Keeping Horses Warm through Winter’s Chill
By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
Horses love it when there’s a chill in the air. But as the winter temperatures set in, your horse will rely on you to protect him against extreme cold. Some areas of the country have milder winters than others, but no matter where your horse lives, there are adjustments to be made.
First, pasture becomes limited or non-existent and horses must be fed hay. Hay loses many of the nutrients originally found in fresh grass, such as vitamins E and C, beta carotene (for vitamin A production), and omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, exposure to direct sunlight declines during winter, limiting your horse’s ability to produce his own vitamin D. It is more important than ever to fill in these nutritional gaps by providing a vitamin/mineral supplement that also includes flaxseed meal for necessary omega-3 fatty acids.
Alfalfa is beneficial for most horses because when combined with grass hay, it boosts the overall protein quality. This helps protect immune function and keep body proteins such as muscles, hair, skin, and hooves, in good condition. Consider offering your horse a 30/70 mixture of alfalfa/grass hay.
Hay helps your horse produce body heat
A good rule of thumb — for every 10 ° F below freezing (wind chill temperature), feed 10% more hay than usual. But better yet, offer grass hay free-choice. His digestive system requires a steady supply of forage and the best way to do this (and the most convenient for you) is to keep hay available at all times, day and night.
When more calories are needed
Wet and windy conditions increase energy needs, making it difficult for your horse to eat enough if hay is his only feed source. Depending on the condition of your horse, and his level of activity, you may need to add concentrates to the diet. A high fat commercial feed is fine for healthy horses. For the easy keeper, it is best to avoid cereal grains such as oats, corn, barley or sweet feeds. Beet pulp or alfalfa pellets provide calories without much starch and sugar. And don’t forget fat sources such as rice bran (stabilized and fortified with calcium), flaxseed meal, and oils — they are concentrated sources of calories.
Your older horse may need joint protection
Though a joint supplement may be helpful, start by adding vitamin C. As horses age, they no longer produce as much as when they were young. Vitamin C is necessary for collagen production – the protein found in joints. Omega 3s from flax or chia seeds are also a means of reducing joint inflammation that is aggravated by cold weather.
Do you need to blanket your horse?
Don’t rush to blanket your horse. If he is healthy, of normal weight, and has a good winter coat, he can do very well in cold weather. Your horse’s winter coat is an excellent insulator, provided his skin doesn’t get wet. Therefore, most horses do not need to be blanketed as long as they have access to shelter from the wind, rain, and snow.
If you must blanket your horse, use waterproof, breathable materials only, and monitor your horse’s coat under the blanket for sweating. When temperatures drop, a wet horse underneath a blanket can be colder than he would be with no blanket at all.
Turnout is the ideal situation, along with a three-sided shelter or free access to a barn to provide protection against severe weather. If your horse is stalled, make sure the barn is well ventilated to avoid respiratory problems. But remember, if a horse is unaccustomed to stall living, this can be very stressful, resulting in ulcers and reduced immune function. So the more turnout you can provide the better.
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