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Experts share tips on feeding horses through the winter 

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As days grow shorter and temperatures begin to cool, many individuals are gearing up for the looming winter months. As part of this preparation, equine experts are reminding horse owners to begin thinking about the best way to get their horses through another winter. 

According to University of Minnesota (UM) Extension, in a Farm Progress article written by Sarah McNaughton on Oct. 25, horses which are acclimated to cold weather are often better left outdoors when temperatures drop. 

“A horse’s best tolerance to the cold weather starts off with a healthy layer of fat under its skin,” writes McNaughton. “At the end of fall and the start of winter, a horse’s body condition score (BCS) should range between five and six – moderate to moderately fleshy.”

Increasing forage intake 

As temperatures begin to fall, the nutritional requirements of horses will rise in order to maintain BCS and body temperature. This is best achieved through increased caloric intake.

Although supplementing grain is one of the most popular ways to increase caloric intake, North Dakota State University (NDSU) notes increasing forage consumption is arguably even more effective.

“Feeding good-quality hay in sufficient amounts is one of the best ways to help horses keep warm. Feed digestion produces heat, with the digestion of high-fiber feeds – such as hay – releasing the greatest amount of heat,” explains NDSU Extension Service Equine Specialist Carrie Hammer. 

“High-fiber feeds produce more heat during digestion than low-fiber feeds. Thus, more heat will be produced through the digestion of hay than low-fiber grains such as corn and barley,” she adds. “Although oats are a low-fiber grain, they will produce more heat during digestion than other grains due to their fibrous outer hull.”

Experts agree horses need a minimum of one to two percent of their body weight in forage or roughage per day to maintain a healthy BCS. However, this percentage increases as weather worsens, especially for horses that live outdoors. 

Hammer explains, for horses with a heavy winter coat which have been acclimated to the weather, the lower critical temperature during dry, calm weather is 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and for each 10-degree drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, horses require an additional two pounds of feed per day.

With a 10- to 15-mile-per-hour wind blowing, horses will need to consume an additional four to eight pounds of hay, and horses in windy, wet weather with no shelter will need an additional 10 to 14 pounds of hay. 

Choosing good hay 

Although experts agree providing extra forage is the best way to increase body heat in horses during winter months, it is important to keep hay type and quality in mind. 

Hammer notes the majority of mature horses who spend the winter idle or are only used occasionally can be fed average-quality hay. Above-average hay should be set aside for young, growing horses; old, senior horses; pregnant and/or lactating mares; horses in poor condition or horses with a heavy workload.

“Poor-quality and moldy hay should not be fed, regardless of the physiologic state of the horse,” Hammer states.

“Owners can supply all of the poor-quality hay they want, but a horse still will lose weight in rough winter conditions,” she continues. “Poor-quality hay just doesn’t provide the energy and nutrients a horse needs to survive during a harsh, cold winter.”

With this said, Hammer believes investing in the best-quality hay possible will usually pay off in the long run, as less feed is required to meet horses’ nutritional requirements and palatability is higher, which will result in less waste.

Kansas State University Equine Nutrition Specialist Teresa Douthit notes it is especially important to invest in quality forage when hay inventories are short. 

In a Sept. 27 Farm Progress article written by Curt Arens, Douthit says horse owners should keep a few things in mind when purchasing hay – availability and cost, hay analysis, physical evaluation and alfalfa. 

Douthit explains, in most cases, horses are fed basic grass hay or alfalfa. For individuals who may want to try something less expensive and less common, she recommends looking into the potential risks of feeding something new. 

She also shares high-quality hay has a lower acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) content. 

“A high ADF will negatively impact digestibility, with less than 31 percent considered excellent and more than 45 percent indicating limit nutritive value,” she says. “A high NDF will negatively impact intake. So,  if the NDF exceeds 65 percent, horses likely won’t eat it. Less than 40 percent is considered excellent.”

Additionally, Douthit shares ideal forage should have 10 to 12 percent crude protein content.

To ensure hay is high quality, individuals should invest in a forage analysis before purchasing and/or feeding. 

“Even if the numbers are good, we will still need to physically evaluate the hay,” Douthit adds. “We don’t want the presence of weeds, deceased animals or trash. But, we also don’t want to see or smell dust or mold spores.” 

Douthit notes this is important because horses are more sensitive to spore exposure than other species of animals, and overexposure can lead to a multitude of health problems. 

Lastly, Douthit encourages individuals to ensure alfalfa fed to horses is free of blister beetles. 

“While there is no method that is 100 percent effective in eliminating the risk of blister beetles, there are things which can be done to reduce the risk,” she says. 

These include purchasing alfalfa put up prior to flowering – since blister beetles are attracted to flowers – or purchasing hay put up without the use of a crimper or conditioner.

“When hay is cut and begins to dry, the beetles will fall to the ground and move into fresh vegetation elsewhere,” she explains. “They cannot do this if they’ve been through a crimper and are deceased. Dead beetles will be baled into hay and are just as toxic when dead as they are when alive.” 

Providing supplementation and fresh water

In some instances, horses may need to be supplemented with more than forage.

“Considering a 1,000-pound horse consumes 20 pounds of hay daily to maintain body weight in ideal weather conditions, consuming an additional 10 to 20 pounds or more becomes impossible for many horses,” Hammer points out. 

“Therefore, in extreme conditions, hay alone is usually insufficient to supply the energy demands for a horse to maintain its body weight, and some type of additional grain source is justified,” she adds.

McNaughton notes for horses used to receiving grain throughout summer months, feeding an extra 0.25 pound per 100 pounds of body weight will help meet calorie needs. 

For horses requiring extra care, supplementation can jump to one-half pound of additional grain per 100 pounds of body weight. 

Lastly, the experts note winter water consumption is just as critical as feed intake.

“An average adult horse will drink five to 10 gallons of water per day. Access to clean water is essential to the horse’s health and well-being,” states Hammer. “During winter months, horses consume large amounts of dry forage, and reduced water intake will increase the chances of horses suffering from impaction and colic.”

“Feed intake also is closely related to water intake,” she concludes. “If water supplies are limited, feed intake can be reduced, which further puts the horse at a disadvantage in maintaining health and weight during the winter.”

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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