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Cold Weather Nutrition


By: Sarah Cates, DVM

Do you have questions about your horse’s health? The veterinarians at Full Circle Equine Services – Drs. Kakki Wright, Sarah Cates, and Ellen Yungmeyer – answer your questions. Submit your questions to their Facebook page, Full Circle Equine Services ( Those that aren’t selected for publication in this feature column will be answered on Facebook.

This month’s installment of Ask the Vet focuses on nutrition management during the winter months.  If you don’t see your question answered below, feel free to post it on our Facebook page!

Q: I always hear that you have to feed your horse more during cold weather.  Is this true?  Should I just feed more sweet feed?

A:  As the seasons change, your horse’s dietary needs change too.  As the temperature decreases, increased energy is needed to maintain your horse’s temperature and body condition.  The lowest critical temperature (LCT) is the lowest ambient temperature at which a horse does not require additional feed to maintain body temperature.  The LCT for a horse with a heavy winter coat is 30˚F and 50˚F with a moderate coat.  The LCT increases to 60˚F with a short coat or one that is wet.

An average horse should be consuming 2-3% of his/her body weight in feed (includes both hay and concentrates) a day.  If you are feeding your 1000-pound Quarter Horse (that has a moderate hair coat) 2% of his body weight in forage, this is 20 pounds of hay daily.  For every 10˚F below LCT, hay intake should be increased by 2 pounds. For example, if the temperature decreases to 30˚F, your horse now needs an additional 4 pounds of hay for a total of 24 pounds daily.  If the temperature is 30˚F and it’s raining, your horse needs an additional 6 pounds of hay for a total of 26 pounds. While sweet feed is calorically dense, it is less effective than hay at keeping your horse warm due to the way it is digested.  The process of hind-gut fermentation of forages will produce the heat that helps keep your horse warm during the winter months. 

Q: Why does it seem like horses colic more in the winter? Is there anything I can do to prevent this?

A: The increase of colic events can be attributed to several things.  When the ambient temperature drops, many horses decrease the amount of water they drink a day.  Additionally, many horses are transitioning from a grass diet that is high in moisture to a hay diet that is low in moisture.  Water buckets have the potential to freeze, leaving horses without water until the problem is remedied.  Any of these reasons can cause a decrease in hydration and subsequently an impaction colic. 

Most horses will drink approximately 7-10 gallons of water a day.  Like people, this amount varies from horse to horse.  It is important for you to establish a baseline of what is a “normal” amount of water for your horse to drink so you know what is abnormal.  Always ensure that your horse has access to clean, fresh and unfrozen water.  If your horses are outside, ensure that they have a clear path to the water trough.  Water can be added to their grain/concentrate to make a mash and to help increase the amount of water they consume.  Additionally, ensure access to a salt/mineral block or add a teaspoon of salt to their feed daily to encourage water intake.

Q: I have a 28 year old Thoroughbred gelding that is a hard keeper- how can I make sure he doesn’t lose any more weight over the winter?

A: Talk with your veterinarian to ensure your gelding has no underlying disease processes that are responsible for him being a hard keeper, including a thorough dental exam.  The foundation of a good equine diet is high quality forage.  Due to poor dentition, many older horses are not able to utilize forage as well as younger horses.  Because of this, many older horses thrive on a senior feed that is a “complete feed” - a completely balanced diet that includes high-quality fiber.  If needed, a complete feed can replace all the hay in your horse’s diet.  Always ensure that you are following the recommendations on the bag to ensure your horse is getting all the nutrients he needs.  Additional calories can be added to the diet in the form of a fat supplement. 

I always recommend blanketing thinner, older horses in cold weather.  They have less natural insulation and sometimes their hair coats are not as good- two things that are important in keeping a horse warm.  The blanket will help keep them warm so they do not have to expend as much energy towards warmth and will hopefully not lose condition over winter.  As always, it is very important to take your horse’s blanket off and assess their condition daily.  It is common for people to not look under their horse’s blankets until spring and have the unfortunate surprise of finding their horse has lost substantial weight over winter.

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