Thursday, 23 October 2014

Managing your horse's diet for Winter

Autumn is now well and truly upon us and as the leaves start to fall and the temperature begins to drop; many of us turn our thoughts towards winter feeding. Being proactive is undoubtedly the best strategy but this doesn’t necessarily mean we should be reaching for higher calorie feeds. In fact, results from this year’s National Equine Health Survey show that the incidence of obesity has more than doubled in the last year.

If your horse is a good-doer don’t be tempted to increase his feed just because the weather is changing; particularly if he has come out summer carrying excess weight. Winter provides a natural opportunity to lose weight, particularly for natives and allowing good-doers to slim down as nature intended helps to prevent excess weight gain in the following spring.

Even in winter months, many good-doers will continue to maintain weight well or in some cases too well on forage alone. When this is the case, a balancer is the ideal way to ensure that vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met, without feeding excess calories.

Where possible, opt for soaked hay rather than haylage. Although haylage is not automatically ‘richer’ as commonly thought, soaking hay helps to reduce the sugar content and of course, less sugar means less calories! Dividing hay between several, double-netted small-holed haylage nets may also help to extend foraging behaviour and make reduced rations last longer. Forage should never be restricted to less than 1.5% of bodyweight per day without veterinary supervision. For a 500kg horse, this equates to 7.5kg per day although if your horse has access to grazing, it will of course be impossible to measure exactly how much he is actually eating. As a guide, feed no less than 50% of your horse’s minimum daily ration if stabled for 12 hours, remembering that this may need to be increased depending on his condition and grazing.

Grazing muzzles have been proven to reduce grass intake by 80% on average, regardless of the season and if necessary, can be used in winter months too. Provided there is sufficient grass covering, good-doers may only need additional hay when it is very cold or if there is snow on the ground, so try to avoid turning overweight horses out with those who need ad-lib hay.

Maintaining a healthy body condition plays a key role in supporting your horse or pony’s general health and well-being. Weekly weigh taping, preferably at the same time of day can help to you to keep track of gradual changes in bodyweight. However weight is just a number, so try to combine this with regular body condition scoring, aiming for a score of 5 on a 1-9 scale. Having said this, allowing good-doers to enter spring at a leaner score of 4.5 is generally acceptable provided that they are otherwise fit and healthy.