Winter Feeding Made Easy

Strategies to maintain weight, reduce colic risk and feed smarter this winter.


As temperatures plunge, feeding your horse presents a new set of challenges. Instead of grazing all day on nutritious green grass, he’ll probably be switching to a diet of hay. Many horses lose weight without access to unlimited pasture. In addition, impaction colic due to dehydration presents a very real risk. Read on to find out how easy feeding horses is in the winter.

Winter Hay

Feeding in Winter: Hay is for Horses

Not only does hay meet your horse’s forage needs, it also helps keep him warm. The process of digesting fiber in the hindgut produces tremendous amounts of heat, almost like carrying around a little wood stove. Don’t believe anyone who tells you to feed corn to keep your horse warm—it doesn’t!

While round-bale hay presents a convenient method of feeding many horses for a long time in the winter, be very picky about quality when buying it. Many are stored outdoors, which is OK for cattle use, but hay for horses must be stored under cover to avoid mold spores that cause respiratory disease and illness.

Additionally, cattle-quality hay is very stemmy and tends to be unpalatable and wasted through trampling. Shop around for round bales that resemble your small-bale hay quality. Using a bale feeder will help prevent as much of the hay from being wasted.

Feeding in Winter: Hay Alternatives

If you don’t have the room to store hay for the entire winter and find yourself faced with a hay shortage, there are some alternatives available.

>Beet pulp, senior feed, hay cubes and hay pellets are all good ways to provide forage and stretch your hay supply. Keep in mind that none of these provide long-stem forage, so start using them to stretch your hay supply before you run out completely.

Vitamins & Minerals

Without access to green grass, horses may become deficient in vitamins A and E, which are the first to go after grass is baled into hay and stored for long periods. A ration balancer or vitamin/mineral supplement are options to consider for winter feeding if your horse doesn’t get a commercial concentrate feed, which is already fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Most importantly, your horse should always have free access to salt. Since ice-cold salt blocks can become unappealing to lick, the best option is a feeder with loose salt. Horses tend to regulate their salt intake very well, and this also keeps them drinking plenty of water.

Winter Water


Feeding in Winter: Hydration Nation

Last but not least, the most important nutrient in your horse’s diet is water. Without staying properly hydrated, the contents of the intestines can dry out as they pass through, causing an impaction colic. Although these are often the easiest type to resolve with a vet’s assistance, any horse owner would prefer to steer clear of a case of colic.

If your temperatures regularly fall below freezing, check water troughs at least twice a day, breaking up any surface ice. Better yet, use insulated buckets or float a trough heater in the water. Although horses will drink very cold water, they will drink more if it is in the 40 to 65-degree Fahrenheit range.

Be extra-careful about trough heater cords, making sure they’re wrapped in wire or conduit so mice and horses can’t nibble on them. Stick your hand in daily to check for any wayward electric current, which will stop horses from drinking immediately.

Weight Maintenance

Many horses tend to shed pounds in the winter if the climate is cold, as they burn more calories to maintain their core temperature. Be prepared for this and have extra hay and grain on hand if you need to increase rations.

You may also consider switching to alfalfa hay or supplementing your grass hay with it (as opposed to adding more grain). This boosts the calories per pound of hay, while still ensuring enough forage is in the diet.

As long as you are prepared for the challenges of winter feeding, you won’t be taken by surprise when Mother Nature throws you a curveball this season.

Managing Editor HOLLY CACCAMISE has an M.S. in animal science with a specialization in equine nutrition and exercise physiology.

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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