Colder weather has begun to lay its annual claim on the land, and horses, especially those who live outdoors 24/7, are experiencing changing nutritional needs. Despite what many of us may think, and, unlike their human counterparts, horses fare better in decreasing temperatures. In fact, our equine friends are most comfortable at temperatures between 18 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on their hair coat and whether wind and/or moisture are present.
However, some health issues brought on by winter’s wrath may prescribe a need for dietary changes or supplementation not otherwise required in warmer weather. Hard keepers, especially, can struggle to maintain a healthy body weight, while others may suffer from decreased thirst and consistently wet hooves, which can equate to big problems for horse owners. Luckily, some seemingly minor nutritional changes can be beneficial in terms of weight maintenance, lowered risk of impaction-induced colic, increased hydration and improved hoof health.
Success starts with adequate roughage
Horses are better able to control body heat if suitable roughage is provided. A mature horse in good flesh must consume at least 1 percent of their body weight (10 pounds for the average 1,000-pound riding horse) per day in good-quality forage — preferably an alfalfa grass/hay mix — to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract. This typically equates to between three and four flakes of hay daily. However, 2 percent or more may be necessary during frigid temperatures. It is also important to keep in mind that horses should be fed by weight and not by volume.
Increased energy is being spent as horses work to simply stay warm, and this should not be overlooked. Supplementing the horse’s diet with additional grain may prove beneficial. While grain does not provide as much of a core warming effect as hay, increased feeding may aid weight maintenance, especially in working, senior or pasture-kept horses.
You can lead a horse to water…
The air temperature is not all that should be taken into consideration. Drinking water should ideally fall between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is too cold, intake will decrease, thereby reducing water and lubrication in the gut and, in turn, increasing colic risk. As a reference, mature horses weighing 1,000 pounds require a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water daily in order to serve just their basic physiological needs. A trough heater or de-icer can prove invaluable in keeping winter drinking water at preferred temperatures.
Additionally, electrolytes should not be undervalued. These vital minerals aid in balancing fluids in the body’s cells and are involved in maintaining proper muscle function and waste processing. Electrolytes are lost daily through the natural processes of sweating and the excretion of urine and feces. Deficiencies can cause dehydration, impaired performance and the most prevalent type of cold weather colic: impaction. Electrolytes encourage adequate drinking, help to keep the gastrointestinal tract functioning properly and can be added to the horse’s diet in an affordable, easy-to-feed and highly palatable form.
No hoof, no horse
Damp, muddy ground can wreak havoc on previously healthy hooves. Essential amino acids, such as glutamine, glycine, proline and methionine, are critical in preserving healthy connective tissues. Copper, vitamin C and fatty acids also play a role in moisture balance and suppleness of the hoof. Zinc is necessary for keratin maintenance, which keeps the hooves from otherwise becoming soft or fragile. These nutrients can be easily and affordably supplied via diet or supplementation.
Domestic horses have increased needs
In the wild, horses can move continuously, foraging for food and water sources, and utilizing thick, wooly coats and the warmth of the herd to survive in the winter months. Domesticated horses don’t have the same options. They are limited to the space, pasture mates and food we provide, and their hair coats often do not stand up to the elements, requiring blanketing and/or appropriate shelter. It is our responsibility to ensure that their cold weather needs are being adequately met, thus keeping horses healthier and happier, and thereby correlating to a generally improved mood among horse owners — an added bonus.