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Livestock

High-fiber diets, plenty of water recommended for horses in cold weather

Written by Natasha Wheeler

Wintertime has set in across Wyoming, bringing snow and freezing temperatures to the landscape.

How cold impacts horses will depend on various factors, such as size, breed and age of the animals. Draft horses, for example, are well built for the cold, with less body surface area exposed to the air per unit of weight as compared to smaller horses or lighter breeds.

Older horses may have a harder time keeping warm, and new foals may also be less tolerant of cold temperatures.

Forage

“One of the best ways to help increase the amount of energy our horses take in and to help them keep warm is to feed hay or forage. It’s very high in fiber, and the microbes in the hindgut will ferment and digest that fiber. One of the byproducts of fermentation is heat,” comments Nettie Liburt of Liburt Equine Nutritional Consulting.

“Increases in forage are preferable to increases in grain when we’re trying to achieve an increased amount of heat because the microbes in the hindgut will ferment on the fiber, whereas many grain products are higher in starch, which won’t do much for a horse’s body temperature,” she continues.

As well as providing energy for the microorganisms in the hindgut, digestible fiber also provides energy and B vitamins for the horse. Indigestible fiber, a component of hay and forage, helps to slow the intake of easily digested carbohydrates, which are found in many grain concentrates and commercially available feeds.

Quality hay

“A balance of hay and grain can keep everything even keel,” Liburt remarks.

Good quality hay should be low in moisture, cut before maturity and free from weeds and foreign objects. Although, if hay is not top-quality, there are a number of supplements that can be included in a horse’s diet.

Hay cubes, beet pulp or hay pellets may be used to balance the animal’s nutritional needs.

“Some people are hesitant of hay cubes, but they don’t need to be. It’s really easy to soak them. They will absorb a lot of water that can be very beneficial in helping to increase the amount of water our horse takes in on a cold day,” she remarks.

Supplements

Cubes typically come with guaranteed percentages of protein, fat and fiber, which can be useful for planning a diet that may include hay with poor or inconsistent quality. They can also be purchased with grass, legume or mixed content mixtures to accommodate the diet needs of the animal.

“Beet pulp is one of my favorite supplements. It is very high in digestible fiber, which basically feeds the good microorganisms in the hindgut,” she notes, adding that it can also be soaked before feeding to provide extra water.

Hay pellets come in many different varieties to supplement forage or hay. Horses generally love them, she says, and for animals with bad teeth, they can be watered down to create a mush that can be slurped up easily.

Other considerations

If horses have trouble maintaining body condition in the cold weather, grain concentrates or ration balances may be useful. Grain concentrates can add calories and protein, and ration balances provide necessary nutrients.

“We can think of ration balancers like taking our daily vitamin. They are usually fed in very small amounts, and they provide all of the vitamins and minerals our horse needs, in a concentrated form, without providing a lot of extra calories,” describes Liburt.

Fat supplements can also be added to the diet, providing calories without added sugar, and fats are metabolized slowly, which discourages hyperactivity. Supplements can be found at the local grocery store or tack store and include products such as rice bran oil, or vegetable oils like canola or corn oil.

Water

Liburt also mentions, “Water is essential for life, for us and for our horses. It is also essential for the digestive process, and the more forage we feed our horses, the more water they will need to keep everything moving through the gut. It’s very important, especially in winter, to make sure our horses are drinking enough water.”

On average, an adult horse at 1,000 pounds drinks about 10 gallons of water per day, without excessive heat or exercise.

“If we’re turning our horses out in a group, it’s important to make sure there is enough water for each horse. I have seen horses guarding water sources and preventing other horses from getting to them, in which case multiple sources might be necessary,” she comments.

Although there may be a lot of snow on the ground, it does not serve as an adequate water source. Liburt says that is okay for horses to eat snow, but it won’t provide enough water content to meet the animals’ needs.

Encouraging intake

If horses are not taking in enough water, they may be encouraged to drink more with salt or mineral licks, electrolytes or flavored water. A drop of peppermint oil, for example, can be added to a tank to make water more palatable.

“There have been some studies on what temperature horses like to drink. It seems that water between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit is preferable for most horses and warming it above freezing may especially encourage older horses to drink,” she adds.

Making sure horses have access to water is essential, and Liburt encourages checking on water sources regularly to make sure they maintain good water quality and have not frozen over.

“Horses can handle the cold very well,” she concludes. “They’re very adaptable”

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..