Equine winter care: weight and gut health

The season of fluffy ponies, rugging horses in the pitch black and freezing cold morning rides is in full swing. Just like you and me, your horse’s health requires a little more TLC in the winter months.

Horses burn more calories in the winter months by metabolising fat stores to produce heat and stay warm. If a horse’s diet isn’t adjusted to facilitate the extra energy required to keep warm in winter, the horse will lose condition and weight. For people with overweight horses, winter may be a welcome gift but for most horse owners winter requires a dietary change for their equine companions.

To ensure your horse maintains a healthy weight over winter, it is recommended to prepare early by feeding your horse a balanced diet prior to winter to build up their immune system. You may even want to let your horse build up some extra fat stores to help facilitate the transition into the winter months. Therefore, if your horse loses a small amount of weight in winter it will not be detrimental to their overall condition.

Increasing the amount of roughage that you give your horse in winter is a great way to ensure they remain a healthy weight and receive an adequate supply of metabolisable energy to keep warm.

Two horses eating hay

Horses who are not rugged during winter will require a much higher energy intake than those who are rugged.

Horses extract vital minerals and vitamins from pasture. These nutrients may become depleted in winter due to the lack of quality pasture available. Feeding your horse a vet formulated vitamin and mineral supplement can prevent deficiencies and support your horse’s immune function over the winter period.

A horse’s gut movement slows down in the winter due to the lack of pasture for grazing and the increased amount of time spent confined in stalls. Winter is the most prevalent time for compaction colic in horses as a result of this. Prevention is better than cure, so here are some pointers on how you can prevent compaction colic this winter:

  1. Slow feeder

    Allow your horse to have access to forage 24/7 via the use of a slow feeder. Slow feeders mimic the grazing process and facilitate a healthy metabolic rate. Continuous metabolic function also has the added benefit of heat production, keeping your horse warm.

  2. Pre and probiotics

    Feeding your horses hindgut microbes with good bacteria will facilitate healthy fermentation and digestive function.

  3. Increased turnout time

    The more time a horse spends walking around in the pasture, the better. Exercise keeps the horse’s digestive system moving. If you need to stable your horse, ensure they have at least a couple of hours a day where they can roam the pasture to encourage gut movement.

  4. Small frequent meals

    Feed your horse small frequent meals to keep the digestive system moving. If you usually feed your horse a large hard feed morning and night, split these into smaller feeds throughout the day.

  5. Hydration

    Horses do not drink as much water in winter due to the colder temperatures. The increased amount of forage, less pasture intake and limited water consumption can cause a blockage in the pelvic flexure resulting in compaction colic.

Horses need to consume a minimum of 25 – 35L daily to stay hydrated. Monitor your horse’s water intake over winter, provide your horse water in buckets rather than automatic waterers so you can observe how much they consume.

Horses can be encouraged to consume larger amounts of water by providing them with lukewarm water or molasses water.

For further advice on equine health this winter, contact your animal health specialist at your local CRT branch.

Sarah Wilcock

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