Cold Weather Horse Nutrition

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

With winter blowing in, be glad that your horses don’t have to deal with temperatures that consistently dip into the negative digits. However, do you consider your horse’s nutritional needs and how they change with even mild North Carolina winters? Here are some ideas to consider when feeding your horses this winter. 

The first thing you as a horse owner should do as we head into winter, is assess your horses’ body condition score, or the amount of body fat they are carrying. By using a simple numeric system, ranging from 1 to 9, you can adjust your horses’ diet to help them achieve the proper weight. If you need help with this, North Carolina Cooperative Extension published a fact sheet titled, “Mare and Foal Nutrition, Body Condition Scoring, A Management Tool for the Broodmare Owner”, and you can contact the Burke County Extension office to look for AG-491-2, or it is available online. Body condition scoring will help you keep feed costs down and your horse in optimum condition. 

No matter the body condition score, one of the most important aspects of feeding horses during the winter is providing them with high quality forage. This is often a difficult task given the current availability of affordable, good-quality hay. But unless you have a well-planned rotational grazing system in place, and have stockpiled forage that will that last until spring, purchasing hay is essential. Square, or even round bales are perfectly acceptable when correctly managed; however, feeding square bales will give you a better idea of how much hay your horses are eating on a daily basis, while round bales may be more affordable. 

Most pleasure horses should be fed at least 50 percent of their total daily diet as forage. For an average 1,000-pound horse fed at 2 percent body weight per day, that would be at least 10 pounds of hay per day. In addition to providing nutrients, hay also supplies body heat to the horses through the digestive process. These recommendations will change if you have broodmares or young growing horses, so be aware of the differences. 

It’s best to use some sort of feeder for hay when you are group feeding your horses outside. Oftentimes, a hay feeder will reduce the amount of wasted hay by at least 20 percent or more. There are some other forage alternatives to hay such as hay cubes or complete feeds that contain a high level of fiber, such as beet pulp. These are often more expensive in the long run, but offer another way to provide a source of fiber to your horses. 

If your hay is of high quality and your horses are maintaining their body condition scores throughout the winter, you may not have to provide a source of grain at all. However, if your horses are not meeting their nutritional needs with hay alone, you may need to add grain to their diet. Remember though, grain should supplement a horse’s diet, but a majority of their nutrient needs should be met by hay or stockpiled pasture. 

Water is an essential nutrient and it is critical to monitor it very carefully during the winter months. Usually, horses tend to increase their consumption of water when consuming more dry matter or hay. But, they tend to drink less when the water is really cold, which can cause digestive problems such as colic. That being said, it’s important to make sure you provide easy access to fresh water daily on a free-choice basis. When the temperature dips into the 30s and below, water tanks may freeze up. Be sure to check water tanks at least twice a day and break the ice up if needed so the horses can drink. You can also use a tank heater to keep the water from freezing. Energy free drinkers can also be utilized, and when installed properly will keep water from freezing in frigid weather.

Make sure to check older horses that have trouble keeping weight on during the year. They may need some special attention to keep them in proper condition throughout the winter. By managing nutrition based on body condition scoring and paying close attention to drinker management and usage, you can insure that you and your herd make it through the winter in good health and body condition.

Damon Pollard
Extension Agent