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Fiber Keeps Horses Warm in the Winter Months

Draft horse munching on hay in snow

   You may already know that horses need more calories in the winter to help maintain body temperatures. What you may not know is that the kind of calories they get makes a difference in how well your horse can keep warm. In addition to providing shelter and plenty of water, food is a very important aspect of keeping your horse healthy. Horses are geared to consume small amounts of grasse, herbs and other fiber all the time, instead of large amounts of starchy grains for short periods. In short, they are foragers, not meal eaters.
   Fiber is the best source of energy, year round, for horses, but especially so in the winter. The horse can't digest all the food by himself, there are microbes, or "gut flora", which are good germs that do a lot of the digestion in animals' intestines. In horses, the good gut flora help break down cellulose in high-fiber foods. This microbial activity is basically fermentation that produces heat, so not only do the calories that are absorbed go toward generating body heat, but the act of digesting hay can help keep him warm.
   Another plus for high-fiber feed, is that it hold moisture in the gut for the horse, cutting down the risk of colic in the winter by keeping the horse hydrated. Also, higher amounts of fiber means more chewing on hay, instead of the side of your barn. It simply takes longer to consume hay than grain, which can de-stress your horse and lower the chance of gastric ulcers, which is a big plus for performance horses.

Grain is not a good substitute

   Feeding extra grain for body heat in the winter is not a good choice. Grain carries a greater risk of inducing a colic and/or laminitis and are the last things you want to deal with in the winter. It takes very little effort to be chewed and digested and many horses don't need the calories. An obese horse can still be chilled, inspite of the extra padding. Feeding your horse excess anything to make him fat does not do him any favors. Most horses in good body condition going into winter will do fine on a diet of hay, if enough is supplied. The exceptions being horses that can't chew hay from tooth loss, etc.

  Most horses should be fed a MINIMUM of  1.5% to 2% of their body weight in hay. However, type of hay is important. Hays that contain cool season grasses such as Brome or Fescue will be higher in calories (sugar) and may be too fattening for some and carry too high of a risk of laminitis. Grass hays such as Bermuda and mixed native grasses are usually higher in fiber with fewer sugars.  Also, the richer hays tend to be a little denser, so a "flake" of Bermuda hay is much lighter than a "flake" of Brome. The lighter the hay, the more fiber in many cases, so be sure to weigh hay to get an accurate portion to your horse. This is another reason to feed low octane grass hays, as the bulky fiber will last longer instead of the rich hay that is denser is calories. You can dilute your hay with straw. Watch that the straw doesn't have grain heads still attatched.

What if my horse can't chew hay or the supplier ran out?

   There are alternatives for hay. Beet pulp, commonly added to Senior Feeds to provide the roughage portion can be used. Alfalfa is appropriate for MOST horses when used as a supplemental source of fiber. Add a pound or two a day to the usual fiber portion. It may not be appropriate for already obese horses, due to the energy content.  However, legumes such as Alfalfa and Clovers are lower in NSCs and higher in protein and energy, and should be considered before adding grain to the diet to add calories, when needed, just be sure to balance the calcium ratio in alfalfa (supplemental phosphorus may be needed if your other roughage sources don't complement the imbalance). Straw can be used as a filler, but never as a sole roughage. It's lacking in minerals, but does provide a lot of "chew time" and fiber. Useful for diluting your richer hays that would provide the bulk of the nutrition, and for keeping obese horses full to minimize blood sugar spikes or long periods of starvation to avoid overfeeding.

   Basically, when the temperature drops, adding an extra few pounds of hay is going to go farther to keep your horse warm and healthy all winter long than adding grain. I suggest adjusting the amounts as needed. There is always the option to allow your horse to have "free choice" access to hay via round bales. Most horses learn when to quit after the hay is available for a while. They do tend to really consume the first bale quickly, then slow down to normal rates thereafter. They will eat more during cold snaps, so be sure to keep an eye on the hay level if you choose this method. Also, try to change the location of where you keep your round bales, or they quickly become thrush heaven with the horses trampling in the mix of fallen hay, mud and manure. There are hay nets you can put over a round bale to slow consumption and minimize the mess and waste.