water intake.
Plenty of turnout is essential for your horse’s health. Horses normally prefer to be to warm and turned out than stabled and unable to socialise. Stabling is stressful for some horses, leading to reduced feed consumption and stereotypical behaviour which can contribute to poor condition. Turning your horse out with a well-fitted rug, shelter and plenty of forage will be more beneficial for condition.
With the correct nutrition and management, you can help winter become less of a challenge for horses that drop condition, but it’s important to remember that a little weight loss in winter is not always a bad thing.
If you have any questions about how to create the best winter diet for your horse, you can us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01531 557133.