The first thing every horse owner should do is assess your horses' body condition scores, or the amount of fat they are carrying. This is simple numeric system, ranging from 1 to 9 that will help you adjust your horses' diets so they are carrying the perfect amount of body weight. If you need help with this, the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service published a fact sheet titled, "Condition Scoring Your Horse," and you can contact someone here at the Logan County office to look for ASC-145. Using this system will help you keep feed costs down and your horses' health and well-being in top shape.
No matter your horses' body condition scores, one of the most important aspects of feeding horses during the winter is being able to provide a source of good-quality forage. Without question, this is a difficult task considering the current availability of affordable, good-quality hay. But unless you have a well-planned rotational grazing system in place and have stockpiled forage that will that last until spring, purchasing hay is essential. Square or round bales are perfectly acceptable when correctly managed; however, you will have a better idea of how much hay your horses are eating when providing them with square bales on a daily basis.
Unless you are raising broodmares or growing horses, most horses should be fed at least 50 percent of their total daily diet as forage. For an average 1,000-pound horse fed at 2 percent body weight per day, that would be at least 10 pounds of hay per day. In addition to providing nutrients, hay also supplies heat to the horses through the digestive process.
It's best to provide hay in some sort of feeder when you are group feeding your horses outside. In most situations, a hay feeder will reduce the amount of wasted hay by 20 percent or more. Horse owners have a couple of other forage alternatives to hay such as hay cubes or complete feeds that contain a high level of fiber, such as beet pulp. These may be more expensive in the long run, but offer another way to provide a source of fiber to your horses.
If your hay is of high-nutritive value and your horses are maintaining their body condition scores throughout the winter, you may not have to provide a source of grain at all. However, if your horses are not meeting their nutritional needs with hay alone, you can add grain to their diet. Remember, grain should supplement a horse's diet as a majority of their nutrient needs should be met by the forage source.
Water is an essential nutrient that you need to monitor very carefully during the winter months. In general, horses tend to increase their consumption of water when consuming more dry matter or harvested forages. But, they tend to not want to drink really, really cold water. Therefore, it's important to make sure you provide fresh water daily on a free-choice basis. When the temperature dips into the 30s and below, water tanks may freeze up. Be sure to check them at least twice a day and break the ice up if needed so the horses can drink. You can also install a water tub or bucket heater to keep the water from freezing. When installed properly and monitored closely, these can be helpful tools to keep fresh water available at all times for your four-legged friends.
Make sure you especially monitor older horses that have trouble keeping weight on during the year. They may need some special attention to keep them in good weight throughout the winter.
Using these simple tools can help you and your herd make it through the winter in good health and body condition. If you have questions about your horses’ diet, contact the Logan County Extension Office.
Source: Kristen Janicki-Harvey, Extension Associate for Equine Activities