Adjusting Nutrition for Winter

For some of us, winter has already arrived.  For others, it’s just beginning in earnest.  For all, the horse is facing some challenges.


Horses actually tolerate and enjoy the cold a lot more than most of us do.  Their neutral temperature [no energy expended to either keep warm or cool off] is in the 40s Fahrenheit – the same as your refrigerator.

Everyone’s chief concern is how much more food they need in winter. A common rule of thumb is increase amount fed by 1% for every 1 degree below 18° F.  However, this assumes a good winter coat, no wind, horse doesn’t get wet, horse has a reasonable amount of body fat and normal temperature regulation (older horses often fail the last two).  Hay is preferred because it is fermented in the hind gut which generates heat.

Unless the horse is insulin resistant and will overeat, an excellent solution is to just provide free choice hay.  If the horse has a safe place to eat protected from the elements and competition from other horses he will eat what he needs.  If additional calories are still required you have to go to more concentrated sources. My preference is for a 75:25 mix (by weight) of beet pulp and wheat bran as a mash.  This is primarily fermented so you still get the benefit of the heat of fermentation.  An added plus is the extra water you can get into them this way.

If you are already feeding a concentrate with free choice hay and don’t want to add a lot more volume, 5 oz of oil will be equivalent to a pound of oats.  CocoSoya is uniquely palatable and the only source with medium chain triglycerides which are immediately available for energy.

Speaking of water, the horse may have a higher requirement in the winter even if not sweating because the moisture content of the diet is extremely low compared to grass.  The combination of less exercise and not enough water intake is a high risk scenario for impaction.  Horses prefer warm water and intake will drop if it’s cold.  Use heated or insulated water buckets or troughs.  An inexpensive electric heating coil that can boil water can be used to serve comfortably warm water in buckets or add hot water to troughs.

Salt is the other element to encouraging adequate water consumption. Even in winter the average horse needs at least 1 oz/day.  If the horse takes more than 8 to 9 weeks to go through a 4 pound salt block you need to be adding it to meals.

All horses on hay need vitamin E, 1 to 2 IU/lb, and flax or Chia for omega-3 fatty acids, 4 to 6 ounces/day, to replace those key antioxidant nutrients.  Vitamin A levels also fall off progressively in hay.  Delayed shedding and coarse bleached looking winter coats are often tied to low A intake.  If hay is over a year old, supplement with 40,000 IU/day of vitamin A and consider insurance supplementation of 20,000 IU/day for hay over 6 months old.

Your horse needs a vitamin and mineral supplement appropriate for your hay.  This isn’t something you want to skimp on just because the horse is not working. These are the nuts and bolts that keep the immune system healthy and literally every cell functioning.

Adjusting feeding for winter isn’t complicated but these tweaks will pay off in weight maintenance, reduced colic risk, better hydration and overall health.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD


About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions,, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition .
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