Winter presents a number of challenges, particular for poor-doers and of course their owners! If the recent cold snap and a lack of grazing has left your horse looking a little too lean, the following tips may help you to combat that dreaded winter weight loss.
First and foremost forage is the foundation of every horses diet, so start by ensuring your hay or haylage is of good quality and fed adlib, ideally in the field as well as the stable. Far from being ‘just bulk’, forage provides the lion share of your horse’s energy (calorie) intake and is essential for maintaining gut health. If your horse is a ‘fussy-feeder’ it may be worth monitoring how much forage he is ‘choosing’ to eat, aiming for a minimum of 1.5% bodyweight per day, (7.5-8kg/ day for a 500kg horse). Although grass intake is impossible for horse owners to measure, it can generally be ignored for underweight horses on poor pasture. Haylage is not automatically ‘richer’ as commonly thought and it is important to remember that due to higher moisture content, you need to feed approximately 1.2-1.5 times more haylage than hay by weight. Forage analysis is the only way to determine the nutritional value of both hay and haylage and may be particularly useful when it comes to calculating haylage rations or choosing the most suitable forage supply for you individual horse. If your horse or pony has poor teeth, look for a short chop hay replacer or a cube that be soaked to make a mash.
Although moving to a ‘conditioning’ feed may seem like the obvious choice, start by checking that you are feeding the recommended ration of your current feed as a simple increase may be all that is needed; even if your feed says ‘low energy’ or ‘low calorie’ on the bag. If this doesn’t achieve the desired result; look for a feed containing higher levels of digestible energy and protein. Choosing fibre and oil rather than cereal based feeds is the most sympathetic option both in terms of digestive health and preventing unwanted excitability. However if your horse is prone to any clinical conditions such as laminitis, colic or tying-up, speak to a nutritionist before changing his feed. Traditionally sugar beet has been a common addition to winter diets and although it is high in calories and fibre, it contains approximately 80% water once soaked, making it easy to overestimate how much of it you are feeding. Whilst a Stubbs scoop of soaked beet pulp may look like a significant contribution to your horse’s bucket, it actually contains limited nutritional value. In fact, just 1 scoop of Horse of Pony Cubes is approximately 5 times higher in calories!
Finally make sure your horse is well rugged to help ensure he isn’t wasting valuable energy from his feed keeping warm. If you are reaching for an extra duvet you may need to think about doing the same for your horse!