Ever wondered, “Do I need to adjust my horse’s diet for winter?”
Read on for our practical approach to answering this question accurately to help keep your horse in optimal health through winter.
How much to feed?
Horses need to be able to eat between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent of their bodyweight in dry matter per day to keep their gut functioning optimally. That equates to at least 10 kg of hay or up to 18 kg of grass per day for a 500 kg horse. Follow the steps below to calculate how much feed your horse needs.
A bonus for horses eating plenty of hay or grass during cold weather is that fibre digestion occurs through fermentation by hindgut microbes which produces heat and has a ‘warming’ effect.
🪜Step 1: What does your horse weigh?
Weighing a horse on livestock scales is the most accurate method to determine body weight. If you have access to a trucking weigh bridge, you can calculate your horse’s weight by subtracting the weight of an empty truck or horse float and car from the weight when your horse is on-board.
A weight tape can be a surprisingly accurate method for estimating horse bodyweight, especially for mature horses of average build. There are also online calculators to help you estimate weight based on measuring your horse’s girth and length. Some calculators use slightly different coefficients to estimate the weight of growing horses, ponies or various breeds/builds.
🪜 Step 2. How much work does your horse do?
The amount of work your horses perform determines their nutritional requirements. Nutritionists define weekly workloads to help that make it easier to match horse daily nutritional requirements to their type and level of work.
🐴 A horse not in work (either ridden or lunged) can be defined as a horse at ‘maintenance’ or ‘rest’ or ‘spelling’. Some nutrition programs even define whether the unworked horse has a high or low level of activity (depending on the paddock size and temperament of the horse).
🐴 A horse in light work performs 1 – 3 hours of work per week at approximately 40% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter. This could include horses used for pleasure or trail riding, children’s ponies, horses during the early stages of training or beginning their education or show horses given occasional work.
🐴 A horse in moderate work is performs 3 – 5 hours per week at approximately 30% walk, 55% trot, 10% canter and 5% low jumps or other skill work. This could include horses used for more regular pleasure or trail riding, beginning training/breaking, show horses, dressage, campdraft, polo or polocrosse, stock work, cutting horses, showjumpers and low level eventers.
🐴 Hard work is defined when a horse performs 4-5 hours per week at 20% walk, 50% trot, 10% canter and 15% gallop, jumping or other skill work. This could include stock horses, polo, high level dressage and show jumping, medium level eventing and horses in race training.
🐴 Very Heavy or Intense work is performed by racehorses, elite three day eventers and endurance horses. Their work varies – it can be 1 hour per week speed work or 6 – 12 hours per week of slow work. Their average heart beat will be in the range 110 – 150 bpm.
🪜 Step 3. Does your horse need to gain, lose or maintain weight?
Teaching yourself how to body condition score (BCS) your horse is a very important tool in matching your horse’s diets to meet requirements and maintain optimal condition. There are some excellent video tools available on YouTube for learning how look at and feel body fat deposits to score your horse’s body condition on a 5 or 7 point scale.
It is well worth taking the time to record your horse’s BCS at least every 2 weeks and taking note of any increases or decreases in the score. Undesirable changes in body weight can occur in response to changes in pasture quality or quantity (changes in pasture quality aren’t always easy to see), changes in workload or in response to illness.
It is better to make regular minor adjustments to your horse’s diet in response to changes in BCS than to wait until a drastic change is required to achieve major weight gain or weight loss.
🪜 Step 4. Estimate forage intake requirement
The horse gut evolved to constantly digest a steady stream of fairly low energy, high fibre forage. When pasture is in limited supply, it is essential to provide enough good quality grass or meadow hay to fill the gap in pasture availability.
Horse feed is measured in kilograms of dry matter (kg DM) which is the weight of the feed after the natural water content is removed. Grains and pellets are often around 90% dry matter, whilst around 15 per cent of the weight of hay is water and the remaining 85 per cent is dry matter. The moisture content of pasture is much higher, with dry matter content typically ranging from 30 to 40 per cent.
📣 All horses need at least 1% of their body weight as roughage – including grass, hay made from grass and hay or chaff made from other plants such as lucerne or cereals. Grass or grass hay should form the majority of roughage intake. 📣
Read here for more information on how much to feed.
Easy-keeper horses and horses needing to lose weight should be limited to 1.5% of their bodyweight in dry matter per day. This will be mainly forage, with just a token feed to provide the essential vitamins, minerals and omega-3s needed to balance the forage to meet requirements. Read more about feeding easy keepers here. Grab a free ebook “Feeding Easy Keeper Horses and Ponies.”
Feeding for weight gain
Horses needing to gain weight and some horses in light work will eat around 2% of their body weight per day and may need a hard feed in addition to adequate forage to provide enough calories to maintain the desired BCS. Hard-keepers and underweight horses will benefit from access to free choice hay whenever pasture is overgrazed or the average length of leaves in the pasture falls below ankle height. Read more about feeding for weight gain here.
Feeding working horses
Horses in moderate or higher work often need a daily intake of 2.5% of their bodyweight in dry matter. In addition to forage, these horses usually need a larger hard feed made of grains, super-fibres and/or oils to top up their caloric intake to maintain condition. Read more here.
Metabolic or Laminitis prone?
For overweight horses and those with metabolic conditions who are prone to laminitis it is necessary to limit access to short, green or stressed grass as these are higher in the sugars and carbohydrates that can cause weight gain and trigger laminitis.
Although spring and autumn are the highest risk times for laminitis, it is important to monitor pasture and horses carefully through winter as well.
Click here to learn more about feeding metabolic or laminitis prone horses.
📣 Top Tip: Slow feeder hay nets can help make the daily ration last longer to avoid the stress and gastric ulcer risk associated with leaving horses for hours without roughage. 📣
Want to know if your horse is getting all of his or her nutritional requirements? You can get a free diet analysis from qualified nutritionists at Farmalogic! As a part of our strong commitment to customer service, and to help save you money, we offer a free diet analysis to fine-tune your horse’s diet and calculate the level of supplementation your horse requires. To access this service, please weigh your horse’s feeds then fill in the request form here.