Last Updated on February 9, 2022
As grass dwindles down and pastures dry out in the fall, horse owners must consider winter-feeding habits. How much hay should you feed a horse in winter? Although there are set guidelines for basic equine forage requirements, each scenario is a unique situation. Unfortunately, spring and summer hay doesn’t necessarily dictate the quantity of hay to feed during cold months.
How Much Hay to Feed a Horse in Winter – Factors to Consider
Horses are natural foragers, meant to graze and draw nutrition from roughage. Typically, horses will eat 1.5-2% of their body weight in roughage each day. Of course, this is only a rough estimate. Factors such as exercise, forage quality, other feeds, and metabolism can affect this approximation. Forage alone can provide horses with their required protein, mineral, vitamin, and fiber content. Forage comes from grass or hay, or a combination of the two. However, there is significantly more pasture in the spring and summer months compared to late fall and winter when most grass typically dies down (unless you grow a variety such as winter wheat, mentioned below). In fact, many horses must be limit pasture-time during periods of lush grass, especially if they are at higher risk or previously foundered.
Due to these seasonal changes, it’s important to pay attention to the grass levels/quality in your pasture. Some owners will elect to feed round bales in the winter for around-the-clock access, while others will feed flakes from a square bale (or even hay cubes). Regardless of your preferred forage, it’s vital horses still intake an adequate amount of food when winter arrives. But with cold weather does a horse need more?
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Forage and Winter Weather
Many horse owners are concerned about their horse’s comfort and warmth during the winter. However, horses were around long before stalls and blankets. Horses can keep themselves warm and regulate their own body temperatures through freedom of movement (turnout rather than a stall) and by eating. Thus, forage is especially important in cold months. When horses consume hay, their digestive process produces heat. The most heat is produced when horses consume highly-fibrous foods, such as hay. Fermentation in the hindgut produces long-lasting heat for a horse, ideal for maintaining core body temperatures.
Grain and other feeds play an important role in calorie consumption. However, grains break down easily and do not offer the same heat produced by the fermentation process. Even “hot” feeds such as corns are considered high-energy foods but help provide warmth for a very short time only.
For owners that are fortunate to have natural forage in the winter, the grass should be taken into consideration. Although some nutritional content is still in winter grass, the actual nutrition levels may be minimal at best. Some grasses will hang on to nutrients better than others. In some areas, horses will have to work to get at the grass, such as snowy conditions. This means burning additional energy and calories. We recommend speaking to your local county extension agency regarding winter grass nutrition or testing. In most cases, supplemental hay will be required.
Some horses have never been on pasture, many for medical reasons. In some stables, owners elect to only feed hay cubes to cover nutritional needs in a controlled manner. Regardless of pasture access, horses utilize more energy to stay warm during the winter months. Even these horses will likely require an increase in food to maintain a healthy weight during frigid periods of cold weather. Horses out in the elements greatly benefit from feeding multiple times a day to keep the digestion process going. Other owners will opt for a horse-quality round bale for constant access.
Have you ever driven by a lush green pasture in the dead middle of winter? This was likely a variety of winter wheat or other cold-season annual grass. Although not traditional pasture varieties for horses, these can make great winter-grazing options. With effective management and assuming horses like this variety, some owners can have year-round grazing programs. This will greatly decrease a winter feed-bill but does require some pasture maintenance.
How Much Hay to Feed a Horse in Winter – Closing Thoughts
Although a horse’s forage requirement will likely remain 1.5-2% of their body weight, expect some increase in the winter regardless of your planned feed set-up. Forage is not only essential for health and digestion in herbivore animals but also warmth during cold winter months. Ensure you are monitoring your horse’s weight and condition during times of feed transitions. Sometimes this will mean physically feeling for ribs or hip bones due to extra hair growth from shortened daylight hours. For more questions regarding equine nutrition from forage, you can contact your veterinarian or local agricultural extension agent.
Have friends with horses? Be sure to share this article now that it’s December!
What should I feed my horse in winter?
Indeed, the nutrition that a horse receives during the winter months is a very important part of a horse’s overall health. If a horse is fed a high quality hay and given a healthy diet of supplements and vitamins, it will usually be able to maintain a good weight, with minimal loss of condition throughout the winter.
Hay is a staple part of the horse’s diet, and should be fed in sufficient quantities throughout the year. However, many horses require supplemental feeding throughout the year. There are a number of supplements that you can feed your horse to help maintain good condition, including vitamin and mineral mixes, vitamins, probiotics, and oils. There are also a number of supplements that can help to treat common ailments such as colic, respiratory infections, and arthritis. The most important thing to remember is that your horse’s needs are individual and it is important to monitor the weight of your horse and adjust the amount of food accordingly.
Do horses poop less in cold weather?
Although it is normal for horses to reduce their water intake when the temperature drops, this can lead to constipation. But there are ways to reduce the risk of manure accumulation and help keep your horse comfortable. A good way to increase water consumption and prevent constipation is by offering your horse a salt lick. A salt lick is a deposit of mineral salts. Animals need it to supplement their nutrition, and to get essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, sodium, and zinc. As it’s salty it will as well increase the need for water intake. This can be an inexpensive method of increasing your horse’s water consumption. Make sure you are feeding your horses the correct amount of food for their weight, age and activity level, and that they always have the access to fresh clean water.
Do horses need more hay in winter?
The amount of hay needed per day is based on the amount of forage that is consumed and the amount of digestible energy in the forage. The amount of hay needed is also based on the horse’s age, activity level, physical condition, and environmental conditions. A healthy, well-fed horse will consume approximately 20 to 25 pounds of hay per day. However, the required digestible energy increases as the temperature drops. Therefore, the amount of hay needed per horse in winter months can increase for about 30 to 50%!
How much do you feed a horse in the winter?
When horses work in cold weather, they require more energy to maintain their body temperature and will therefore consume more feed. In general, horses should consume approximately 2% of their body weight in hay but the actual number depends on the horse’s activity level and body weight. The best choice is a high-quality forage such as alfalfa or grass hay with a good nutritive value. Alfalfa and grass hay can provide adequate nutrition during the winter. Alfalfa hay is especially useful because it is rich in protein and fat, making it ideal for horses that are active during the winter. In addition to hay, horses should also be fed grains in the winter to increase energy levels.
Equestrian, Marine Corps vet, and Morgan horse enthusiast.