Boy, was it chilly here last weekend! Did you pull out your winter blankets? I know I limited my regular outdoor excursions to 5 minutes or less on Thursday and Friday. I found it most entertaining to ask my humans to let me out repeatedly, only to turn around, fluff myself up, and ask to be let back in because it was cold. It was great fun! Do you know the best ways to help your horses through the cold snaps this winter? Here’s what I have learned over the years from my docs.
Did you know that one of the primary ways horses stay warm through the winter is by eating? That’s right. The calories we talk about in food are actually a measurement of heat energy. Your horse burns calories trying to keep warm. Feed provides those extra calories needed in the winter. Hay, specifically, has the added benefit of giving off heat as it ferments. This fermentation occurs in the horse’s cecum, which is kind of like a miniature version of the cow’s rumen. When provided with plenty of nice, good-quality forage, this internal fermentation process keeps horses nice and toasty!
When feeding hay for the winter, please don’t make the mistake of throwing out a new round bale of coastal hay and letting your horses eat their fill all at once. Most likely, they will colic. Coastal hay is relatively fine, and it loves to get stuck in the large colon. My docs see sooooo many coastal hay impaction colics in the winter, you wouldn’t believe it. Don’t be a victim of this very common scenario.
So, what is the right way to feed hay in the winter? If you choose to feed coastal hay, introduce your horse to the round bale gradually, over a period of several days to weeks. Limit their access to only a few hours a day at first. Or, better yet, feed flakes off of a round or square bale, rather than letting your horse have free-choice access. In addition, we recommend adding in alfalfa or peanut hay in a 1:4 ratio. The laxative effects of the alfalfa or peanut hay will help keep that coastal hay moving through. This means that for every flake of coastal hay your horse eats, you should be feeding about 1/4 flake of alfalfa or peanut hay. Alfalfa cubes or pellets (which should always be soaked in water before feeding) can also meet this requirement and prevent coastal hay impactions. A flake of alfalfa is equivalent to about 2 scoops (that is 3-quart scoops) of cubes or pellets. So, for every flake of coastal hay, you should feed about 1/2 a scoop of alfalfa cubes or pellets.
One more word of Tony Wisdom: pay attention to the quality of your coastal hay. Make sure you are buying “horse hay,” not “cow hay.” The biggest difference is in how fine-stemmed the hay is. Certain varieties of coastal hay, such as Tifton 85, are more coarse-stemmed, more digestible, and this less likely to cause impactions.
As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Notice nobody ever said this about a cat. Cats hate water, but we are at least smart enough to keep ourselves hydrated. Nonetheless, there are some things you can do to get more water into your horses this winter.
It has been shown that horses drink more warm water than cold water. Now, I’m not suggesting everyone needs to bring a coffee pot of hot water out to the barn every night. However, IF we get below freezing here in Florida this winter, you do need to make sure your horse’s water buckets are free of ice. And if you are having issues with your horse not drinking enough in the winter, a heater for your water trough is something to consider.
Adding salt to your horse’s grain is another easy way to encourage drinking. Following the same theory as eating a bag of potato chips, having a salty dinner will make your horse thirsty. You can buy electrolytes or Himalayan salt for horses, but I’ll tell you a secret: table salt works just as well for this purpose. 1 tablespoon morning and night should do the trick! You should also provide access to a salt block for your horse at all times, but some horses are more apt to lick a salt block than others. Adding salt directly to the feed is the best way to ensure it gets into your horse.
Another handy trick to get more fluids into your horse in the winter time is to soak their grain. Beet pulp and alfalfa cubes or pellets are excellent vehicles for soaking up water and getting your horse to consume it. That being said, most pelleted grains puff up nicely with water and can be soaked by themselves. Tony Pro Tip: don’t soak grain any longer than 10 minutes- it gets kinda rancid smelling and horses don’t like that. Beet pulp and alfalfa can be soaked as long as you like.
Everybody always wants to know about blankets. Blankets, blankets, blankets! The truth is, unless your horse is old, sick, thin, or body clipped, he probably doesn’t need a blanket in Florida. No, not even in the middle of the winter. Horses have a beautiful naturally water-repellent hair coat which insulates their body heat through those cold winter nights. You certainly don’t need to blanket any horse if the temperature is at or above 50 degrees. That’s their favorite weather!
All that horses need around here in the winter is some form of shelter to get out of the rain. It’s when they get wet and damp that the cold really becomes an issue. This shelter can be in the form of a barn, a run-in shed, or even a tree line. As long as your horses have somewhere to escape the worst of the winds or driving rain, they will do just fine.
For those horses who are old and/or thin going into the winter, it is a good idea to provide them with a little extra in the form of a waterproof sheet or blanket, and some extra hay. Usually the horses that run into trouble in the winter are those who are really lacking muscle mass and fat stores. So, start working on fattening up your hard-keepers before the temperatures drop!
Hopefully I have given you some useful ideas to keep your horses nice and cozy this season! Most importantly, remember to save that warm, toasty spot in front of the fireplace for your cat.
P.S. Have you subscribed to this blog yet? Or listened to an episode of the amazing podcast
that the humans record for you? It’s a fantastic free resource if you’re looking for more horse knowledge, which you obviously are, since you’re reading my blog. Alright, it’s nap time.