Winter brings short days, long nights and cold weather. If your routine means you only see your horse unrugged in daylight at the weekend, you may then notice a degree of weight loss.

Horses that live out where shelter is poor can require a third more energy than those stabled. Naturally poor doers need to have their weight managed constantly to avoid weight loss. However, for good doers winter is the natural time for them to lose weight, so if your horse struggles with obesity in the summer, use the winter months to slim him down to make the spring and summer months easier.

Sudden weight loss is more serious and may be a sign of disease, although trauma can also cause a horse to lose weight quickly. Before looking at your horse’s feeding, check the following non-nutritional causes of weight loss:

  • Teeth: sharp edges may be causing pain and discomfort and reducing intake
  • Worms: in unwormed horses, feed often provides nutrition for the worms rather than the horse
  • Pain: horses in pain, especially with chronic back or muscle problems, do not thrive
  • Disease: discuss the problem with your vet if the weight loss has happened quickly

As with humans, horses lose fat first when they lose weight. A kilo of fat contains as much energy as two scoops of a racehorse feed, so putting weight back on requires careful, but bold, feeding strategies, including a good balance of nutrients.

Calories can be fed in the form of fibre, oil and starch. Fibre should come from quality fibre sources such as hay, haylage and short-chop forages. Oil can be used to top up calories, particularly in competition horses and those that are hunting frequently. Starch from cereals can have a significant role to play, typically in the form of a balanced conditioning feed. If your horse has a tendency to be buzzy, a cube would be a better choice than a mix.

Any changes to feed should be introduced gradually over a period of a couple of weeks to give the horse’s gut flora a chance to adapt. This will also lessen the likelihood of an avoidable colic episode.

Quality counts

The first step when trying to combat winter weight loss is to offer quality ad-lib forage in the stable and the field. Feeding a high-fibre diet will reduce the risk of metabolic conditions causing the horse to become excitable or tie-up. The digestion of fibre also helps the horse to keep warm, which is particularly important during cold weather.

Extra feed

Gradually increase the horse’s total amount of forage and feed intake per day up to 2.5% of bodyweight. For a 13hh pony, this should be about 8kg per day; for a 15.2hh Thoroughbred about 13kg, and for a hunter 15-16kg a day.

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Feed little and often

Give hard feeds little and often (no more than 2kg per feed). If feeding less than the recommended amount of compound feed, increase this to that level according to size and workload. If feeding the current hard feed at recommended rates, replace up to half of it with a conditioning feed. This should contain more energy, a higher quality protein and a higher vitamin and mineral content than low-energy feeds.

Other options

Milk pellets used to be a popular and palatable choice for a highly concentrated form of energy and protein, but feeding oil is now recommended instead. Oil can be fed up to 300ml a day, but should be introduced into the feeding regime very slowly to allow the digestive system to adjust and avoid putting the horse off its feed. High oil feed balancers and chaffs are also available.

Healthy digestion

Probotics, prebiotics and yeast will help keep the digestive tract healthy and working as effective as possible. They are useful in horses which worry weight off, those competing hard or recovering from colic or antibiotic treatment.

If you’re looking for bespoke advice on feeding your horse, H&H recommends speaking to an equine nutritionist. Most equine feed companies offer advice either over the phone or via websites. Find out more >>

First published H&H.co.uk (28 Sept, 2001)