Science of Winter Feeding for Horses

Winter Feeding

Energy Concerns

During the colder winter months, a horse needs extra energy to maintain its body temperature without decreasing its weight or creating stress for extended periods of time. On average a horse has a roughly 25% higher energy level requirements during the colder months than in the warmer months. This figure can vary though on a number of factors. An owner should always consider the following before implementing a higher energy diet during the winter months:

  • A horse has a comfy neutral temperature zone that sits between a Higher Critical Temperature (HCT) and a Lower Critical Temperature (LCT). For each degree Fahrenheit that a horse’s body temperature falls below its LCT, caloric needs will generally increase by about 1%.
  • The LCT of a horse will vary based on different factors; the temperatures to which it is accustomed to, the amount of body insulation (body fat, hair coat length, blanket) a horse has, and whether it has any shelter to provide protection from the elements.
  • If a horse begins shivering, has its coat hair standing on end, or seeks shelter from the elements such as wind then it is a sign their LCT has been reached.
  • The amount of physical activity a horse does, its housing conditions (sheltered from wind to help body insulation for example), and its age will all influence the base energy needs of a horse which in turn will influence the higher energy needs of a horse during the winter months. For example, a retired horse will likely have a higher body fat ratio than a competitive horse which will provide it with more body insulation. This will reduce its energy needs as it will be easier for it to keep a body temperature above its LCT.
  • Also important to take note of is that horses 20 years or older tend to have a reduced tolerance to temperature and weather extremes, making it harder for them to stay above their LCT during winter and below their HCT during summer.

Once a horse has reached its LCT then it means it is time to increase the caloric intake of the horse to meet the higher energy needs. If not then a horse will begin suffering from cold stress (caused by a horse burning energy to warm up) and if cold stress persists for a day or two, then a horse will begin losing weight.

Feeding Conditions

When looking to increase the caloric energy intake of a horse there are numerous things to take into account such as: what sort of forage is best, is feed necessary, are supplements necessary, and how to know if a horse has an inadequate feed intake. Here we have out lined some useful information, to go along with the information above on energy concerns, when it comes to feeding your horse in winter.

  • In terms of forage, a horse should receive between 1.5% to 3% their body weight depending on their level of activity and energy needs as outlined above. Many different forage options are available to owners though few with as many benefits as long stem hay or grass mix. Here at ETA-Equine we have developed two blends of premium hay called the Townships Blend and the Appalachian Blend, both specifically for horses. Both were developed in southern Quebec which is known for cold winters where temperatures can routinely reach the -22 Fahrenheit range and summers can reach hot temperatures exceeding 91 degrees Fahrenheit. Our hay has been tested on horses in both extremes of temperature and has been found the first choice of horses and horse owners in either hot or cold temperatures.
  • Along with long stemmed forage, a horse should have access to free choice salt and ice free water at all times.
  • Some horses may have high energy requirements, in such cases some feed may be introduced if weight cannot be maintained on forage alone.
  • Horses which are confined to stalls should be fed lower energy long stem hay or grasses or hay like our Township Blend in order to prevent boredom, gastric ulcers, stereotypical behaviours associated with confinement, and stress.
  • If no proper ventilation then it is recommended to reduce the use of high protein legume (alfalfa or clover) hays in order to prevent adverse air quality issues due to increased ammonia exertion.
  • Concentrates that are formulated for specific life stages of a horse or their activity levels can be used, but it is important to take into consideration a horse’s activity levels before doing so. Many horses that are not actively training can be less active in the winter time as owners and riders do not have access to ideal riding conditions during those months. As such they may be getting too much energy from standard concentrate ratios of their summer diet.

Equally important is being able to recognize inadequate feed and or water intake along with being able to accurately recognize weight loss through routine observations. When it comes to inadequate feed/water intake there are clear signs that can give a horse owner or groom an indication that this might be an issue. Feces that is dry and or sparse, a reduced feed intake, increased wood chewing activity, and weight loss are all indicators of an issue with inadequate feed/water intake. An easy way to check for weight loss, if there is no access to a weight tape or a Body Condition Score (BCS), is to feel a horse’s ribs and neck to verify if there is a loss of condition. This is especially useful when a thinker coat of hair or blankets make it harder to notice weight changes at a glance.

Using the points out lined in this article you will be able to properly feed you horse during the colder months and ensure proper energy levels resulting in a horse that is calm, comfy, happy, and ready to perform. Just like the Masters Circle riders of the ETA-Equine riding team who all use the specially developed blends of premium ETA-Equine horse hay.



In concordance with and special thanks too,

Carey A. Williams, Ph.D., Associate Extension Specialist, Department of Animal Sciences

Sarah Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., DACVN, Associate Professor, Department of Animal Sciences

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey