EQUINE - Late winter condition issues Feb 2018

1 Feb 2018

This winter has been a much harder winter than we have had for a good few years. Consequently my Inbox has had a more than average number of queries /comments on horses losing condition. Among these are queries on horses that normally keep their condition well over the winter.  Late winter condition loss is not unusual during a colder winter and rather than crossing fingers and hoping for an early spring there are things that can be done to ensure that your horse is in tip top condition ready for the season ahead.


Late winter condition loss is merely a consequence of energy expended being greater than energy consumed or taken in. As winter progresses grass availability becomes less and less whilst at the same time the nutritional quality reduces. The last few winters the grass has never really stopped growing and therefore has helped to keep condition on our equine population whether needed or not!! This winter has been colder than we have become used to and as a consequence we are seeing more horses struggling to keep condition over this last month or two. Hay quality, certainly in the more Northerly parts of Scotland is, in general, lower this year which has compounded the issue. Against this background of reduced forage quality the colder weather means that horses have to burn off more energy to keep warm. Now this is great for any good doers out there but will tip the scales the wrong way for any horse not carrying excess fat stores.

What can we do? - Forage

We should all know by now that forage should always be the main-stay of any equine diet and therefore should be fed ad-lib as much as possible for gut health, satiety and nutritional reasons. What can we do if the lovely hay or haylage that we have bought is not maintaining our horse’s condition? The ideal thing to be able to do would be to find some forage that did have good nutritional quality but this is nigh-on practically impossible.  You would have to test every bale/every batch of hay and this year particularly, probably still struggle to find the right nutritional quality and eating quality to satisfy your horse’s requirements. Do not assume that haylage is of better nutritional quality than hay, this is not always the case, as late cut haylage can be just as low in energy as late cut hay! One of the things that I always ask people to do for their horse when they are struggling to hold condition is to look at feeding chopped grass to them as an addition to their hay/haylage. This can be done easily by using a large tubtrug, or equivalent; place it in a tyre to prevent wastage and fill with chopped grass.  To discourage gorging a salt lick or two can be placed on the top of the chaff. Leave overnight with the horse as another fibre option. This alone can make a big difference. There are of course things that can be done on the hard feed side too.

What can we do? – Hard Feed

As touched on above, condition loss is to do with not enough energy but it can also be due to not enough quality protein and in reality is usually a consequence of both.  I have mentioned in a fair few columns in the past that your horse cannot build topline without the correct work but also it cannot make muscle if you don’t provide it with quality protein.  The horse also requires energy to utilise this protein along with vitamins and minerals. It is my job as a nutritionist to work out what the missing part of this puzzle is. Good quality balancers are great for this as they take the guess work out of the protein and vits and mins part of the equation. One thing to bear in mind, if the “balancer” has a recommended feeding level of less than 100g/100kg Body Weight then assume that it does not contain the protein portion of the equation and is instead a very good quality vitamin and mineral supplement. I actually hate the word balancer as it can be so misleading but it seems to be a phrase that the equine world has adopted. I would far rather that some of them were called protein concentrates like they are on the agricultural side (it does what it says on the tin) but that is where we are at so please pay attention to labels and ask a qualified nutritionist if you are not sure. The energy part of the equation is missing here however, so make sure that you feed a high energy chop (alfalfa or grass) alongside oil for increased energy. Any vegetable oil will provide the energy required but I prefer to feed horses linseed oil as it is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids.  Of course, an even more fool proof way is to feed a cube or mix that has taken all the guesswork out of it for you.  Look for high oil, high fibre feeds if your horse is prone to a bit of fizziness or has gastric issues. Cubes are generally better than mixes for fizzy horses and mixes for those that need a bit more sparkle.  Try to find feeds that don’t have barley or wheat near the top of the list of ingredients if you are concerned about ulcers etc or generally behaviour issues.  There are lots of super conditioning feeds on the market now but again if in doubt please consult with a qualified nutritionist. If you are not feeding at the recommended level on the feed bag then please do top up with a good quality vitamin and mineral premix.


If you like to feed straights then you can still provide quality protein and energy. Use the above tips but instead of a balancer use linseed meal or full fat soya at 100g/100kg bodyweight as your protein and energy source plus a good quality vitamin and mineral supplement. You can still add more oil on top of this if required and it is worthwhile feeding a small quantity of codliver oil (15-20ml/day) or other Omega-3 supplement to balance the Omega-6 content of the full fat soya. The only thing missing then is a yeast supplement such as Yea-Sacc, if you have a horse that is prone to digestive upset or as an extra aid to getting the most out of the forage portion of the diet.

It can be a worrying time when your horse drops condition but some of the above tips will help and please do use a qualified nutritionist if in any doubt at all.

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