Our native breeds have evolved over thousands of years to graze poor quality pasture on hillsides, plains, and moorland.
As we started domesticating and riding them for pleasure and sport, we totally changed the environment in which they live, including turning them out on pasture far richer than they have evolved to eat.
This dietary challenge is compounded by the fact that natives are not using as much energy as nature intended to keep warm, thanks to the advent of modern rugs.
By rugging our natives winter weight loss can be greatly reduced — meaning they enter the spring carrying too much condition.
And, in some cases (often, but not exclusively when they are children’s ponies) natives don’t receive as enough exercise as they need.
The result of all these factors mean weight gain is common across all native breeds. But using the winter wisely can play an important role in weight management.
13 tips for feeding natives in the winter
1. Native breeds have evolved to put on weight in the summer and live off their fat reserves in the winter. So let them do this; it is fine to have your horse or pony lean at the end of the winter ready for the spring grass.
2. In the coldest of weather a horse’s energy utilisation can rise by 25-30%, so if your horse or pony is a little overweight allow him pull on his stored reserves rather than increasing his feed. Let the weather do some of the hard work for you.
3. Be careful about the rugs he wears. Unless clipped, most horses and ponies do not need thick rugs. Native ponies, especially overweight ones, may not need to be rugged at all.
4. If your pony is turned out all the time over the winter months, he may not need additional forage unless grass availability and quality rapidly decline, or the field becomes covered in snow.
5. If your horse or pony is kept stabled for some of the time, consider how much hay or haylage you are feeding. Most horses or ponies will do well and maintain their weight on a diet that supplies 1.5-2% (dry weight) of their bodyweight in total feed per day, eg. 7.5-10kg for a 500kg horse. If your horse or pony is overweight and you are supplying more than this try adjusting this down. Remember too that although the grass has less nutritional value in the winter, it will be supplying some energy and protein and therefore you will not need to provide the full ration of forage to meet this 2% requirement in the stable overnight. For example, 4-6kg of hay overnight may be sufficient for a 500kg horse.
6. If you are trying to get your pony to lose weight have your forage analysed — and choose the one with the lowest energy. It is impossible to tell the nutritional quality of forage by looking at it and sometimes hay is richer than haylage.
7. If you do choose haylage, opt for a high-fibre source as it is likely to be lower in energy than a less mature ryegrass source.
8. If you choose hay, go for a mature fibrous one, such as Timothy hay, as this is likely to be lower in calories.
9. Soaking your hay will reduce the water soluble carbohydrate and calorie content. In order to maximise this effect it will need to be soaked overnight (up to 16 hours) ideally in water at or more than 16°C. In winter this can be a challenge, but try raising the temperature at least initially with a few boiled kettles.
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10. Regardless of the forage source you choose, it won’t supply a balanced diet. In order to achieve this choose a low-calorie feed balancer. This will provide good quality protein alongside vitamins and minerals making up for any shortfall in the diet.
11. You may need to restrict grazing by using a grazing muzzle — these have been shown to be highly effective, restricting intake by over 80%. Do make sure it is properly fitted, that your horse or pony can drink and their teeth are checked regularly. Muzzles shouldn’t be used all the time and check herd behaviour for bullying.
12. If your pony spends a lot of time in the stable, make sure you are not using bedding he can eat.
13. In order to extend eating time, use double haylage nets. As long as your pony has time each day eating from the ground (such as time spent grazing), there is no evidence this will damage teeth.