EQUINE - Autumn Feeding Transition Time
1 Sep 2017
As I write this, summer has definitely wound to an end and we are now into autumn. The light is fading fast and shortly the clocks will change, marshalling us into winter. It is about this time of the year that management of your horse begins to change drastically and it is important to ensure that you have a feeding and management plan for the winter months.
If you have been working your horse hard over the summer and been competing most weekends, both the horse and you need to wind down gradually. It is not prudent physically or mentally to expect your horse to suddenly be contented to only be ridden gently at weekends if a fortnight ago he was happily completing a competitive endurance ride or charging around a one day event course fit and ready to go. If you know that over the winter your horses work load will be greatly decreased then try to reduce the level of exercise gradually. Some horses will wind down more easily than others and a lot depends on personality and level of fitness. To compound all this, your horse may suddenly be stabled at night or only turned out for a few hours a day, which means he isn’t even exercising himself! What is intended to be a quiet plod round the fields may turn into a mad charge about during this winding down period! Correct and sensible (and of course gradual) changes in feeding can help limit these experiences. Even if you have the facilities to enable you to continue riding most days during the winter, assess whether the type and intensity of work is going to change and again, ease off gradually.
On the one hand, feed may need adjusted due to reduced exercise, and on the other, colder weather and the reduction of grazing quality means that the horse will need more energy from the feed that you give to him, in order to maintain condition. If you have been feeding your horse on cereals or a nut or mix with a high cereal content to give him the "oomph!" to perform fast work (or too pep up a laid back individual) then a change of energy source may be prudent for the autumn wind-down period. Swap from fast release energy sources to slow release ones; in other words from cereals and cereal based feeds to high fibre and oil based diets (e.g Harbro Conditioning Cubes or Horse & Pony Nuts). This way you can provide your horse with the energy it needs to maintain condition during the colder periods but it is slow release, controlled energy, keeping your horse calm and you in control.
The horse’s condition at this time of the year is crucial. If you have a horse that invariably looses condition during the winter then you do not want it to start dropping condition at this stage. In fact, it would be best if this type of animal were to carry a bit of extra flesh before the winter starts. The first signs of frost (and therefore the cessation of growth of your grass) is not the time to decide to change your horses feed. It is likely that he has been steadily losing weight prior to this, due to the reduction in nutrients in the grass. The reaction to the first frost, if you are not prepared in advance, may also turn into a bit of a knee-jerk reaction with extra feed or a different kind of feed suddenly being introduced and this is when colics can occur. Start to introduce your winter feeding regime gradually before your horse starts to lose weight.
During the autumn months it is wise to condition score and weigh tape your horse weekly to ascertain any changes in condition, so you can start to introduce conditioning feeds, if necessary and quality fibre sources (alfalfa, dried grass, sugar beet pulp) gradually, before too much condition is lost. I cannot emphasis too much that the key to maintaining condition in any horse is forage; quality and quantity. Make sure you have good quality hay or haylage bought up for the winter and that you feed it ad-lib, as this will have the biggest impact on your horse’s ability to maintain condition and on his mental well-being over the winter. If your horse is over conditioned then you will not be concerned. In fact, winter is the ideal time for promoting weight loss in good doers, limit the rugs and ensure the forage you feed is of low nutritional quality (save that for the poor doers). Feed good doers in minimal work a high spec vitamin and mineral supplement (e.g. Harbro One Scoop) or a good quality lite balancer (e.g. Topspec, Spillers, Gain, D&H).
To clip or not to clip?
The question of whether to clip is dependent on whether you intend to ride your horse during the winter. Most people who ride their horse at all during the winter will clip their horse at some point. Decades ago it would have been looked on as poor horse management to take off more hair than required. With the good turnout rugs that are available today, this is perhaps not such a worry but if you generally have trouble keeping condition on your horse during the winter, then take off the least hair you can or your feed bills will escalate. Similarly if you have a horse that is prone to tying up or muscle stiffness it is best not to take the hair off its quarters.
Autumn is the time for preparing for winter, so make sure that you are prepared for your winter feeding regime and start to introduce it now. Unfortunately winter management can become very basic for the horse owner; routine health care, feed, water and shelter. If you are prepared, however, then you and your horses will come out of winter smiling and fit and ready for the new season.