Feeding Horses in Winter

Horses tend to lose weight during winter. This is mainly because as temperatures drop, the amount of calories a horse needs to burn to stay warm and maintain their body temperature increases… so they need to eat more calories to maintain their weight. In many parts of the country the quality of pasture available also falls, which means a horse gets less calories from its pasture during winter which also contributes to weight loss during the winter.

For some horse owners, winter can be a welcome chance to strip some weight off overweight horses. For others, winter presents a significant challenge to keeping weight on. Feeding the right diet during winter will help keep your horses healthy and in good body condition, regardless of whether you want them to lose weight or are doing everything you can to keep the weight on.

Here are my top tips for getting through winter:

1.     Prepare for winter early

If your horse gets too thin in winter, you should use late summer and autumn while the temperatures are still comfortable and the pasture and hay quality still high to get your horse in good shape for winter. Feeding a little more hay and appropriate ‘hard feed’ during this period will get some extra weight on your horse, which will give him a couple of benefits. First, a little extra fat helps to insulate the body and will (slightly) reduce the amount of calories he needs to burn during winter to maintain body temperature. Second, he will have some body fat in reserve so that he can afford to lose a little weight over winter and still be in good shape come spring.

It is also important to get all horses onto a balanced diet (more on this below) before winter hits so that their immune systems are fully functional and can fight off any immune challenges that may come along. The healthier your horse is during winter the more chance he will stay in good shape right through the colder months.

If you need hay to get you through the winter you should also be looking to buy hay in summer as availability and quality are high, but demand is lower meaning you will get a good quality product for less than you will pay in winter.

2.     Feed plenty of forage

Forage (hay, chaff and pasture) will keep your horse warm in winter. Horses digest forage with help from the billions of bacteria that live in their hindgut in a process called fermentation. One of the ‘by-products’ of this fermentation is heat, and it is this heat that really helps a horse to stay warm during winter. Because of the ‘warming’ properties of forage, your horse will benefit from an additional feed of hay in very wet, cold weather.  

Forage also provides your horse with many of the calories they will need to maintain weight during winter.

3.     Don’t rug overweight horses

Keeping rugs off horses you want to lose weight will increase the amount of body heat they lose in cold conditions and therefore increase the amount of calories they will burn to maintain their body temperature. Winter is a saviour for fat horses, and in fact it is a very natural cycle for horses to go through whereby they lose weight over winter. If you don’t allow them to lose some weight over winter they get caught in a cycle of gaining weight in spring, summer and autumn but not losing anything in winter, which means they will get fatter and fatter and become increasingly more prone to diseases associated with obesity, like laminitis.

4.     Condition score your horse regularly

Don’t throw a rug on your horse in winter and leave it on for weeks on end without taking it off to check your horse’s body condition (and of course that it doesn’t have any injuries or sores that are covered by the rug).

Condition scoring involves looking at areas on your horse’s body such as the top of the neck, the wither, over the ribs and over the loin to assess the amount of body fat (which we call body condition) your horse is carrying.

So get rugs off as often as you can (daily is best) so you can check to see if your horse is losing, maintaining or gaining weight, which will then allow you to adjust their diet quickly as soon as you detect an unwanted change.

5.     Adjust your horse’s diet to control body weight

Because you will be condition scoring your horse regularly you will know if your horse is maintaining, gaining or losing weight. Depending on what you want your horse to be doing, you may need to adjust the diet to keep your horse at the bodyweight and condition you want.

If your horse is gaining unwanted weight, you will need to reduce or remove any high energy feeds like grains, pellets, sweetfeeds or oils in the diet. If your horse is losing weight that you don’t want him to lose, you may need to feed more calories in the diet. You can do this by:

  1. Feeding more hay and if you’re not already doing so feeding some lucerne hay. Lucerne is higher in calories than an equivalent quality grass hay and its higher protein content also increases heat production during digestion which will help just alittle with your horse staying warm.
  2. Adding high energy feeds to the diet like pellets, cubes, sweetfeeds, oil or high energy fibres like lupin hulls or sugarbeet pulp. Use the best quality feeds you can afford and if using a grain based feed look for one that contains extruded grains because research shows extruded grains are the most digestible for horses (Richards 2003).
  3. Feed a diet that meets all essential nutrient requirements

An unbalanced diet that doesn’t meet your horses requirements for energy, protein, vitamins and/or minerals will mean your horse won’t be as healthy as he could or should be. Deficiencies of nutrients in the diet can lead to:

  • Weight loss
  • Muscle wastage
  • Increased susceptibility to diseases like viruses, greasy heal and respiratory disease
  • Dull, dry coat and skin
  • Brittle and slow growing hooves
  • Suppressed immune systems

Assessing if your horse’s nutrient requirements are being met involves first knowing what your horse’s specific nutrient requirements are and then knowing the amount of nutrient in each of the feed ingredients, including pasture, you are feeding.

There are a few ways to work out if what you are feeding your horse is meeting all requirements for essential nutrients, including:

  1. Asking your preferred feed and/or supplement company for a detailed analysis of the diet you are feeding and for suggestions on correcting any deficiencies.
  2. Using online tools provided by your preferred feed and/or supplement company that will suggest balanced diets for your particular horse. The most sophisticated of these tools currently available in Australia and New Zealand is the Pryde’s EasiFeed Selector (http://selector.pryd.es/)
  3. Using independent nutrition calculators such as FeedXL (http://feedxl.com/ ) to assess your own horse’s diet and make any changes needed to ensure it is meeting all essential nutrient requirements.

While it does take a little bit of effort to check your horse’s diet, the effort is well worth it. It still never ceases to amaze me how much healthier horses on well-balanced diets are!

6.     Beware of laminitis

For horses susceptible to laminitis (including overweight horses, horses with Cushing’s Disease or those who have previously had laminitis) winter can be a danger period.

If your horse is at risk you should:

  1. Restrict your horse’s access to pasture to only the very early hours of the morning up until a few hours after sunrise.
  2. Feed low sugar hay and avoid hays made from ryegrass or cereals like oats, barley or wheat.
  3. Avoid all feeds with grain or grain by-products in them.

Beware: Most feeds that claim to be ‘grain free’ are NOT. Read the label of all feeds carefully. If they contain anything like bran, pollard, millmix or millrun do not feed them to a horse prone to laminitis as these are high-starch by-products from the wheat milling process and are not safe for laminitic horses.

7.     Add a little oil to the diet

A horses coat can become dry and dull during winter. To help keep the coat and skin healthy, add 1 to 3 tablespoons of oil to your horse’s daily ration. Cold pressed canola oil contains good levels of both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and does an excellent job of keeping winter coats healthy for horses on high forage diets.

And Finally...

Of course all the normal rules of good horse husbandry apply in winter. Feeding a well-balanced diet in conjunction with good dental, hoof and veterinary care as well as a strict faecal egg counting program with a strategic worming regime will help keep your horses in top shape over winter and ready to gleam when spring arrives!


Nerida Richards B. Rur Sc (Hon1) PhD RAnNutr
Equilize Horse Nutrition Pty Ltd