Comfort Food - Fueling your horse for cold weather
The approach of winter turns our thoughts to hearty soups, fresh warm breads and hot toddies. It should also get us thinking about our horses' cold-weather needs.
Many owners respond to horses' winter needs without realizing why. Some will add a pound of corn thinking that it will produce more body heat. (Actually, corn has a fairly high energy level and is replacing the additional calories the horse is using rather than producing more heat. Keep in mind that "top dressing" with corn has been proven to increase the risk of colic.) Others may increase the level of grain they feed, add vegetable oil or increase the amount of hay. All these options increase the amount of calories the horse consumes.
The problem with some of the winter feeding fixes is that they may alter the vitamin and mineral balance, increase grain intake to an unhealthy level or use up valuable hay resources.
If your horse is a hard keeper, consider switching to a feed that has a higher fat guarantee. A basic feed without added fat will provide a guarantee of about 2.5 percent. Higher-fat feeds are available from 4.5 to eight percent, with some even going as high as 10 percent fat. This provides the extra energy horses need through winter.
Rice bran is an excellent choice for winter supplementation. Most horses will get the extra calories they need with just one pound per day. A 50-pound bag will last almost two months; two bags will get you through the winter. I recommend starting rice bran supplementation about three weeks before the weather really turns cold.
We are in the midst of the second-worst drought in this century, and hay could become an expensive commodity this winter. Fiber alternatives provide a good, consistent source of long-stem fiber while conserving your hay supply.
Alfalfa pellets don't provide enough fiber length to be an optimal fiber replacement. Straight beet pulp is not optimal, either, because of the soaking it requires and because it lacks some important vitamins and minerals.
To improve and increase fiber intake, alfalfa cubes, or cubes with a combination of alfalfa and timothy, work well at about four to five pounds per day. For those who don't want to feed a cube, chopped forages also allow for improved fiber intake.
A complete feed, which is a product containing sufficient fiber to meet the horse's dietary needs without supplemental hay, is another fiber solution. These products are based around a fiber source such as alfalfa or beet pulp, with grains, vitamins and minerals added to the mix. They work very well in various feeding situations as an alternative energy supplement to grain or as a way to improve or extend hay resources. However, I still like to see a certain amount of long-stem fiber in a horse's diet rather than a complete reliance on the feed.
There are a number of complete feeds on the market. In the past, most of these products have been relatively low energy. However, new products like Triple Crown Complete use the high-energy value of beet pulp and high levels of fat to produce a complete feed with as much energy as many performance grain-based feeds. Also, the complete cube market is expanding to include product lines designed for maintenance and performance, as well as for mares and foals. One new cube product, Winner's Choice, incorporates western alfalfa, timothy, high-quality grains, fat, organic minerals and vitamins.
Winter is especially hard on old horses. Fall is the perfect time to start them on a diet designed for seniors. A high-fat, beet pulp-based diet is an excellent choice for maintaining weight during cold weather.
Triple Crown Senior is one of the premier geriatric diets on the market. The fat level has recently been increased to seven percent to better provide the additional calories required to keep our old friends from losing weight during the winter.
Remember also that more confinement in stalls requires increased odor control. Levels of ammonia become harmful to your horse even before you can detect any smell. Use of ammonia neutralizers, such as Sweet PDZ, can stop ammonia related respiratory problems before they start.
Fresh water, and plenty of it, needs to be available at all times. Water that is too cold will inhibit consumption, so try to keep it in the 45- to 65-degree range.
Plan Ahead, and Winterize Your Horse
"Clean out your horse's run-in shed now," advises Extension Horse Specialist Frederick Harper. "Remove old bedding and manure. Check to make sure run-off doesn't drain into the shed and that the structure is free of loose boards or nails. Then re-bed the shed with four to eight inches of fresh bedding."
With the housing in order, don't neglect the horse. "It should have an adequate amount of body fat to insulate against winter's cold wind, rain and snow," Harper says. "Your horse should have a body condition score of 5; that is, you cannot see the ribs but can feel them if you run your fingers over the rib-cage while applying slight pressure. Winter is the best time of year to body condition your horse, and you should feed accordingly."
Vaccinations are important, including immunization against tetanus; cuts are more likely to go undetected in winter. Check your deworming schedule.
Harper advises pulling shoes in winter if you won't be riding. Keep hooves properly trimmed throughout the cold season.
Eric Haydt is general manager of Equine Specialty Feed Co.