Cold Weather Care and Feeding of Horses

Horse in pasture during snow fall

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight through the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs. Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss. This is particularly important for older horses. The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming. It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times. If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day. Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply. A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather. Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic. A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition. Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind. Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind. Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat.

Fourth, feed more! A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone. Wind chill increases the energy requirement also. Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option. Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

  • A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance.
  • Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)
  • Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.
  • This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.
  • If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.
  • If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for winter activities and is ready for spring when it finally arrives!

Estimating Winter Hay Needs

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm

Question: We recently purchased a farm and will be housing our two quarter horses over the winter. They are trail horses who are not ridden during the winter. Because I’ve always boarded my horses, I’m not sure how to estimate how much hay I will need for the winter. Can you provide some guidelines?

Response: An adult horse at maintenance will consume between 2 – 2.5% of their bodyweight in feed (hay and grain) each day. For example, a 1,000 pound horse fed a 100% hay diet would consume 25 pounds of hay each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 (when there is no pasture in MN), the horse would consume about 5,350 pounds of hay or 2.7 tons.
  • This would equal 107 fifty pound small square‐bales or six 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 214 small squarebales or 12 round‐bales.
  • It is critical to know the weight of the hay bales; not all bales weigh the same.

If the same horse was receiving 5 pounds of grain each day, their hay needs would be reduced to 20 pounds each day.

  • From October 15 to May 15 the horse would consume about 4,280 pounds of hay or 2.1 tons.
  • This would equal 86 fifty pound small square‐bales or five 900 pound round‐bales during this time.
  • For two horses, this amount would be doubled; 172 small‐square bales or 10 round‐bales.

These estimates assume good quality hay is fed in a feeder to reduced hay waste. When feeding small squares‐bales, hay waste when a feeder was not used (hay fed on the ground) was approximately 13% compared to only 1 to 5% when a feeder was used. When feeding large round‐bales, not using a feeder resulted in 57% hay waste compared
to 5 to 33% hay waste when a feeder was used. Its always best to purchase some extra hay since horses may require additional hay during the cold winter months (depending on their access to shelter).

Author: Krishona Martinson, PhD, Univ. of Minnesota. Reprinted with permission of the author. For other topics from the Univ. of Minnesota Equine Extension, visit their website.

Tracing the Effect of Trace Minerals in Horse Diets

Trace minerals have a large impact on the overall health and condition of your horse. Feeding them in proper amounts AND ratios is key to helping your horse be as happy and healthy as possible!Understanding the impact of trace minerals in the diet of horses


Click the image to enlarge. Please leave comments or questions if you have them!

Feeding Weanlings

Weanling in pastureYou have followed your preferred method for weaning foals and you have followed the directions below:

  1. You made certain that the foals were consuming at least 1 pound of a feed per month of age of a feed designed for foals and weanlings.  6 month old foals were consuming 6 pounds of feed per head per day.
    1. Appropriate feeds will be 14-16% protein with controlled starch and sugar along with amino acid, mineral and vitamin fortification designed for young growing horses.
  2. You kept in mind that past 2 months of age, the milk produced by the dam was not sufficient to maintain adequate growth, so the foals were creep fed if possible as not all mares allow the foal to eat with them.  The foal also had access to high quality forage, loose salt and fresh, clean water.
  3. You made certain that the foals were vaccinated for appropriate diseases and de-wormed according to your health care plan.  Vaccination is a stress on the animal, so you did not do this at the same time you weaned the foals
  4. The foals have been handled, taught to lead and have had their feet trimmed.

Now What?

You need to monitor the weanlings/early yearlings fairly closely and adjust feed intake to maintain desired growth rate and healthy body condition, feeding according to both weight and Body Condition Score (BCS).

  • Weanlings at 6 months of age that will mature at 1200 lbs. may be gaining 1.5+ lbs. per head per day.
  • The objective should be to maintain a smooth and steady rate of growth and a BCS of about 5.

Why Does My Weanling Have a Pot Belly?

Some weanlings become a bit pot-bellied, do not gain muscle mass and look a little rough following weaning.  This is frequently due to inadequate concentrate feed intake and too much forage.  The cecum is NOT fully developed in the weanling, so it cannot digest forage as efficiently as an older horse.

If a young growing horse is not getting the essential amino acids from a well-balanced concentrate, muscle development is slowed down.  If it is not getting the appropriate minerals, the risk of developmental orthopedic problems may increase.

How MUCH Should You Feed a Weanling?

A 6 month old weanling may be consuming 2.0-3.5% of bodyweight in feed and hay per day as fed and should be consuming about 70% concentrate and 30% forage.  At 12 months of age, the growth rate will slow down to about 1-1.25 lb. per day and the yearling will be consuming about 2.0-3.0% of bodyweight in feed and hay per day as fed and the concentrate to forage ratio will drop to 60:40.

As the young horse grows, the rate of growth slows down and the amount of forage it can digest efficiently increases.  Digestible Energy (DE) intake drives growth, but requires the right balance of amino acids and minerals to achieve healthy growth.  Too much DE without the right balance might lead to excessive BCS (fat!) with lack of muscle gain and may increase risk potential developmental orthopedic issues.

Proper preparation can minimize the stress of weaning for foals and help maintain uniform growth and body condition in the weanling to yearling transition to help develop a sound equine athlete.

Small Changes in Hay Have a Big Impact on Your Horse

102_2349 (Small)You just received a new load of hay in to your barn. It smells so good, and looks just like the last load you got from your regular supplier. But is it really the same? While it might be similar, growing and harvesting conditions vary with every single cutting, and that can have an impact on the nutrition contained in that sweet-smelling pile of bales in front of you.

Generally speaking, the differences aren’t going to be very big – but the next time your horse mysteriously starts losing weight, or losing muscle condition over his topline, you might want to question your hay supplier or get your hay tested.

For example – if your hay got rained on after it was cut, the rain can shatter the leaves, which is where much of the highly digestible protein is found in your hay.  And given how much of your horse’s daily diet is made up of hay, a small decrease in protein can have a big impact.  Let’s take a look at the math behind this:

A 1000 lb horse should eat 1.5-2.0% of its body weight per day in forage – that’s 15-20 lbs!

  • Hay A has 10% protein: 20 lbs of hay x 0.10 protein = 2 lbs of protein intake per day
  • Hay B has 8% protein: 20 lbs of hay x 0.08 protein = 1.6 lbs of protein intake per day

In this scenario, you’d have to feed an extra 5 lbs of Hay B per day to be feeding the same total protein as Hay A provides!

But how much difference does this really make, you ask? If your horse’s intake is already on the low end of protein requirements for his size and activity level, then a 2% drop in hay protein would potentially show up in 2 to 6 weeks. Over that time, all else being consistent, a decrease in general muscle tone, and muscling over the topline, will start to appear. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to combat – in many cases, simply tossing in an extra flake or two of hay per day, or adding a ration balancer or 1 – 2 lbs of grain per day, at feeding time will combat the decreases – and what horse won’t love you for that?

Senior Horse Care Tips

These days, horses are living longer, more productive lives than ever before.  Thanks to advances in care, medicine, nutrition and veterinary practices, it’s not unusual to find a horse active into their thirties.  But with more active years comes the need to provide accommodations which meet the special needs of the aging equine.

Turn-out and Exercise

Senior Horse in PastureMoving is a key factor in keeping your senior comfortable.  Not only does moving about help with preserving muscle mass, motion also aids in digestion, reducing inflammation and increasing circulation.  Daily turnout is a great way to provide this opportunity, as is regular exercise.  Some ideas to exercise include light schooling, trail rides, driving or hand walking.  Whether in a pasture or dry lot, daily turnout and frequent exercise of your senior horse will go a long way in providing a happy, healthy retirement. Plus it’s more time to spend with your aging friend.



As horses age, their teeth change due to wear.  Hopefully your senior horse has had the advantage of regular dental care in their earlier years, setting them up for success later in life.  Regular dental checks and floats not only help to maintain good dental health, it also provides your senior with the best chance at chewing and digesting their feed and forage.

Forage and alternative options

With the change in teeth comes some accommodation to forage.  Though aged, the equine senior still requires fiber as the main source of energy. Changes in dental efficacy as well as digestive system changes means the importance of good quality fiber is even higher.  If high quality hay (more leafy, less stems) is not readily available, hay cubes are a good alternate source of easy to chew fiber.  If needed, hay cubes can be soaked, providing an easy to chew fiber source.

Feed and Mashes

Changes in the digestive efficiency of the senior horses requires some specific nutritional needs.  As the digestive system ages, the ability to digest and absorb nutrients is more of a challenge than in earlier years.  In addition, nutrients are needed in different ratios to support the aging body.  For example, higher levels of quality amino acids are required to maintenance muscle mass in the senior horse.  Feeds that are specially formulated for senior horses provide these higher levels of nutrients in the proper ratio.  Many varieties of senior feeds are considered ‘complete’, in that they contain higher levels of fiber, providing an alternative to forage, thereby making it easier for the senior horse to get the nutrients needed.


You may notice a difference in your horse’s ability to stay warm during cold or wet weather.  Blanketing may be needed to help keep your senior horse warm during inclement weather.  Not only does blanketing help with warmth, your senior horse isn’t spending valuable calories trying to stay warm, burning off energy and their weight.  Blanketing in extreme cold or dampness may help your horse in maintaining a desired body condition.

Senior horse care may require some extra steps and more attention to details, but with the right adjustments, your senior can enjoy productive, happy and healthy golden years.

Determining the Value of Rained-On Hay

George eating hay in his paddockRain occurring while cut hay is laying in the field causes both yield and quality losses that reduce the value of the crop as an animal feed and a marketable commodity.

Weather-induced losses are caused by:

  1. Prolonged plant respiration reducing soluble carbohydrates and overall energy content
  2. Leaching of soluble carbohydrates, protein, and certain minerals from the hay
  3. Leaf shattering and loss, removing the highly digestible and high protein portion of the forage
  4. Microbial activity metabolizing soluble carbohydrates and reducing energy content
  5. Color bleaching

How much does rainfall reduce dry matter yield?

Several researchers have studied the effects of rainfall on cut alfalfa. Wisconsin researchers measured dry matter losses of 22% when alfalfa was exposed to 1 inch of rain after 1 day of drying (curing). Similar hay dried without rain damage lost only 6.3% of the initial yield. Losses appear to be greatest after partial drying of the forage has occurred. In this same study, alfalfa exposed to 1.6 inches of rain over several days suffered a 44% loss in dry matter. Michigan researchers conducted several different studies to examine the effects of rainfall on field cured alfalfa. The first study reported maximum dry matter losses of 34%. In a second study, rainfall intensity was kept constant at about 0.7 inches but spread over periods of 1 to 7 hours. Dry matter losses ranged from 4 to 13%, with highest losses occurring when the rain was spread over a longer duration. Overall, dry matter losses were much lower in these experiments even though rainfall amounts were about 2 inches.

Other species have been studies as well. Yields losses of birdsfoot trefoil appear to be less than alfalfa, while red clover shows even less dry matter loss due to rain, and grasses suffer the least amount of dry matter losses. Dry matter losses are most crucial to the person responsible for baling the hay. Dry matter losses usually represent a significant decrease in income since less hay is available for baling, feeding, and selling.

How does rainfall reduce dry matter yield?

Three primary factors are involved in dry matter losses; leaching, respiration, and leaf loss. Leaching is the movement of cell solubles out of the plant. Components of the plant that are very water soluble are leached out of the forage and lost when rain occurs. Unfortunately, most of these compounds are those highly digested by the animal. They include such components as readily available carbohydrates and soluble nitrogen, minerals, and lipids. About one-half of the dry matter leached by rain is soluble carbohydrates.

Unlike other livestock, losses of soluble carbohydrate can be beneficial for some horses. Laminitis is a painful and debilitating disease of the horse hoof. Laminitis typically occurs during periods of increased or rapid intake of water soluble and nonstructural carbohydrates. In order to manage lamintic horses and reduced amounts of carbohydrates in harvested forage, horse owners have resorted to soaking hay. A number of research trials have confirmed removal of carbohydrates from hay by soaking in either 30 minutes of warm or 60 minutes in cold tap water. Soaking hay is a cumbersome, messy, and time consuming process. Purchasing rained-on hay with naturally low levels of carbohydrates is a possible alternative.

Respiration (breakdown of soluble carbohydrates by plant enzymes) occurs at nearly 2% dry matter per hour in fresh forage, and declines almost in proportion to the decrease in moisture content until the plant reaches approximately 60% moisture. Every time the forage is wetted by rain, respiration is either prolonged or begins again in cases where the cured forage was below 60% moisture. In either case, additional dry matter is lost.

There is some disagreement in the research literature regarding the amount of leaf loss that occurs in cut alfalfa as a direct result of rainfall. In Wisconsin studies, leaf loss ranged from 8 to greater than 20% as a percent of the initial forage dry matter when rainfall amounts were from 1 to 2.5 inches. In Michigan studies, direct leaf loss was much lower (0.5 to 4.2%). Perhaps the issue of leaf loss from rainfall is a mute point. Experience and common sense tell us that rain damaged alfalfa is more predisposed to leaf shatter after it dries, and rainfall often means additional raking and more lost leaves.

How does rainfall intensity and forage moisture affect losses?

Research is conclusive on these two points. Given the same amount of total rainfall, a low intensity rain will result in more leaching of soluble compounds than a high intensity rain. Also, as forage moisture content declines, it is more prone to dry matter loss from rain. In Wisconsin rainfall studies, the maximum loss in dry matter (54%) was a treatment where 2.5 inches of rain fell on hay that was nearly dried.

How does rainfall affect forage quality?

Perhaps nothing is more frustrating than to see excellent quality alfalfa turn into unsuitable feed with each passing rain and subsequent raking. Most rainfall studies are in agreement that wetting of field dried alfalfa has little impact on protein concentration. For rained-on hay, it is common to see relatively high protein values in comparison to fiber concentrations, unless significant leaf loss occurs. With the leaching of soluble carbohydrates, structural fibers (acid and neutral detergent fibers) comprise a greater percent of the forage dry matter. Depending on numerous factors, the digestibility of rained-on hay may decline from 6 to 40%. Changes in fiber components are thought to occur by indirect mechanisms, where the respiratory activity of microorganisms has a concentrating effect on fiber components by oxidizing carbohydrate components; additional fiber is not made during the wetting process.


Rained on hay can be a suitable forage, but quality depends on several factors. Forage quality tends to be retained if rain occurs soon after cutting when the forage has had minimal time to dry; the rainfall was a single event compared to a multiple day or drawn-out event; rainfall intensity was higher versus a longer, lower intensity event; and the forage has not been re-wetter numerous times. Rained on hay is actually beneficial for horses prone to laminitis and other metabolic disorders because of its reduced carbohydrate content. Analyzing forage for nutrient content is recommended, but can be especially useful when determining the quality of rained on hay.

This article is reprinted with permission from Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin and Krishona Martinson, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at

How to Help Your Horse Lose Weight

Is your horse an easy keeper? Or just need to shed a few pounds? This simple, short video gives you the first steps to follow to take weight off your horse.

For specific recommendations on feed selection, or advice on what to do if you’ve already taken the steps outlined in the video, leave your questions in the comments section!

Hauling Horses: Stay Back and Stay Safe!

Truck and Horse TrailerThe following situation comes from Joanna Russell, a Nutrena sales representative, who enjoys riding eventers and show jumpers.

My father grew up on a farm with cattle and horses, he could back a truck and loaded trailer well before he had a driver’s license. My mother was a registered nurse who took a few years off in her career to drive a semi. Driving a truck and horse trailer is a skill I started learning while I was fifteen and still had my learner’s permit. By the time I graduated high school, I didn’t think anything of loading a couple horses up and going to a friends to ride with them. By the time I graduated from college, I was used to driving my horses several hours at a time on both highways and back roads near home. I had even driven straight from Virginia to Kentucky with one of my mares in tow. And by the time I started working for Nutrena, I was a pretty confident driver, in my car or in a truck and trailer.

Then I had that confidence shaken.  Recently I hooked up my trailer to my truck (we call her Roxanne), and loaded up two of our geldings, Ty and Jack, for a clinic. I didn’t think anything of the three hour, all highway drive. There was light traffic, it was actually a very pleasant drive listening to my favorite CD and keeping an eye on my trailer. About an hour down the road traffic got a little heavier, so I was making sure to keep plenty of space between me and the car in front of me. I was being extra alert, thanks to a hands on defensive driving class I had taken through work. And of course, keeping the cardinal rules of hauling in mind: DO NOT slam your brakes and NEVER swerve.

I was in the passing lane as a car passed me on the right aggressively, so I slowed to give them more space. Suddenly, I saw brake lights and heard tires screeching, all the cars in front of me had their brakes locked up. I broke the Rule. I locked up the brakes on Roxanne and my trailer, I heard them both squealing and knew I wasn’t going to be able to get stopped in time. I knew I had an empty space to my right. I broke the second Rule. I swerved. Hard. I missed the cars in front of me by a hair, while I felt the horses scramble, the trailer shake, and felt cold fear and dread in the pit of my stomach.

There was plenty of space in the right lane, and whatever caused the slowdown was gone—traffic was back to normal speed. The shoulder was narrow, and an exit was only a mile up the road from me so I kept driving slowly with my flashers on. This was the longest moment of my life. Were the horses ok? What would I do if one of them had a broken leg? What about a heavily bleeding wound? I had very basic first aid supplies, but nothing like I feared I might need. I finally got to the exit and pulled in a truck stop. I ran back to the trailer, trying to keep from crying in fear until I knew…

One of the worst moments of fear and dread in my life was followed by the greatest sense of relief. Ty had fallen down, but only had a small scrape on his hock and on his cannon bone. Jack didn’t have a single mark. They were both wide eyed and shaking—not as bad as I was, though. I fed them treats until I stopped shaking and was comfortable to drive again. The rest of our drive was uneventful, and would have been pleasant, save the sick feeling lingering in my stomach.

I thought a 7 second following distance was enough. I was wrong. I will do everything in my power to keep a minimum of a 10 second following distance from now on, longer if possible. Always have a way out in mind, and use “what if” thinking (what if a car slams its brakes in front of me? Where do I go?)—it could save you lives and vet bills. You can bet I will be beefing up my equine first aid kit for my trailer! And a big take away for me: Not everyone will notice or care that you take longer to stop and have living creatures as your load, so plan accordingly.

I am thankful that my employer values my safety enough to have put me through driving training that at very least saved me from having to replace my truck, and at most, saved the lives of myself, my horses, and the drivers around me.

Blue-Green Algae – A Potential Hazard for Horses, Pets and People

drinkingCurrent weather and water conditions in many parts of the country have created conditions favorable for the rapid growth of blue-green algae. Please be on alert with your horses and dogs, and use precaution when around unfamiliar water sources.

These primative organisms are actually algae-like bacteria instead of being true algae and are also referred to as Cyanobacteria.  They grow rapidly and may produce the pea-soup green color in some bodies of water, along with some foul odors.  These rapid growth periods, called “blooms” most frequently occur when there is a combination of warm weather, intermittent or limited rainfall and an accumulation of nutrients, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen.

The planktonic groups produce the pea green water while the mat-forming groups produce dark mats that start on the bottom and float to the surface.  The planktonic species (Anabena, Aphanizomenon and Microcystis) are believed to be most likely to produce toxins which can be harmful or fatal to animals when ingested. (Fact Sheet on Toxic Blue-Green Algae, Purdue University, Carole A. Lembi)

These toxins may be ingested when animals drink the water or when they lick their coats after being in the water.  Animals are more likely to consume the water if fresh water supplies are limited from other sources.  Any animals that drink the water during a period when toxins are being produced may be affected, but toxins are not always produced when there is a bloom.

Providing a source of fresh, clean, safe drinking water is the best way to avoid causing animals to consume questionable water.  If pets go swimming, they should be cleaned off before they have a chance to lick their coats.

Toxic symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash and skin irritation

Preventing run-off of nutrients into ponds and lakes is also important to help reduce the risk of these algae blooms.  Prolonged drought conditions in some areas have also increased the concentration of nutrients in the remaining water in ponds and lakes.

While not all “blooms” may produce toxins, avoiding exposure to or consumption of suspect water is recommended.  More information is available from local and state pollution control sites or extension sites.   A recent case in Minnesota reported that 2 pets had been killed and a boy was sent to the hospital (MPLS Star Tribune, July 4, 2015, Liz Sawyer) due to exposure to blue-green algae.