Best tips on feeding your horse properly in winter

Horses depend on quality forage and adequate hydration to stay healthy in winter. So, horse owners have a responsibility to feed their animals appropriately, not only because it improves performance but for the fact that their lifespan is—in most cases—determined by the hay quality. However, knowing the right feedstuffs and providing them in sufficient amounts are some of the ways to help horses keep warm, avoid indigestion, and increase immunity to certain ailments. For example, forage and haylage that are rich in fibre (such as corn, oats and barley) are effective in producing more body heat during digestion because of their fibrous covering.

Horses foraging (Image Credit: Zahaoha/Pexels)

Grazing cannot provide horses with sufficient nutrients. Providing a mix of feedstuffs and supplements is therefore a necessity in winter, so you need to ensure that an average horse consumes about 2 pounds of quality hay per 100-pound body weight – with an addition to cover up for waste product. Moreover, feed/nutrient requirements change according to body weight, breed, age and health condition of horses.

What is the proper quantity of horse feed?

Measuring the right proportions of hay with adequate nutrients can be a difficult task for many horse owners. Feeding pregnant mares and lactating dams on daily basis also demands more attention, particularly because their health conditions depend on the quality nutrition. Where the hay quality is poor, you need to improve daily feed requirement with additional supplements. Moreover, the increased demand for energy during extreme weather conditions makes it necessary for additional grain source.

During winter, your horse’s daily feeding and heat requirement changes. The animals need heavy winter coats in low critical temperature to regulate their body heat to around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. This implies that a horse needs an extra intake of 2-pound feed for every 10-degree change below 30° F — assuming that the feedstuff provides an equivalent of 1 Megacalories (Mcal) per pound.

Further, an atmospheric condition with 10 to 15mph breeze would require about 4 to 8 additional pounds of hay to make up for the animal’s daily energy requirement. But where a horse is exposed to rain and wind, the extra feed intake increases between 10 and 14 pounds of feed. According to Carrie Hammer (an equine specialist at the Extension Service of Dakota State University), an average horse eats a maximum of 20 pounds of feedstuffs per day, so it would be nearly impossible for many horses to consume an extra hay weighing between 10 to 20 pounds.

What feedstuff does your horse need?

Every horse requires additional energy to maintain body heat and keep up with daily activities in winter. The following are few sources of horse feed:

Forage: Horses and ponies need high-quality grass to maintain good health. Pasture (i.e. hay or haylage) therefore provides an additional feed source – except during extreme weather conditions.

If your horse stays in a shed during winter, don’t soak or steam their hay. Instead, provide them with haylage to reduce risks of respiratory infections.

Feed the horses with good quality hay and supplement with high-fibre foods such as alfalfa or sugar beet.

Ensure that the animals have something to chew for long hours because they love chewing — a lot. It actually keeps them busy through the long, dark night.

Older horses are more comfortable with haylage, so make it their bulk feed source. Soaking hay cubes, nonetheless, makes it easier for them to munch.

Vitamins and Minerals: Horses get a good quantity of vitamins and minerals from forages and pasture. But these sources are limited in winter. Harsh weather conditions limit horses’ grazing opportunities and exposes them to health risks. Moreover, horses suffering chronic conditions such as equine asthma are prone to having low-plasma vitamin C in winter.

Horses at risk of malnutrition may need linseed (a low-starch and high fat feed which provides a good amount of protein) to cover up waste and maintain daily nutrition requirements.

More importantly, you should know that horses burn reserve fat to maintain body heat in winter, so don’t overfeed them with energy-rich foods such as pellets or nuts. This might lead to overweight and accidents in the shed.

Adding the right proportions of vitamin and minerals supplement is advised. You should therefore consult your nutritionist for the recommended servings.

Water: Despite the exhaustion from dehydrating activities, horses don’t show visible signs of sweat in winter – but they certainly need electrolytes and water. A horse consumes about 12 or 14 gallons of water every day. However, the animals should not be allowed to drink cold water in winter although findings show that cold weather may not be harmful except that the animals tend to drink more when the water is slightly warmer (between 15 to 20 degrees Celsius).


Access to clean water is essential to maintaining good health during the winter months. This is more so because the animals consume large amounts of dry forage and taking less water exposes them to risks of colic and impaction. In addition, the quantity of food consumed is closely related to water intake. Neglecting the link between water and feed has been a major cause of weight loss and ailments during winter.

Regardless of your horses’ physiologic health, you should never feed them with poor-quality hay (such as those with coarse stems containing mouldy, brown, or few leaves). Instead, invest on high-quality forage to save money in the long run – considering that the animals need less feed to maintain their nutritional requirement. Moreover, these feed sources are sweeter, more hygienic, and richer in nutrients if sourced from accredited dealers.