Winter Feeding Guidelines from Dr. Samantha Wellspring

Winter Feeding Guidelines from Dr. Samantha Wellspring

Here's the answer to a question that comes up often!

Do I need to increase the amount of feed I give to my horse in the winter?

The average horse will need about 25% higher energy intake during the coldest winter months. In the Northern Hemisphere, December through February are the coldest winter months. It is during this time that horses often need an added source of calories. In places where there is snow cover, there is little forage so the source of extra calories must come from hay, hay replacement or grain.

To better understand what your horse’s winter caloric needs are, you need to understand “Lower Critical Temperature” (LCT). The LCT is the temperature below which the horse will start to use more than normal energy for maintaining body warmth. 

For each degree Fahrenheit, the temperature is below the horse’s LCT the caloric needs will generally increase by about 1%. The LCT can vary in each horse depending on what temperature that horse has adapted to and how much body insulation they have. For example, a fit horse in Southern California with clipped hair and a heated barn might have a LCT of 500F versus a shaggy, overweight horse living in a pasture in Colorado with a three-sided shed may have an LCT of 300F. 

What factors determine LCT?

  1. Body insulation- body fat, hair length, type of blanket used, shelter 
  2. Outside temperature- What temperature range your horse is adapted to? Is it sunny or cloudy? What is the angle of the sun? Wind? Precipitation?

If cold stress is more than one or two days and the increased energy needs are not met, the horse will start to lose weight. For some horses who are already overweight, this might be a welcome change but in elderly horses, underweight horses or competition horses, weight loss can be a problem.  

How do you know if your horse has reached its LCT?

Here are some indications that the LCT has been reached:

  1. Horse is shivering
  2. The hair coat is standing on end instead of lying flat
  3. Horses seeking shelter from wind or precipitation 

Other factors that will alter caloric needs: 

  1. Activity level- more active= more energy expenditure
  2. Housing- heated box stall vs pasture
  3. Age of the horse- Horses over 20 years old have reduced tolerance of weather extremes and require more calories even with a higher LCT

Feeding Recommendations:

In winter months horse’s should be given at least 1.5% to 3% of their body weight in some form of forage. A 1000 lb. horse would require 15 to 30 lbs. of forage or about 20,000 calories. In the chart below, you can see the number of calories per pound in common forages in comparison to hay replacements so you can determine if your horse needs closer to 30 lbs. or closer to 15 lbs. If you are feeding just hay and/or you are exercising your horse heavily you might have to feed closer to 30 lbs. of hay per day for a 1000 lb. horse.  

Calories per pound in some common feedstuffs.

Orchard Grass Hay             872       

Alfalfa Hay.                          977

Timothy Hay                        804

Alfalfa Pellets                       970    

Wild Fed Horse Feed          1400

Beet Pulp                            1060

Purina- Equine Senior         1225

 For example, each flake of Timothy weighs about 5 lbs. so the horse would need about 6 flakes per day to maintain their body weight. If you are feeding Wild Fed or another high calorie feed in addition to hay then you will require fewer pounds of feed per day to meet your horse’s energy needs. If you have a 1000 lb. horse and their LCT is normally 400 F and it gets down to 360 F, then it would require an extra 4% calories that night to maintain its current weight. 

A 1000 lb. horse who is lightly worked requires about 20,000 calories per day to maintain its weight. A 4% increase would equate to 800 more calories per day. This is equal to one flake of timothy hay or slightly more than ½ lb. of Wild Fed. (Approximately 1.67 cups) 

Feeding Wild Fed horse feed is an excellent way to add additional calories to your horse’s diet without causing an excessive increase in blood sugar. Many horse owners who want to feed “naturally” will give plain oats but oats are very high in carbohydrates and will elevate your horse’s blood sugar levels too high and in too short a period of time. High fiber foods, protein, and fats raise blood sugar levels slowly over time, which is ideal for healthy sugar metabolism. Like a time-released medication, fiber, fat, and proteins will give sustained blood sugar levels over the night rather than just for an hour or two. 

Wild Fed is a perfect addition to your horse’s feeding regime to help add in a nutrient-dense source of calories to get them through those cold nights. Unless your horse can no longer eat hay, Wild Fed should not be used to replace hay. It should be used in addition to hay as an added source of calories that bring the blood sugar up slowly over an extended period of time.