How Much Hay To Feed A Horse In Winter

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

Nutritional Needs

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.

Factors to Consider - Nutritional Needs

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?

Find The Best Slow Feeders for Horses

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.

Derby Originals Supreme Slow Feed Horse Hay Bag

How Much Hay to Feed a Horse in Winter - Hay bags

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.

Other Factors

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!

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