Answer Exchange: Avoid Winter Weight Loss

Question: I have a nine-year-old draft-cross gelding. He stands 16.2 hands and weighs about 1,200 lb (545 kg). I ride him a couple of times a week. He is on pasture all day and receives one-half scoop of a senior feed twice daily. He stays in moderate condition on this diet through all seasons except winter. Even on increasing feed, he loses weight during the winter. He looks healthy year-round with a shiny coat and sound hooves. What can I do to avoid the winter weight loss this year?

Answer: Depending on the size of the scoop, you are likely feeding less than the recommended amount of senior feed. Based on your horse’s size and workload, at least 5.5 lb (2.5 kg) of feed is needed to provide complete nutrition. If you’re using a usual two-quart scoop, your gelding is likely receiving 2-2.5 lb (0.9-1.1 kg) of feed per day, meaning that even though your gelding’s diet is meeting his energy needs, as he is holding his weight during the majority of the year, it is lacking important trace minerals such as selenium, copper, and zinc.

If the assumption of underfeeding is correct, then adding a ration balancer to your current program will add a source of high-quality protein plus vitamins and minerals to provide optimal nutrition.

Regarding winter weight loss, the way to avoid this is simply to provide adequate digestible energy (calories). Winter feeding requires the provision of good-quality forage as the grass goes dormant. Hay and other forage products should be fed to provide both fiber and calories. If pasture quality and availability is starting to decline, it would be best to offer a supplemental source of forage sooner rather than later. How much to feed can be judged by how much supplemental hay your gelding consumes. For your horse and others known to drop weight, a constant source of hay may be appropriate.

Hay quality is an important factor, as it can affect voluntary intake. The high indigestible fiber content of late-cut hay can limit its consumption. In some cases, even when unlimited hay is available, as with round bales, the horse cannot consume enough to meet his energy needs. Offering forage alternatives or hay that was harvested at an earlier stage of maturity will provide more calories on an equal weight basis plus allow greater amounts to be consumed. Alternative forage sources include alfalfa cubes or pellets.

Selecting a higher calorie feed that contains more fat will also provide your horses with extra calories. High-fat (8-12%) and high-fiber (over 15%)  feeds provide the appropriate energy sources for horses in light to moderate training and known weight-loss problems. Feed this according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Supplemental fat in the form of stabilised rice bran or oil may also be appropriate as a calorie-booster.

In addition to providing extra calories, some horses require digestive support for optimal gut health and function. Daily supplementation with yeast, probiotics, or digestive buffers can help support gut microbes and improvements in digestibility of the diet.

Article reprinted courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research (KER). Visit for the latest in equine nutrition and management, and subscribe to The Weekly Feed to receive these articles directly (