Horse Nutrition Tips Heading in to Winter

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm
Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

This is my favorite time of year!  It is a time of reflection and relaxation after the show season, when I have time to hit the trails and enjoy the fall colors without the bugs tagging along.   The leaves have changed and like it or not, Old Man Winter is right around the corner.  Shorter days and cooler temperatures are signaling our horses to grow their winter hair coats. 

With these seasonal changes, there are a few good management practices and considerations that can facilitate a smooth and stress free transition into the cooler months of the year. 

  • Salt: Make sure loose white salt along with fresh clean water is available to your horse(s) at all times.  Meeting this requirement helps keep your horse drinking, and may help prevent seasonally related colic episodes due to reduction in water consumption as the days get colder. 
    • Loose salt is preferable to a block, as horses are not partial to licking a cold block as temperatures fall, and may not consume enough to meet requirements.  However, a salt block is preferable to no salt at all.
  • Water: Provide water in an insulated or heated bucket/tub.  Research suggests that water kept between 40 – 65°F is preferable to cold water, and helps maximize consumption.  Make sure your water source is insulated or heated to prevent ice formation when temps dip down below freezing.
    • Check electrical wires and grounding to ensure everything is working properly and is safe.  All wires should be protected to prevent chewing or disconnection from the power supply.
  • Hay: Providing hay as an alternative to fresh pasture as grass goes dormant is a common practice to meet forage and increased energy requirements as it gets colder.  Stock up now!  Having a reliable source of good quality hay that will get you through the winter months is important. 
    • Long stemmed forage is the best, however hay cubes, complete feeds, hay stretchers or replacers can be good solutions if hay is scarce, too expensive, or of poor quality. 
  • Foot care: Having a chat with your farrier about your goals and your horses’ specific needs over the winter is advisable.  You may want to consider non-slip solutions or snow pads for horses that are shod, or potentially taking off shoes, and letting your horse go barefoot for a few months.  In any case, regular trimming and balancing should be continued throughout the winter months although frequency may go down due to slower rate of hoof growth during this time of year.
  • Check in with your veterinarian:  Fall is a good time to check in with your vet to make sure your horse is up to date on recommended vaccinations, dental care, and de-worming.

With a little extra preparation and effort, you and your horse can enjoy a wonderful winter together!

Why did my horse lose weight during the hot weather?

Several factors influence how much energy it takes to maintain normal body temperature.   Air temperature, humidity, wind velocity, solar radiation and precipitation are all factors that affect how much energy is expended to maintain normal temperature for animals that are exposed to these elements.

We know that horses use more Calories to stay warm in the winter as cold weather has been estimated to increase Digestible Energy requirement about 2.5% for each degree Centigrade below  -10 C (14 degrees Fahrenheit) per the 2007 NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses, page 10-11.  The “thermal neutral zone” for horses is estimated to be from about 5 degrees C/ 40 degrees F (Lower Critical Temperature) to 25 degrees C/77 degrees F (Upper Critical Temperature).  

It takes horses 21 days to adjust to a higher or lower ambient temperature, with most of the adjustment taking place in 10-14 days and more adjustment taking place over a longer time, so the actual range may depend on what the horse has acclimated to over longer periods of time. 

We do not have good horse data for the impact of temperatures above the Upper Critical Temperature.  If we assume even a 0.5% increase in DE for each degree C above the Upper Critical Temperature (a fairly conservative estimate based on known cold weather changes and other species information), then if the ambient temperature is 35 degrees C/95 degrees F, we would need 5% more DE at the higher temperature just to maintain body weight.  As most horses do not eat more at higher temperatures and may actually consume less, the higher DE requirement for just maintenance might be expected to produce an actual weight loss just from the extra energy required to keep cool. 

Higher ambient temperatures also increase daily water requirements, particularly if horses are working.  The increase can easily be 50 to 100% higher, depending on the combination of factors present on a given day.  If they do not get enough water, they may also lose weight.

To put it in a human perspective, I was judging horse shows this summer when it was 95 to 100 degrees F, 80+% humidity, very little breeze and bright sun.  In addition to a bit of sunburn, I lost some weight and required 24-48 hours to get fully rehydrated even while drinking water all day!

Salt for Horses in High Temps

High temperatures and high humidity in much of the U.S. have created higher stress conditions for people and for horses.  I have been judging some horse shows recently in outdoor arenas with temperatures well in the 90’s with heat index values 100+ and I can see the impact on the horses as the show progresses.

Horses do require about 1-2 ounces of salt per day to provide help meet their requirement for sodium and chloride under normal temperature conditions.  This requirement can increase to 4-6 ounces of salt per day in hot climates or under exercise where losses in sweat increase greatly.  Inadequate salt in the diet can result in abnormal eating behavior such as licking or chewing objects which have salt on them (fork handles etc.) or licking/eating dirt.  Water intake may also decrease, increasing the risk of impaction colic. In more extreme cases, horses will stop eating and may experience muscle incoordination.

A good option to maintain year around salt intake is to offer loose salt available free choice, either in stalls or in a covered mineral feeder.  Salt intake from loose salt has been observed to be higher than from salt blocks due to the ease of consumption.  It is a challenge for a horse to lick enough salt off a salt block to consume the higher levels required during high heat and humidity. 

If horses are salt starved, it may be a good idea to limit the amount of salt put out for them initially until they have adjusted their intake.  It is absolutely essential that fresh water at an appropriate temperature be available at all times as well.  Horses tend to consume less water if the water temperature is too high, even if they should be drinking more water in the warm, humid conditions.

Commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt, so horses on this type of feed will typically consume less free choice salt than horses not receiving salt in their feed.  They may still benefit from having loose salt available free choice.  A salt block is better than not having any salt available free choice, but may not be as effective in maintaining salt intake when high intakes are required in hot, humid weather.

Providing salt free choice is a good management tool that can help your horse eat and drink well all year long!

Using Hay Replacers for Horses

Severe drought through parts of TX and OK leaves hayfields and pastures brown and dry, and animal owners searching for replacement options.

When times of severe draught or other weather phenomenon result in poor quality or availability of pastures and hay, horse owners often turn to complete feeds (i.e. feeds that contain a full diet of roughage, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other needed nutrients) or hay stretchers/replacers (designed to replace the fiber component of the hay/pasture that is no longer available).   These products can be extremely useful to horse owners to help them through the tough hay times, but they do come with some usage guidelines to keep horses happy and healthy.

  • Follow the recommended feeding rate.
    • This is of particular concern if the product is being used as the sole diet.  To keep gut health intact, enough fiber must be consumed each day for regular gut function.  And, to keep the horse healthy overall, it is critical to ensure they are receiving all the balanced nutrients that they would normally get through a combination of hay, pasture, and added concentrate feed.
  • Horses tend to crave long stem fiber to chew on, which is missing in the diet made up of complete feed or hay stretchers. 
    • Owners will most likely see unwanted behaviors begin, such as wood chewing, cribbing, or weaving, without some grass or hay to keep their horse’s mouth and mind busy.  While the full daily allotment of hay may not be available or affordable, it is a good idea to offer at least a flake or two each day to help prevent these behaviors (and save your fences).  Hay cubes are an option if pasture or traditional baled hay is unavailable.
  • Ensure proper water and salt consumption.  Proper hydration levels are essential to keeping the gut moving properly.

In the absence of available forage, providing a complete feed concentrate is a better option than feeding a concentrate that is designed to be fed with forage, by itself.  With proper management and attention to detail, both the horse and the owner’s pocketbook can pull through the hay shortage!

Laminitis in Horses – What can you do?

Many times when our animals are sick it can be hard to know what to do – how to feed them, how to help them, and how to make them feel better. With laminitis, the main thing you can do as a horse owner is to take steps to prevent it from happening. But if your horse does fall victim to this disease, knowing the appropriate diet and way to feed will help with the healing process.

Prevention of Laminitis
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “The best offense is a good defense.” That is certainly true with the hoof disease laminitis – here are some simple steps to improve your defense and help prevent this disease:

  • Keep concentrate meals at 5 lbs. or less to avoid overwhelming the capacity of the upper GI tract (prevent starch leakage to the hind-gut)
  • Restrict turn out time for those not used to spring grasses. This helps control intake of grasses that are high in sugar.
  • Sugar content (fructans) in grasses may be higher mid day & afternoon. Time turnout in the evening, nighttime and early morning hours

Closely monitor ponies and older horses, as they are often more prone to acute and/or chronic laminitis:

  • Restrict turn out time
  • Utilize a grazing muzzle when appropriate

Feeding the Laminitic Horse
For horses that are prone to bouts of  laminitis or  who are recovering from an episode with the disease, the overall diet is very important.

1. Feed a low-calorie, controlled carbohydrate feed

Turning horses out to pasture at the right time of day may help prevent laminitis

2. Feed smaller meals on a more frequent schedule

3. To aid in damaged hoof repair and growth, look for feeds that also contain guaranteed levels of:

For the laminitic horse, balance is key – once tissue damage has occurred it is imperative to provide a well balanced diet to encourage repair and healing. While it is important to manage calories closely, particularly calories from starches and sugar, we also have to strive to balance the overall diet for the best result.  Understanding the nutrient content of the hay your horse is eating is important to determine the nutrient content of the total overall diet (hay plus concentrate). It is a great idea to consider having your hay tested and factoring those results into your feeding program.

Understanding Laminitis

If you suspect laminitis, call your vet immediately!

Spring is upon us and hopefully warmer weather has arrived where you are! Many of our horses will soon begin to receive a substantial amount of their daily nutrients from new growth pasture.

While it can be a relief to turn horses out on green pasture after a long winter (for both the horse and the owner), these horses can be faced with a challenge that strikes terror in the hearts of horse owners everywhere: Laminitis.

Laminitis is a specific disease of the foot, which is characterized by damage or inflammation at the junction between the sensitive and insensitive laminae. This important area allows for the attachment of the hoof wall to the coffin bone within the hoof. Laminae become inflamed when an accumulation of toxins and lack of blood flow is found in the hoof. Although laminitis can be caused by a myriad of different things, we classify it in two ways:

  1. Metabolic laminitis
  2. Mechanical laminitis

Metabolic laminitis is more common of the two types and often coincides with some sort of toxemia in the body. It has been reported that approximately 45% of laminitis cases were triggered by lush, green growing pasture. While lush grass is one known cause, laminitis can also be caused by grain-overload (think feeding meals that are way too large, or your horse breaking into the feed room) or even by a retained placenta in a broodmare.

It can be hard to make the connection between something that the horse eats to a hoof disease, so let’s walk through an example: Your horse has been turned out on lush spring pasture that he hasn’t had access to all winter. He over consumes the rich grass which in turn overwhelms the upper digestive tract, and leaks into the hind-gut (cecum/large colon). Certain microorganisms in this part of the GI tract rapidly ferment the starches and sugars that leaked into the hind-gut resulting in an alteration in the pH. This change in the pH level kills off critical populations of cecal and colonic bacteria (good bugs) that help in the digestion process. Not only is the digestion process inhibited, but these dead bacteria release endotoxins which get into the horses blood. The endotoxins in the blood restrict blood flow to the hoof, damage those delicate laminae tissues and result in laminitis.

The second type, mechanical laminitis, is usually trauma induced. Overload on a horse’s foot from excessive body weight, riding on a hard-surface, or where the horse is trying to lessen the pain from a separate injury by shifting more weight to the good leg can all be causes of mechanical laminitis. A well known example of mechanical laminitis is Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby Winner.

In either metabolic or mechanical situations laminitis can happen in any foot, but most commonly it will occur in the front feet of horses on pasture. They will have a tender footed stance and act like they are “walking on egg shells”. A close inspection may show that the horse is shifting their weight—maybe backwards or even from side to side in an effort to compensate for the pain that they are experiencing in their affected leg or legs. If you find your horse in this situation, or suspect laminitis for any reason, contact your veterinarian immediately!

Warm Temps & Water Consumption

The transition in temperature and humidity from cool season to warm season may require an adjustment in watering horses. Reduced water consumption may impair performance and may increase the risk of impaction colic. Also, horses that are not conditioned properly may sweat more profusely than a well-conditioned horse, and thus dehydrate faster. This is particularly important early in the season when temperatures may change suddenly and horses may not yet be in peak condition.

The first key element is to make certain that horses have ready access to clean, palatable, cool water at all times or at very frequent intervals. Horses will normally consume about 1 gallon of water per 100 lbs body weight, so an 1100 lb horse will require a minimum of 11 gallons of water per day. This quantity can increase substantially during periods of exercise, high heat/humidity or for lactating mares.

Some tips to keep in mind to keep water consumption up:

  • Horses do not like to consume warm water in warm temperatures. Automatic waterers or large tanks, located in the shade and cleaned regularly, may be good options. If water is supplied in buckets, they need to be cleaned regularly and re-filled regularly.
  • If you are traveling to a show or other competition, it is essential to monitor water consumption, particularly if temperature conditions change.
  • It is routine in many barns to flavor the water with something like wintergreen or peppermint at home so that you can flavor the water in new facilities to match the home water.  Read here for tips on training your horse to drink water away from home.
  • Do NOT use soft drinks or any material containing caffeine as these can trigger positive drug tests.
  • Taking horses to facilities with chlorinated water can sometimes reduce water consumption without proper precautions.

The second key element is to make certain that salt is offered free choice. Things to keep in mind for salt consumption in horses include:

  • Horses require 1-2 ounces of salt per day, and this can increase to 6 ounces per day with exercise in hot weather conditions.
  • Loose salt is consumed more readily than salt blocks in many cases.
  • When evaluating the total diet for salt consumption, commercial feeds normally contain 0.5-1.0% salt. It is not typically any higher than this, due to problems with palatability.
  • If a horse has been salt deficient or is bored, they may over-consume salt while in a stall.
  • Additional electrolytes, commercial or personal recipe, may be used per directions before, during and following completion, but care must be taken to ensure that the horses are drinking adequate water. Administering electrolytes to a horse that is not drinking properly, or allowing a horse to over consume salt without adequate water, can lead to electrolyte imbalances. If electrolytes are added to the water, plain water should be offered also.

Horses need to be offered water throughout the day at a competition, and should be re-hydrated following exertion. They cannot cool out and recover properly without being re-hydrated. Keeping horses properly hydrated and maintaining electrolyte balance is extremely important in order to make a safe transition from cool temperatures to summer time and competition.

Transition to Spring Pasture

It is no wonder these guys are asking to be let out onto the lush spring grass after such a long and trying winter.  What horse owner could resist those molten brown eyes and soft whisper-nickers, as if saying ‘Let me out, I’ll be good…I promise!’   

We work hard and do our best to provide our horses what they need; pasture seems all too natural to resist. It’s only when you understand the unique nutritional properties of early spring forage, that you can feel better about saying ‘not yet’!

If your horse survived the winter on hay, a hasty  introduction to ‘rich’ spring grass can cause a shock to his digestive system.  If at all possible, keep your horse off grass during the initial growth period by designating a ‘sacrifice’ area or dry lot.  The size of the dry lot will depend on your available land, but generally should be large enough to allow your horse to move about freely and stretch his legs. The sacrifice area serves to protect your emerging pasture as well as allowing you an opportunity to ease your horse’s digestive tract onto new-growth grass. If he is kept in a dry lot during this time, you may consider hand walking, lunging or additional work sessions to keep him from becoming too fresh. 

So what is different about spring grass that we should heed warning? As the strong spring sun warms the earth, the grass in your pasture emerges from its winter dormant state. The first few blades have a critical job of transforming sunlight into food, a process called photosynthesis, that starts the growth of the plant for the rest of the season.  This food is in the form of plant sugar (fructans) and is essential for the plant to grow into a productive pasture contributor for the remainder of the season. 

When overnight temperatures are cool (generally 40 degrees F) the stored energy created during the day is used to grow additional leaves and roots. Extra food not utilized overnight is stored in the plant tissues.  If overnight temperatures drop below 40 degrees F, the plant will not invest in growth and the sugars will remain in the leaves. This is when the new grass is of concern for horses.

Therefore, it stands to reason that when overnight temperatures remain above 40 degrees F, it is the ideal time to start acclimating your horse to the fresh spring grass, because the level of fructans in the grass are likely to be the lowest.

The transition to pasture should be slow and gradual, starting with a period of 15-20 minutes of grazing.  Gradually increase until you have reached your ideal turnout length of time; this may take the better part of a month.  During this time, it is important to monitor the output of your horse; loose, unformed stools indicate digestive upset likely correlated to the increased fructans. For horses with metabolic issues prone to digestive upsets, transitions should made later in the growing cycle onto mature grasses.  In addition to restricting time on pasture, a grazing muzzle can be used to further control intake.

I probably don’t need to tell you that a pasture full of healthy, green growing grass not only looks wonderful, it is  an investment in your horse’s nutrition. Allowing the early grass to grow and flourish, then gradually transitioning to grazing is an investment in your overall nutrition program. Armed with this information, don’t you feel better telling him to wait?

Leading a Horse to Water…

Water is the most essential and important nutrient for you and your horse and should be available to your horse at all times. Good hydration is vital to optimal health and performance. With all of the bad things that can happen if a horse doesn’t drink properly, it’s no wonder horse owners, myself included, get anxious about making sure their horse is consuming adequate amounts of H2O, particularly when we are away from home.

So what is a horse owner to do in these cases? The old adage which says ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink’ may be true. However, with a little preparation before heading out to hit the trails or this year’s show circuit, most horses can be trained to drink. Providing free choice access to salt, bringing along water from home, using electrolytes, and doing things like soaking feed can all help, and training your horse to drink is one more tool you can add to your box of tricks. Supplies are cheap and easy to obtain. I like to use the smaller 8qt buckets – they are easier to hold, especially if watering in a trailer.

  • To begin, I wanted my gelding to associate the small “water” bucket with a yummy treat. So I started giving him his favorite treat – chopped up carrots, a little unsweetened applesauce, and a small handful beet pulp – in the bucket without water. He quickly learned that that bucket meant something yummy.
  • Once that positive association was made, I started adding just a little water over the treat, just enough to cover the carrot chunks (1 – 2 inches) and get the applesauce in solution so the water was “flavored”. The idea is to get his nose wet to get the treat, and he would be rewarded for slurping everything up through lots of verbal praise and the food treat. There are many things you can flavor water with, its just a matter of finding what your horse finds irresistible:
    • Gatorade, applesauce, commercial water flavors, carrot shreds, small handful of grain concentrate, small dollop of molasses, peppermints, etc.
  • Once he accepted the water addition to his treat, I started giving his “water treat” in different locations around the farm (in the cross-ties, by the horse trailer, in the horse trailer, outside of the arena, in the pasture, etc.) AND as soon as we were done working, just as his caveson or bridle came off after being properly cooled out. After a few days of doing this, he started expecting his “water treat” after work.
  • Now that we had established this behavior, it was time to add more water, filling to ¼ of the bucket and letting him get used to that, then filling to ½ bucket, letting him get used to that, and so on, until he was drinking most of a small bucket when I put it in front of him.
  • After a little time I started backing off of the flavor so the mixture got more diluted, but making sure he still got a treat reward for finishing off the bucket each time. That way if he ever got really stubborn about drinking or if I were masking water that was noticeably different from water at home, I could add more flavor back to entice him to drink.
    • Also, since adding things to water can be a labor intensive (buckets need to be cleaned more frequently), the less you have to add, the more practical it is.
    • Another trick, especially when you get to the full bucket stage, is to let the horse watch you add the treat (carrot/apple chunks) to the water, so they stay engaged and interested. If they back off drinking, then go back to the previous step or the step before that and re-establish the behavior, then move on again.

The idea of adding flavor initially is to develop the consumption behavior through positive association, and then wean them off of it gradually while the behavior is retained. If you regularly offer your horse flavored water, be sure they have access to clean, fresh, un-flavored water as well. Also, take care not to go overboard with sugary flavors in your water to avoid digestive upset. It would be counter-productive for your horse to associate a “tummy-ache” with drinking.

Lastly, don’t forget to keep yourself well hydrated along with your horse. Cheers!

Overweight Horses: Winter Management

Feeding the overweight horse can be tough, but winter poses an even greater challenge with managing a delicate balance between providing enough energy to stay warm, yet not so much he is unable to shed those unwanted pounds.

When considering the feeding program for your overweight horse, first take into consideration the forage type, quantity and frequency he is being fed.  The overweight horse benefits most from grass hay over legume hay due to it’s reduced calorie content.   Most overweight horses do best on grass hay with a ration balancer to provide balanced levels of necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Consider how frequently he has access to his forage.  Is he limit fed or allowed free access anytime of the day or night?  Generally speaking, limit feeding the overweight horse is one half of a critical equation to helping him shed those pounds.  Forage should make up the bulk of any horse’s ration and the overweight horse is no exception.  His forage ration should be between 1.0-1.75 lb. hay per 100 lb. body weight, per day.  For a 1,000 lb. horse, this would range from 10-17.5 lb. of hay each day.

Next, consider his living arrangement: Is he kept by himself or does he share feed with herd-members?  If possible, put him in isolation from other members of the herd to help control his intake.  Overweight horses may be considered ‘survivors’ in the wild as they oftentimes bully their way into their herd-member’s food supply, but as domesticated animals, they need not exhibit this behavior when a consistent, good quality supply of food is provided.  Isolating him from those he can bully will keep his portion size to what you fed him.

Next, take into consideration how he is managed:   Is he kept in a stall, coat clipped in a heated barn?  Is he turned out on a regular basis?  Does he live outside with access to a run-in or loafing shed?  How he is managed can play into how to help him lose weight, yet stay warm during the oftentimes brutal winter months.  Horses that are most frequently stalled benefit from turnout, safe footing permitted.   Those  turned out full-time should be monitored for the need of a blanket should weather conditions deteriorate enough to warrant; moisture penetrating the thick winter coat as well as a biting winter wind can cut through the toughest of their protections.

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm
Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

Finally, consider his activity level.  Winter in most parts of the United States bring snow, ice and/or frozen footing which can pose a challenge for horse owners.  Good footing is essential for reducing the occurrence of injury during exercise and this is no less important than in the winter months.  Here are a few suggestions for exercising your overweight horse when the footing is less than ideal.

  1. Hand walking – up or down the driveway, on a trail or around an arena is good for him and a great time to bond.
  2. Pasture turnout – solid footing permitting, turn him out for time to romp in the snow and work off some energy.
  3. Time on the lunge line – provides better control over his activity level than turnout and he can work faster than a hand walk.
  4. Trailer to a near-by indoor arena (if there is one close by) for lunge-work, saddle time or just some quiet hand walking.

Helping your overweight horse lose during the winter can be a delicate balance, but with some effort and creativity he can start out the New Year on the way to being a trimmer, healthier horse.