Winter Weight Loss
Keep your horse at a healthy weight during the cold months.
By Thomas R. Lenz, D.V.M., M.S. | February 22, 2018
Temperatures between 15 and 60 degrees F are considered energy neutral for horses. This means that within that temperature range, horses don’t require extra energy or calories to stay warm or cool. However, this assumes that the wind is not blowing and the horse’s hair coat is not wet, because both conditions increase the horse’s caloric needs.
Horses instinctively know when they need extra calories to increase body temperature and maintain weight. Unfortunately, most horses are on a fixed diet and when additional calories are required to keep them warm or to maintain body weight, they are at the mercy of their owner’s ability to adjust the feed ration.
When feeding horses in cold weather, it is important to know two things:
Don’t be deceived by woolly winter hair coats that can make a horse look fat. During cold weather, horses that are not receiving adequate rations first burn stored fat and then protein from muscle tissue to fuel daily activities. Initially, fat reserves stored along the ribs, crest of the neck and rump are used. Then the muscles in the neck, shoulder and hindquarters are sacrificed. So when trying to assess body condition on a winter-coated horse, run your hands over the horse’s back, hips and ribs to determine if he is losing weight. If you are uncomfortable estimating weight loss through palpation, use a weight tape to check the horse’s weight in the late fall and then weekly throughout the winter.
Keep in mind that hay – not grain – is the best feed to help a horse generate body heat. The heat of digestion from five pounds of extra hay will raise the average horse’s core body temperature 1.2 degrees for nearly four hours. Forage is digested in the horse’s large intestine through bacterial fermentation, which not only provides nutrients but also generates heat. Concentrates such as corn and barley are low in fiber and are digested in the small intestine through enzyme activity, producing little heat.
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When it’s cold, focus on providing plenty of long-stemmed hay, preferably free choice. Unlike grains, additional hay can quickly be added to a horse’s diet without risk of colic or founder.
When faced with cold weather, many horse owners tend to keep their horses’ hay intake constant while increasing the grain portion of the diet. Although grains are very calorie dense (a pound of corn contains 1,800 calories; a pound of oats contain 1,500) and work well to fatten a horse, they are low in fiber and generate little heat. However, additional grain provided in the fall will add a layer of fat that serves to insulate the horse and does help him retain heat.
Good-quality hay should be the foundation of any equine diet and the first component to be increased to generate heat or regain body condition. If a horse continues to lose weight on hay, add grain to increase the caloric supply. Remember that the sudden addition or increase of grain in a horse’s diet – especially of corn or barley – can cause colic or founder, so add grain slowly over several days.
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An idle horse in comfortable weather will consume roughly 3 percent of his body weight in feed every day and at least half of that should be forage.
Toward winter’s end, give your horses a thorough going-over to make sure that the cold winter months have not taken a toll on body condition. Pay particular attention to very old or young horses.
For more information on keeping your horse healthy, consult an American Association of Equine Practitioners member veterinarian in your area. For a list of members, log onto www.aaep.org, or call 1-800-GETADVM