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Hay: Prescription for Winter Care


By Leigh Ballard

The horse’s digestive system is designed to have a constant source of fibrous food. In nature this source comes from constant grazing and moving from place to place. In domestication, the source is pasture or hay. In winter when many pasture grasses are dormant, one of the top winter feeding practices is free access to hay. During winter, horses require extra calories to stay warm and these calories should come from hay rather than increased grain. One of the best winter benefits of hay is that the process of digesting hay in the hindgut produces heat for the horse, and helps him/her stay warm.

If free access is not possible, then it is helpful to know how much daily hay ration to provide to maintain health, body condition and warmth. Generally, a horse needs a minimum of about 2% of his body weight in food every day. For hay, assume an average square bale weighs in the range of 40-50 pounds and an average horse weighs about 1,000 pounds. For this “average” horse, feed a minimum of 20-25 pounds of hay or about half a bale per day.

Adjustments in the amount of hay fed should take into account the following variables for the individual horse:

1) What is the condition of the horse going into winter?
2) Is he an easy keeper (chunky Quarter Horse) or a hard keeper (ribby Thoroughbred)?
3) Is he geriatric, with dental issues or metabolism issues?
4) What is his coat like – fine or wooly?
5) What type of shelter is available to him?
6) What is the nutritional quality of the hay?
7) What is the work load of the horse?
8) How extreme is the weather?
9) Is the horse average sized, larger, smaller?

To calculate how much hay you should plan for your average horse, assume a minimum of 5 square bales per week. This number allows some flexibility for waste, extreme cold, or other individual adjustments. If feeding round bales, assume that one average horse will eat an entire bale in one month if it is kept dry and palatable. (From my personal experience and from research, four horses will eat a dry, good quality bale in one week.)

In the mid-south, winter months are generally November through March, so assume five months or 20 weeks of hay feeding just through the winter. Using these assumptions, an average horse will need a minimum of 100 square bales or 5 round bales per winter. Depending on the amount of time the horse spends in the barn or turned out, a combination of the two types of bales is workable.

Other forage/fiber sources can partially replace some hay for the energy needs of winter. Alfalfa pellets or cubes, beet pulp, and commercial “complete” feeds can offset some hay feeding. Another energy source is fat, found in oils, and flaxseed or rice bran.

To prevent eating hay too fast or hay waste, slow feed hay nets and bags are useful. The horse can be given the amount of hay he needs, but it will take longer to eat it, keeping him occupied and a steady trickle into his digestive tract without gorging. Slow feeding is also said to help avoid a “hay belly” that some horses get from the gas produced in the fermentation process of digesting hay.

When feeding extra hay in the winter also make sure there is ample availability of water. Too much dry matter without sufficient water increases the risk for impaction colic. Horses can be encouraged to drink enough by keeping their water warm or adding salt to their diet.

Finally, consider weather conditions. The critical temperature at which a horse needs more calories to stay warm is 45° F. But, a wet horse, especially in wind, will lose body heat at a greater rate than normal, so adequate shelter is almost as important as hay.

Supplementing a horse’s nutritional needs with alfalfa hay or concentrates is important for some horses. But being able to generate more body heat by eating more hay will certainly help a horse to better maintain his health and comfort throughout the winter. Be sure you provide enough! Offer more than you think you need. If he doesn’t eat it all, then cut back.

Resource: “Stretching Your Horse Hay Supply,” by Dr. Frederick Harper,

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