Unplanned weight loss in healthy horses and ponies during winter has two primary causes according to independent nutritionist, Pamela Kinslow.

“No matter how green it may look, the nutritional value of grazing drops sharply, so most horses will need to be fed far more than in the spring and summer months,” explains Pamela. “Secondly, as it is much colder, more energy, and therefore more feed, is needed to maintain body temperature.”

It is all too easy not to spot unwanted equine weight loss at this time of year, as thick rugs and blankets can mask the problem and serious weight loss can occur if horseowners don’t take time to monitor their animal’s condition.

Weightaping is a useful method of gauging weight, and can be used to estimate whether or not your horse is underweight, while condition scoring is a simple way of monitoring any change in weight. Use an ascending score from 1-5 for areas of the body prone to weight gain or loss (0 represents starvation, 5 obesity). Three is normal for the leisure horse.

“The best way to check your horse’s weight coverage is to use your hands,” says Pamela. “Feel along the ribs, the spine and the croup. Most horses in reasonable condition should have a covering of what feels like up to an inch of fat over the ribs, neck and spine, although you should still be able to feel, but not see, the ribs. The quarters should look rounded on either side of the spine and tail.”

Weight loss can be caused by outside influences such as stress – for instance, anxiety caused by long periods of stabling, or bullying by fieldmates as well as by management problems including poor dentition or a worm burden.

“A continued regular worming programme is essential in winter, as is having the horse’s teeth checked and rasped every six months,” explains Pamela. “This is fundamental horse management.

Temperature control

Horses use up valuable energy keeping warm. Minimising heat loss through winter rugging can help to maintain equine condition, particularly if you have a finely-bred and/or clipped horse. If you own a hardy, native type, a field shelter alone may be adequate – assess your individual circumstances to decide what suits you both best.

“A horse that is warm and preferably dry will use fewer calories to maintain body weight than one who needs to use the energy in feed to maintain an acceptable body temperature,” says Pamela.

“Along with the reduced nutritional value in winter grazing, the lower temperatures in winter also have a strong impact on the necessary energy requirements.”

“By regularly assessing your horse’s condition score and behaviour in extreme or extended cold weather, you will be able to determine whether he needs an extra rug or additional forage/feed to see him through. Do not underestimate the amount of hay or additional feed that horses living out may need during winter.”

  • If your horse is losing weight this winter, don’t miss HORSE magazine’s expert advice on how to improve his condition, on published on HHO tomorrow.
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