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.

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.

Hay or Grain First?

A friend recently asked me what was the correct feeding order, hay George eating hay in his paddockfirst or grain? This is a great question, and despite the controversy, I cannot find any hard data that suggests feeding hay first will have an effect on the horse’s health, unless over 50% of the diet is concentrate per feeding.

First, you need to look at the big picture. Horses by nature are grazing animals, not meal eaters. A horse should be provided with 1.5 to 2% of his total body weight per day in forage, i.e. a 1000 pound horse would receive 15-20 pounds of hay per day, depending on caloric needs and type of forage. To minimize waste I like to see the forage placed in a slow feed net, this also helps to replicate grazing.

The dietary needs are then balanced with a concentrate that may vary in weight from 1 pound to no more than 5 pounds per feeding. This where you really need to pay close attention to the feed rate and directions on the product you select. Due to the small size of the horse’s stomach, it is never recommended to feed more than 5 pounds of concentrate at any one feeding.

Horses are continuous grazers, and will graze 18 hours in a 24 hour day. To maintain normal gut function, saliva is produced up to 30 gallons in a 24 hour day, during this gazing period. This helps the horse maintain normal gut function, stabilizing the intestinal pH and keeping ulcers in check. Not to mention the periodontal impact.

Having forage first can be a benefit for those horses that tend to bolt their feed or concentrate. Again we need to look at the big picture and time between feedings. I also realize that for large farms and commercial operations it may be more labor intensive to make the feeding process a two-step program. If you board your horse a great treat is providing a serving of an additional forage source, such as a hay extender.

So hay or grain first is really not the issue, rather a balanced feeding program and feeding schedule is key.

You’re So Lucky!

This weekend I attended my 3rd Awards banquet for the 2014 show Region 14 Arabian Sport HOrse Rider Handler of the Yearseason. My horse and I completed the season earning state, regional and national championships. Considering that I am 60 years old and have been working with this horse for the past 4 years, I am very proud of our accomplishments. A friend told me we are just “So lucky to win all those awards”. I feel we are blessed to have earned these honors but it is more than luck. I look at the equation like a balanced triangle.

I like to start with the horse. So first I make sure I have the right horse for the job. I purchased my horse Rhinestone Cowboy AF as a potential horse I could show in trail class on the Arabian circuit.

At a local show, a nationally recognized Arabian judge commented he was very correct and would do well as a Sport horse. We watched a few Sport Horses classes and other friends encouraged us to enter the division. They were right and he has proven to be an outstanding Sport Horse Hunter under Saddle. I adjusted my goals for my horse with his development and athletic ability. It was a learning curve for me, and a lot of great people in the Sport Horse industry encouraged us to compete. So having the right horse for the job is important.

Next let’s look at the training aspect. You would not think of sending your child to school and telling the teacher you want the child to read at 6th grade level in 60 days, yet people expect miracles from their trainers. It takes time, patience and more time to properly train and school a horse. It is not within my budget to send my horse out for training, so he is home schooled. That does not stop me from seeking advice, attending clinics or watching trainers work horses. So many of our industry’s professionals are more than willing to help an amateur solve a problem or evaluate a situation, if you just reach out to them, but respect time and professionalism.

The third side to the triangle is diet. You would not train to run the Boston Marathon on a diet of fast food, why would you expect your horse to be any different. I start our program with the best quality hay I can find. I then feed my horse 2% of his body weight per day in hay. I balance the diet with a quality performance horse feed that provides chelated minerals, pre and pro biotics and is formulated at a safe NSC level. My personal choice is Pro Force fuel by Nutrena.

I only attended 3 shows last season one each month during June, July and August. I want the experience to be enjoyable for my horse as well as myself. I realize judging horses is like judging living art work and it is one person’s opinion. If my horse worked a good class, that is what matters to me. It is a hobby and we are there to have fun. We have worked hard to prepare for the show, and we are there to show what we can accomplish. My horse will have good days and bad days, and I need to know when he has reached his limit both physically and emotionally.

As I look at the triangle I feel confident I have the right horse for the job, worked to obtain realistic goals, and provided my horse with a balanced diet. We were blessed with an outstanding year and lucky to have so many great people in the industry encourage us!

Top Tips for Feeding Your Horse This Spring

Toby GrazingFeeding your horse during the longer days and warmer temperatures of the spring season can often be different than your chosen winter-feeding program.

Keep the following diet and feeding considerations in mind to help your horse smoothly transition from winter to spring:

Tip 1: Monitor Your Horse’s Body Condition

We all know every horse is different. This means that some horses will have gained winter weight from working less, while other horses will have shed a few pounds keeping warm in the cold. Before even thinking of altering your horse’s spring-feeding regimen, first evaluate his body condition. With the help of your veterinarian or a knowledgeable equine professional, determine if your horse is too skinny, too fat or carrying just the right amount of weight.

To monitor your horse’s weight without using a scale, you can utilize the body condition scoring method. This system will help you estimate the fat present on your horse’s body. Once you have estimated the level of fat cover, you will be able to more accurately determine whether you should increase or decrease your horse’s caloric intake.

It is important to note that each horse will require a different body condition level that is dependent on a number of factors, including: age, level of work, breed, current or past injuries, etc.

Tip 2: Don’t Forget About Concentrates (Grain)
Many horses are fed grain on a daily basis. Throughout winter some horses need extra grain to maintain their ideal body weight, while other horses have their grain reduced, due to inactivity. Adjusting the type and amount of concentrate or grain your horse consumes should be done slowly and carefully. A horse’s internal digestive system is built for slow changes.

With this in mind, monitor his level of work and body condition. If your horse’s work level is increased, he might need to receive more grain. Conversely, if his work level remains the same, and he is able to safely consume spring grasses, then your horse might need to receive fewer concentrates.

Whatever adjustments are made, make sure your horse is still receiving the appropriate level of essential nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Achieving this may require a change in the feed product being used. Horses requiring additional calories could be bumped up to a higher-calorie performance horse feed, while those needing fewer calories could go down to a ration balancer product.

Tip 3: Horses Tend to Eat A lot of Forage
It is no secret that horses eat a lot of forage. However, what most people don’t know is that a horse’s forage is only as good as the fiber that it contains. Pastures often lay dormant during winter, which can reduce a horse’s natural intake of grass forage. As a result, many equestrians will feed their horses extra forage via hay or beet pulp. This feeding tactic can be great for the cold months, but it should be re-evaluated in spring.

When spring arrives, most pasture paddocks will be filled with new grasses rich in sugar. Monitor your horse’s body condition score as it begins to consume the rich green grasses. Horses that gorge themselves on spring grasses may encounter some serious health issues. For example, overweight horses or those with Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance or laminitis will need to be carefully monitored. High sugar and starch levels of spring grass can aggravate the latter conditions. In these instances, reduced turnout time or a grazing muzzle can help limit pasture intake for certain at-risk horses.

Tip 4: Lots of Fresh Water
This last suggestion holds true in any season: Horses need to have access to plenty of fresh water 24 hours a day. Warmer temperatures and an increase in body sweat can result in dehydration. Make sure that your horse has water access post workout. Some equestrians also add electrolyte supplements to their horse’s feed. These supplements can help replenish essential nutrients during particularly warm or hot weather. Of course, consult your veterinarian if you have further questions.

Spring is a fantastic time of year for horses and equestrians. It is a chance to shed bulky winter clothing and spend time riding to your heart’s content. However, spring is also a time that a horse’s body condition should be properly monitored. If you need to make any changes to your horse’s spring feeding regime, be sure to make the changes slowly and consult a nutritionist or your veterinarian for advice or guidance.

Ashly Snell works at Dover Saddlery and enjoys eventing with and caring for her two Dutch Warmbloods. She has been an avid equestrian for 20 years.

What’s the Shelf Life of Horse Feed?

Textured Feed PouringFeed freshness is a concern for many horse owners.  We all want to feed our horses the best we can.  When it comes to freshness there are several factors involved, one of those being the expected shelf life of feed.  Horse owners and barn managers who understand these factors and practice good inventory rotation will be able to provide their horses fresh feed on a regular basis.

Shelf Life

First, what is shelf life?  Shelf life can be described as the length of time a feed is considered to have the nutritional quality and physical characteristics as intended when it was produced from the manufacturer.

In food terms, you may see ‘Best if used by’ or ‘Sell by’ followed by a date.  Human food is tightly managed and there are regulations that food processors, distributors and retailers need to follow to make sure that the food they put on their shelves is within date.

Most horse feeds do not have a ‘Use by’ date due to the process of manufacturing as well as the different storage conditions that feed is exposed to from when it is made to the time it is in your scoop.  Therefore, understanding what affects the shelf life can help you to provide your horse with fresh feed on a regular basis.

Feed Form

The form of feed you purchase has an impact on its shelf life. For example, a feed in the form of a pellet has undergone a process which involves cooking with heat and steam, followed by the use of centripetal force to push it through a die (think Play Dough machine) before it is cooled and dried.  This high temperature cook and cool helps to make the nutrients more available for digestion as well as improves the shelf life (cookie dough is only good for a few days, but baked cookies stored properly can last up to 2 weeks – well, not in my house!).

On the other hand, ‘textured’ or grain-based feed (where you see the oats, barley or cracked corn) which has had oil and/or molasses added has not undergone the same amount of ‘cooking’ as a pellet and therefore has a shorter shelf life.  Alone, the dry grains have a good shelf life, but when oil, molasses or other liquids have been added, the shelf life is shortened.

Generally speaking, a pelleted feed stored in ideal conditions won’t begin to lose nutritional quality until it is approximately 6 months old.  That’s a long time for a feed to still be good!  On the other hand, textured feed tends to lose nutritional quality around 90 days from date of manufacture.


One of the biggest risks regarding storage of feed is the potential growth of molds.  Molds are present in low levels all around us, but when exposed to certain conditions, molds can proliferate.  Molds love an environment that is warm and moist therefore, feed should be stored in a cool, dry place.

So what can you do to make sure your horse gets the best nutrition from the feed you buy? 

  • Feed makers and retailers set their own guidelines for shelf life of their products and they vary by the product.
  • Warm or humid temperatures will speed up the deterioration of quality as well, so pay especially close attention in the summer, and possibly even purchase less feed on a more frequent basis during those warmer months.
  • When you purchase feed from your retailer, ask how long they have had the bag of feed and under what conditions it has been stored.
  • When you get feed home, be sure to inspect it, looking for bugs or mold.
  • If you see indications of either, take the bag back to your retailer immediately.
  • Do not feed moldy or bug infested feed to your horses.

Any feed you store on farm should be kept in a cool, dry place, protected from infestation of pests.  Read here for tips on how best to store feed on your farm.

Do You Know the Feeding Rate For Your Horse Feed?

scooping feedI was visiting with some friends at a recent horse owners meeting. I saw a trainer I had visited several times in the past few years, answering nutrition questions and making recommendations. I asked how his horses were doing and if he had made any changes to his feed program. He replied that he had switched to a competitor’s product a few months ago and the results were terrible. His horses had lost weight, their coats were dull and he went back to feeding his old mill mix.

I asked which product he was feeding in particular and if he was feeding it to all of his horses? He had chosen a product that was designed for maintenance level horses, not show horses or breeding stock. For horses working harder an added supplementation and proper feed rates would be imperative.

Although I was disappointed he hadn’t tried Nutrena products, I went on to ask if he followed the directions on the tag? He responded that he can never figure out all that garbage on the tag and fed his horses as he always does. There was part of the problem!

A feed tag will give you a statement of purpose, what type of horse and life style it is formulated to be fed. Next it will list the recommended feed rate. This can vary from 1/4 pound to 2 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, depending on the fortification and quality of nutrients.

I was familiar with the product he had tried and their feed rate for horses working at a performance level would be 1.5 pounds per hundred pounds of body weight, or 15 pounds per day for a 1000 horse. This would have to be broken down into 3 feedings to be fed at a safe consumption rate, and could also mean added labor for his farm, not a bargain.

When I mentioned what I believed was the recommended feed rate for the product he was surprised. He said he would never feed that much of a concentrate to any horse. Again, he reiterated he doesn’t have time to read tags and do the math. I told him it is like making a box cake. You need to follow the directions, if you don’t use the entire box of cake mix, you won’t get the desired results. He did laugh at my remark, but I also think he understood the concept.