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Friday
Nov092012

Preparing for Winter Feeding

By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

Horses enjoy cold weather and the relaxation that winter brings, but it takes more than hay to keep them healthy during the colder months. Optimal nutritional planning will help them enjoy the season and emerge in good condition when spring arrives.

Hay is not enough
Hay cannot compare in nutritive value to fresh grass. Once grass is cut, dried, and stored, it begins to lose vitamins C, D and E, beta carotene (for vitamin A production), and omega-3 fatty acids. Normally, your horse produces vitamin D when he is exposed to sunlight. But spending more time indoors, combined with shorter daylight hours, can induce a vitamin D deficiency leaving bones, joints, and muscles unprotected. Therefore, a vitamin supplement, along with flaxseed meal (to provide omega 3s), will fill in the nutritional gaps created by hay-only diets.

Consider alfalfa
Contrary to popular opinion, alfalfa it is not higher in sugar than grass hay. It is high in protein, but this is a good thing. At moderate intake (approximately 10 to 30 percent of the total hay ration), it boosts the overall protein quality of the diet to keep your horse’s muscles, joints, feet, skin, hair, and bones fed, as well as protects his blood and immune function. Alfalfa also serves as a stomach buffer against developing an ulcer, a common occurrence when a horse is stalled during the winter after being used to full-time turnout.

Offer hay free-choice
Cold weather increases the metabolic rate, which means that horses need to burn more calories to maintain a normal internal body temperature and a consistent weight. When provided free-choice, you will notice that your horse naturally consumes more to help stay warm and account for his higher energy need. Free-choice is always best (regardless of the season or condition of your horse) because it allows your horse to self-regulate his intake and eat only what his body needs.

For more calories, add concentrates
For many horses, hay will not provide enough calories to maintain normal body condition. A high fat commercial feed is fine for healthy horses. For the easy keeper or insulin-resistant horse, avoid sweet feeds and those that contain oats or corn. Beet pulp, alfalfa pellets, or low starch commercial feeds are excellent alternatives. Fatty feeds such as rice bran, flaxseed meal, or chia seeds offer the most concentrated source of calories. Avoid corn or soybean oils, since they promote inflammation due to their high omega-6 fatty acid content.

Older horses need special attention
Your older horse may need a joint supplement along with vitamin C for collagen production (the protein found in bones and joints), since less vitamin C is produces as horses age.

For the hard keeper, be sure there is no competition from younger, more aggressive horses for hay. Feed a senior feed, along with added flaxseed meal. And be sure to check your horse’s teeth. Poor dental health is the number one reason for weight loss in older horses.

Other tips
•    Use a prebiotic (fermentation product, not live microbes) or a potent probiotic (one that contains billions – 109 – colony forming units) to keep the hindgut microbial population healthy.
•    When feeding bran mashes, or any added feed, feed it every day. Consistency will prevent colic. Keep in mind, however, that bran (rice or wheat are most common) is very high in phosphorus in relation to calcium. Therefore, use a commercial product with added calcium or feed alfalfa to counteract the elevated phosphorus content.
•    Do not rely on snow to meet your horse’s water needs. Water should be kept at a palatable temperature to encourage drinking and prevent dehydration.
•    Don’t forget salt. Salt blocks, free choice granulated salt, or adding two tablespoons of table salt to your horse’s meals per day (divided between meals), will keep his body in proper water balance.

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