By: Dr Catherine Dunnett BSc, PhD, R.Nutr
With colder weather potentially on the way and possibly snow in the coming months, many horses and ponies will no doubt benefit from some extra forage and concentrate feed to help keep them in good condition through the remaining winter months. The grass has been growing up until quite recently, but the amount available is certainly starting to drop off, reducing energy intake from this source. We should always remember that keeping warm in the winter requires a significant amount of extra energy or calories. A horse’s daily energy requirements are reported to increase by between 22-44% above their normal maintenance needs during the winter months, depending on the temperature and wind chill factor. Whilst this can be an issue for those horses that struggle to maintain their condition, it is nature’s blessing for any horse or pony that is overweight where we struggle to reduce their condition in the spring and summer months.
For good do-ers, the winter can be regarded as a welcome opportunity to lose a little of the weight accumulated over the spring and summer months. This would of course happen naturally in a population of wild horses, as grazing becomes scarce over the winter months. However, even if your horse or pony does not need any significant amount of feed or forage until well into the winter, it is still very important to provide an adequate level of vitamins and minerals to maintain health. This can be difficult to achieve when little extra feed is required. Feed balancers are ideal for this situation as they contains a concentrated level of vitamins and minerals and should also provide a source of quality protein, but only needs to be fed at a low level, typically 100g / 100kg bodyweight.
For those that struggle to maintain condition, providing a field shelter offers some protection from the wind and rain and a good rug will also help to reduce the amount of energy lost as heat. This should decrease the amount of energy used to keep warm. Plenty of good quality forage is vitally important for these horses and ideally it would be fed on an as libitum basis. Likewise, a well-chosen concentrate feed, perhaps one with a high digestible fibre and oil content, will also make a significant contribution. It is important that you choose a feed that is designed for feeding at the level you are likely to feed to ensure that a suitable intake of vitamins and minerals is achieved. So for example, a conventional coarse mix or cube may require an intake of 3-4kg to deliver a balanced ration together with forage for a 500kg horse. Some feeds are more concentrated and require less to be fed and so it is always important to read the manufacturers feeding guide.
For older horses, or others that struggle with the cold weather such as Thoroughbreds, or those whose work has increased such as hunters, a high energy rice based feed that can be top dressed onto the existing concentrate feed is a good choice. Rice bran a calorie dense alternative that has a moderate-starch content and is high in oil, which is a good combination for weight gain without excitability. A relatively small amount of rice bran can be fed per day 250-500g to improve condition. Skin and coat condition can suffer in the winter months under big thick rugs and long coats as well as contact with muddy conditions in the field. Oil based supplements that are a rich source of Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly the longer chain DHA and EPA can have a beneficial effect and help to maintain skin health and coat condition.
A factor that always has a big impact on body condition through the winter months is the availability and suitability of your forage, whether this is hay or haylage. Quality forage provides a good source of fibre-based energy, which makes a significant contribution to the daily requirement and to be honest it can make or break even the best ration. Fibre is digested through a process of fermentation primarily in the hindgut by a population resident bacteria and other microflora. This process of fermentation, as well as producing a source of energy, creates warmth that can help to maintain body temperature, an important consideration during the winter. A healthy balance of bacteria in the hindgut is essential for efficient fermentation particularly of fibre. Live yeasts have been shown to help improve fibre fermentation, supporting the growth and activity of fibre digesting bacteria. Maintaining the right environment for these beneficial microflora to grow and multiply is important and simple management factors such as plenty of forage, moderating starch intake and keeping meals small and frequent can make a big difference. In addition, many feeds contain either live yeasts, or prebiotic ingredients such as mannanoligosaccharides to support the gut microfora and potentially help to reduce the likelihood of digestive disturbances, which can be a problem at this time of year as we switch and change feed.
Cooked feeds ensure that some of the hard work of digestion has already been done and the cooking process such as steam extrusion will ensure your horse or pony uses starches and protein more effectively and more safely through the winter months when feed intake is increased.
Maintaining adequate water intake throughout the winter is important to avoid impactions of feed within the gut and allow digestion to proceed smoothly. Checking water troughs at least daily and refilling buckets is so important especially if we have very cold weather or snow. Horses tend to reduce their water intake when the water is cold which can be a problem if forage intake is increased and so access to some warmer water to maintain intake can be a benefit.
Older horses can struggle to main condition particularly at this time of year if their teeth are in poor shape, making eating forage difficult. In addition, age or cumulative worm damage to the intestines can reduce the overall efficiency of digestion. For older horses or ponies with teeth in poor condition, Alfalfa or other forage based fibre chaffs, grass pellets, high fibre cubes and unmolassed sugar beet can also be used to supplement or replace hay or haylage. Keeping an eye out for any quidding and also on the length of fibre in the droppings can give a good indication on how well your horse or pony is managing hay or haylage.
Whilst the winter is generally regarded as a ‘safer’ period for ponies at risk of laminitis, we should avoid complacency. The amount of grass may be severely reduced in the winter due to the lower growth rate as a result of low soil temperature. However, it is still difficult to predict the overall sugar and fructan content of grazing, especially on those days where the sky is blue and the sun is shining, but where the ground is frozen or frosty. In that situation, the sugar and or fructan content of the grass may be high and so restricting grazing remains the safest option overall.
The winter months can also be a problematic time for both young and older animals alike where joint or bone related problems are present. Grass quality and growth drops off and so will their intake of vitamin K1, which is such an important nutrient with respect to bone health and development. It is only Vitamin K1, which is able to activate osteocalcin, which drives calcium deposition into bone maintaining bone mineral density giving strength. The form of vitamin K used in feed is vitamin K3, a synthetic form that is unable to activate osteocalcin and therefore cannot perform the same function. For young growing horses, injured animals, or those with age related aches and pains, replacing the natural source of vitamin K1 from grass in the winter months is important.
Whilst the winter brings many feeding challenges for a variety of horses, it also offers opportunities for trimming up and a well balanced diet with plenty of forage will ensure that your horse or pony reaches the spring in the best possible condition and health.
Keyflow’s Winter Choice:
Perfect Balance – a perfect source of concentrated vitamins and minerals, combined in a low starch and sugar formulation providing important amino acids from quality protein sources.
Stay Cool – a more concentrated muesli feed with fully steam extruded components to provide a balanced source of energy, vitamins and minerals as well as quality protein.
Key 3 Oil – A blend of oils offering a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids including DHA.
BoneKare – a unique patent source of vitamin K1, vital to maintain bone density and strength.
Key-Plus – A fully steam extruded rice based feed for those horses who tend to lose condition over winter. Offering starch in moderation, high oil levels, and a highly digestible source of cool energy for condition without excitability.