Equine - reduced turnout & winter feeding

21 Oct 2020

Dr Vicki Glasgow, Harbro Nutritionist

Wet and windy – reduced turnout time?

Autumn is well and truly here and winter will be upon us before we know it. One very real possibility during winter for many, is that your horse’s turn out time could be vastly reduced. How you feed your horse during these periods and any period of enforced reduced exercise is as important as how you feed him when he is working. As the old adage “never fight the oats” is always worth bearing in mind.

Good Doers
Reduced turnout will mean that your horse is no longer getting the same exercise that he was previously and unless you are lucky enough to have an indoor school, it is likely that his ridden exercise has also been reduced. In effect this means that his energy needs have changed. If your horse is a good doer then, from a welfare point of view, it is vital to cut back hard feeds for these individuals so that they don’t pile on the pounds. Gradually change your good doer to a low energy chaff with minerals (e.g. Harbro One Scoop) or a balancer. Do not starve them but try to limit the hay that they are able to eat by using very small holed hay nets or even doubling hay nets. If it is not too icy then soak hay for a minimum of four hours to reduce sugar (and therefore energy) levels. This will mean that they can still fulfil their natural desire to be constantly munching, keep their guts healthy and relieve boredom without piling on weight. Use weigh tapes and body condition scoring once a week to keep a track on what is happening with any horse. The eye can be deceptive!

Poor Doers
Even if your horse normally loses condition in the winter, his energy needs will still have changed. If his exercise is reduced, he no longer requires explosive, fast response type energy, what he does need is extra energy to maintain condition as the cold increases. With this type of horse it is best to swap to a high oil, high fibre, low starch type of feed so that the energy supply is maintained or even increased, but the energy is more of a slow release variety. This should stop any unscheduled “airs above the ground” whenever you do manage to ride. It will also limit digestive upsets (ulcers, colic etc) due to an unsuitably high starch intake. Conditioning feeds with a high oil and low starch content (preferably nuts, e.g. Harbro Conditioning Cubes) and/or high oil chaffs (e.g. Alfa-A Oil) will suit this type of horse very well. As always, ensure a constant supply of a good quality forage. As this is the biggest portion of a horse’s diet in the winter, it is crucial that it is the best quality that you can get. Provision of forage also ensures a healthy gut.

Make All Changes Slowly
We all know that one of the golden rules of feeding is that any changes to your horse’s feed should be made gradually. It is very easy to panic when you suddenly realise that your horse is losing weight and a knee-jerk reaction may lead to rapid changes in feeding. Sudden changes in quantity and/or type of feed (e.g. from a basic horse and pony cube to a conditioning type cube), can lead to mild digestive upset at one end of the spectrum to colic at the other end. But how gradual is gradual? Changes should be made slowly over a 7-10 day period. The current advice, is that no more than 200g/day of the feed to be introduced should be added / day for a 500kg horse and proportionately less for smaller horses. It is not just hard feed which has to be changed over gradually; sudden changes in forage supply can also lead to problems. In particular if you are swapping from hay to haylage or vice versa, ensure that you feed both for at least a week. Sudden diet changes upset the delicate balance of the microbes in the horse’s gut. The gut microbes need time to adjust to a new feed. It is sometimes worthwhile to think about feeding the gut rather than just the horse. Remember that yeasts (e.g. Yeasacc 1026) and pre/probiotics, can be used to help soothe over any changes in diet or routine.

Maximise Turnout Whenever Possible
Horses in general are very hardy creatures and even if the weather is incredibly foul they will appreciate at least a few hours turn out. Most will survive out all day if they have adequate forage and water provision and of course, the appropriate rugs and /or shelter (natural or man –made). Remember that even if you think the weather today is bad, it could be even worse tomorrow and your horse may end up being stuck inside for more days than was actually necessary. Therefore, turn out whenever you can, even if the weather makes you want to stay in by the fire. If you are in a livery situation where you are not allowed to turn out, or have limited acreage which you need to preserve, then try to walk your horse out in hand as much as is practical. If it is your own ground why not have a “sacrifice” area for the winter? You will be surprised how well it can come back for next autumn with very little effort. Some horses can get digestive upsets if they are suddenly forced to be sedentary; exercise helps with gut motility and shouldn’t be overlooked. If your horse is going to be in its stable for long hours make sure that it is provided with ad-lib forage. Provide it with some stimulus by hanging hay nets, or placing hay piles, in different parts of his stable and by providing licks or stable toys to relieve some of the boredom. A turnip hanging on a rope is a great boredom breaker for good doers and those prone to laminitis.

Unfortunately winter does mean that, on occasion, some of our equine friends may be shut in a stable for longer hours than they would like. They may have enforced time off due to weather conditions or due to a mini holiday during the festive period. The key to a happy horse during this winter period is to try to maximise turnout as much as possible and to make the appropriate feeding changes (slowly) and don’t forget that forage is the most important part of your horse’s diet.

For feeding advice, and all your equine needs, contact your nearest Harbro Country Store

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