Preparing Hard-Keeping Horses for Winter: A Guide to Maintain Their Health

As the chill of winter descends upon us, horse owners face the challenge of keeping their “hard keepers” in good condition. These horses, prone to unwanted weight loss, require special attention and nutrition to endure the colder months without compromising their health. Let’s explore why some horses experience seasonal weight loss and delve into effective strategies for preparing them for the impending cold weather.

Understanding Seasonal Weight Loss

Seasonal weight loss in horses is a common occurrence during the colder months, and it can be particularly challenging when dealing with hard keepers. Two primary factors contribute to this phenomenon the transition from lush grass pasture to hay and the increased energy expenditure horses undergo to maintain warmth in cold climates.

Horses, like humans, are warm-blooded creatures, and their bodies work to maintain a stable internal temperature within a specific range known as the thermoneutral zone. When the ambient temperature drops below a horse’s lower critical temperature (LCT), they must expend more energy to generate heat and maintain their core temperature, often through processes like shivering and increased metabolic activity. In essence, colder weather necessitates more calories to keep horses warm, and if they don’t consume enough, they may experience weight loss.

Fueling Your Hard Keeper with High-Quality Forage

To combat cold-induced weight loss, it’s essential to increase your horse’s energy intake during the winter months. A general rule of thumb is a 2% increase in energy requirements for every one degree Fahrenheit below 18 degrees (note: horses maintain their thermoneutral zone temperature when the ambient temperature is 18-59 degrees F). For the average horse, this often translates to an extra 2-4 pounds of hay daily.

Horses with elevated energy demands, such as working or growing individuals, pregnant or lactating mares, and older horses, require even more calories during winter. High-quality hay, rich in fiber, is the ideal fuel source to help them maintain their core temperature within the thermoneutral zone. Hay undergoes fermentation in a horse’s large intestine, producing volatile fatty acids and heat, which the horse can use for energy and warmth. Thus, feeding good-quality forage with higher fiber content can help hard keepers generate more heat and maintain a healthy weight.

Consider Preserved Forages for Hard Keepers

In many regions of the United States, winter reduces pasture quality and turnout time, emphasizing the importance of hay and preserved forages. Both equine nutrition specialists Carey Williams and Shannon Pratt-Phillips recommend supplementing your horse’s diet with bagged forage options such as chopped hay, hay cubes, or hay pellets (alfalfa, timothy). Additionally, alternative fiber sources like soaked beet pulp shreds can complement your horse’s regular hay, enhancing feed quality, particularly when high-quality forage is scarce. Always ensure your horse has access to clean, fresh water, especially when feeding dried forage.

The guaranteed nutrient analysis provided on cubed or pelleted forage labels allows you to precisely understand what you’re feeding your hard keeper.

Adding Fat Supplements for Weight Maintenance

For some hard keepers, increasing hay or forage intake during cold weather may not suffice. In such cases, consider adding 1-2 pounds of rice bran to your horse’s daily diet. Rice bran is an excellent supplement, especially for horses that consume insufficient hay and require additional energy. Rich in fat and rapidly fermentable fiber, rice bran can help maintain body condition and weight without causing hyperactivity or excessive energy levels, as it contains lower sugar and starch levels. However, it doesn’t provide the same heating effect as forage, as it’s quickly digested in the small intestine, bypassing the large-intestine fermentation process.

Balancing Vitamins and Minerals

Lower-quality hay during winter may lack certain nutrients, particularly vitamins and minerals. Pasture, rich in vitamin E and beta carotene, tends to lose these vitamins over time when stored as hay. To address this deficiency, consider adding a ration balancer or a vitamin and mineral supplement to your horse’s daily diet. Ration balancer pellets, for instance, are low in calories but high in concentrated protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them ideal for horses on an all-forage diet.

Additional Considerations for Feeding Hard Keepers

Before making any dietary changes for hard keepers, consider factors such as age and management practices. Older horses often struggle to maintain weight due to decreased thermoregulatory capacity and difficulties in chewing and digesting long-stem forage. These horses may benefit from the addition of fat sources like rice bran.

In extremely cold or humid conditions, blanketing hard keepers and providing windproof shelter can reduce energy expenditure needed to maintain core body temperature. Clipping hard keepers in winter requires careful consideration, as it can affect their ability to thermoregulate effectively.

Ensuring that your hard-keeping horse thrives during the winter months requires attention to detail and tailored nutritional strategies. Offering high-quality forage, supplementing with fat sources, and addressing potential vitamin and mineral deficiencies will go a long way in maintaining your horse’s health and condition. Additionally, providing appropriate shelter and clean water ensures their comfort and well-being, regardless of the season.

By Staff writer