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Feeding for Fall and Winter Weather

by Pennwoods Ambassador, Rene Tiffin

Fall and winter is such a beautiful time of the year. It’s also commonly a time of ulcers, diarrhea, and colic – the stuff of nightmares for horse owners! Understanding basic nutritional changes for horses is crucial to keeping your equines healthy during this transitional weather.

As the weather cools off, simple carbohydrates rapidly increase in pasture grasses. This can quickly overload the hind gut damaging the lining, allowing toxin absorption into the body, and even causing laminitis. The unbalanced nutritional demands in the gut will cause spikes of the immediately necessary bacteria, which in turn pushes other bacteria to die off. This will thrust the acidity levels into disarray, causing diarrhea or excess water with the passing of firm manure, ulcers, and colic. There are several things you can do to prevent this:

  •  Use a muzzle to manage grass intake
  •  Supplement with probiotics (Pennwood’s GI Renew is our recommendation)
  • Ensure enough fibre is being provided through other means of forage
  • Make changes gradually, at a 15% rate every 3 days. This also applies when supplementing with more hay as pasture nutrients drop.

Body Condition
Keep a close eye on your horse’s body condition during this time. The nutritional content in pasture will drop significantly when temperatures plummet at the end of autumn and you will need to provide more forage for them. Hay is the most beneficial form of forage, as it also creates the most heat during digestion. However, you can supplement with beet pulp, hay cubes, and grain-based feeds that are high in fibre. Don’t be deceived by the horse’s winter coat coming in – it can often make them look in better weight than they are. Feel their ribs and down their backs every week, adjusting food as necessary. If your horse is an easy keeper, use cooler weather to your advantage and do not fall to temptation of blanketing them too heavily. Allowing them to use their digestive heat and energy to stay warm keeps them comfortable and is a great way to control weight.

Water and Salt Intake
As temperature drops, so does the horse’s water intake. You can encourage them to drink more by providing warm water (above 7 degrees) and supplementing with salt or electrolytes. Salt is an integral  part of a horse’s daily nutritional needs. Be sure to check your feed for its salt content. If your feed does not already include their daily ration of salt (1-2 oz per day on average) you will need to supplement. While blocks may be convenient for this, measuring the amount of salt your horse is getting from them is extremely difficult. Why take a chance on something that’s so important to your horse’s health? Try feeding loose salt mixed in with daily rations instead. It’s the best way to ensure that your horse is getting what they need.

Monitor their water as temperatures drop below freezing: break and remove ice and add warm water or a tank heater. Checking their necks and gums regularly for hydration levels can help prevent a colic episode.

Remember that if you have concerns about your horse’s health or body condition, always contact your vet and an equine nutritionist!