Hobby Farms Editors
December 20, 2010
Horse winter
Courtesy Stock.XCHNG
Provide your horse with fiber to help it keep warm during winter.

Any horseperson who has lived in a cold climate knows that on a freezing day, she can warm her hands by pushing them deep inside a horse’s coat. That heat is produced inside the horse’s digestive tract, which is stoked by fermentation. In other words, horses have their own little central heating system.

You can help keep that warmth flowing through your horse by providing the right materials—in this case fiber. When a horse digests long-stem fiber (hay), microbial fermentation occurs and heat is created. This benefits the horse in times of cold weather because fiber is digested slowly and heat is sustained for quite a long time.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise amount to feed, but an extra flake of hay on a cold day would be a good idea. Feed a mature horse at least 2.75 to 3 percent of its estimated body weight with dry matter. For example, a 1,000-pound gelding should be fed 27.5 to 30 pounds of dry matter (hay) per day.

But what is really cold to a horse? The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is the range of environmental temperature at which the animal uses minimal energy to maintain body temperature—it’s the “ideal” temperature for comfort. The TNZ for the horse is lower than for a human. If the outside temperature is in the single digits or lower, the horse will need more fiber to stay warm. If it’s in the 30-degree-F range, then requirements aren’t as great. However, factor in wind and cold rain, too, which will increase energy requirements. Access to shelter also impacts the energy required for a horse to keep warm.

Calories gained from fat and grains won’t produce the same long, sustained heat, and feeding extra grain without slowly acclimating a horse to a ration change can prompt a bout of colic.

It can be challenging to find extra hay in the winter, so a good forage extender is beet pulp. Soak the beet pulp overnight before feeding, because it expands when it soaks up moisture. Put the pulp in a 5-gallon bucket, and pour enough water over it to cover. Wet beet pulp molds quickly, so throw away any leftovers.

To help your horse keep his body temperature up in the winter, make sure his digestion is able to function the best it can. Horses need a readily available source of drinkable water that does not include ice or snow. A horse would not be taking in enough water if you rely on him eating snow.

Although it’s not a huge issue, horses are less likely to drink cold water as tepid water. Most water-tank heaters keep the water a few degrees above freezing, and as long as there isn’t any ice floating in the water, it should be fine. The best way to keep ice away is to use buckets with heating elements built in. These are safer than submersible heating elements, because the heating elements don’t come in contact with the horse. Buckets’ electrical cords can be run through a piece of PVC pipe in the barn or pasture so the horse can’t chew them or play with them. If you have worries about a particular horse getting enough water, you can warm the water to encourage it to drink more.

—Brian Nielsen, PhD, PAS, Diplomate ACAN, professor of equine exercise physiology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.

About the Author: Sharon Biggs Waller is an award-winning writer and author of Advanced English Riding (BowTie Press, 2007) and the upcoming The Complete Horse Bible (BowTie Press). She lives on a 10-acre hobby farm in northwest Indiana with her husband, Mark, 75 chickens, two Lamancha goats, two horses, and an assortment of cats and dogs.

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