H&H Feed Week: 13 tips for feeding natives during the winter

  • Our native breeds have evolved over thousands of years to graze poor quality pasture on hillsides, plains, and moorland, but by being clever with feeding native ponies during the winter, you can ensure you have a happy and healthy pony when the spring grass arrives.

    As we started domesticating and riding our natives 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 their natural winter weight loss can be greatly reduced — meaning they enter the spring carrying too much condition. And, in some cases 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.

    Top tips for feeding native ponies during 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 it’s worth having your forage analysed — so you can 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 without adding unnecessary calories.

    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 you should keep an eye on herd behaviour to prevent 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.

    Katie Grimwood from Bailey’s Horse Feeds shares her expertise on feeding your native this winter:

    “Having adapted to thrive on the poorest of grazing, Britain’s native ponies are programmed to put on weight, when food is readily available, in the spring and summer, storing these excesses as fat throughout the body, especially the abdomen (tummy), where it is known as omental fat. These fat cells, originally thought to be benign energy stores, do actually produce hormones which regulate a number of body processes and play a key role in helping ponies survive harsher conditions.

    “One such hormone is cortisol, which inhibits the action of insulin, the hormone responsible for controlling blood glucose levels. The result is a degree of insulin resistance, which is normally of benefit as it ensures glucose is available for essential areas, like the brain, at the expense of less essential tissues, like muscles. This condition pervades through the winter but gradually lessens as the pony loses weight, and omental fat, with the naturally reduced availability of food and colder weather conditions.

    “By spring time, the pony is lean but healthy and ready to indulge in the pleasures of spring grazing and gaining weight for the following winter. The trouble is, these fluctuations in a pony’s condition are no longer acceptable, nor suitable, for the modern owner, whose requirements for performance or breeding are less satisfactorily met by a pony who spends 6 months of the year in “poor” condition.”

    Insulin Dysregulation

    “The problem with not allowing a fat pony to lose weight through the winter is that the insulin resistance, resulting from cortisol production, is not reversed. When allowed to continue long-term, this can result in Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) or Insulin Dysregulation, giving rise to elevated levels of glucose and insulin in the blood and, ultimately, a greatly increased risk of laminitis. Overweight or obese ponies are also likely to suffer with joint problems, struggle to regulate their body temperature (especially in the summer) and be at greater risk of certain forms of colic.”

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    Healthy condition

    “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to avoid the natural season fluctuations in a pony’s condition but our aim should be to maintain healthy condition rather than one that is overweight. Ponies in ‘show condition’ are arguably overweight, and much still has to be done to address the accepted norm, but that is a topic in itself! So how do we achieve healthy condition and feed to maintain it?

    “Starving is not a healthy option for any equine so even the overweight must still be fed but their diets must be devised to maximise chew time and minimise calorie intake. Fibre intake must be maintained at 1.5% of bodyweight (around 5kg for a 350kg pony) per day, to ensure gut health and efficiency, and high calorie, low fibre (relatively) grass is only allowed in moderation unless, of course, the demands of work mean that your pony burns off all the calories he consumes so does not store any as fat.

    “Stalkier, later-cut forage is generally less nutritious, while soaking hay for up to 12 hours will help “wash” out water-soluble carbohydrates (calories), leaving all-important fibre to keep the pony chewing. Small-holed nets will extend chew time, while other low-calorie fibre sources, like “light” chaffs and soaked unmolassed beet pulp, can be fed to add variety as long as they are accounted for in the overall fibre ration ie. are part of that 1.5% of bodyweight.

    “Essential nutrients, like protein, vitamins and minerals, are naturally lacking in modern forage and pasture anyway but are also lost along with the calories, when hay is soaked, and are likely to especially deficient in stressed rough or ‘starvation’ pasture. Feeding a balancer such as Baileys No. 14 Lo-Cal Balancer will provide all these essential nutrients without the unwanted calories of a mix or cube and will support muscle tone, hoof growth, metabolism and general well-being.

    “Constant monitoring of a pony’s body weight and condition, through weighing or weightaping and use of an objective Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system are essential for the long-term maintenance of healthy body weight, along with corresponding alterations to diet, exercise and management to achieve healthy body condition.”

    Tracey Hammond from Dengie Horse Feeds adds: “Dengie have a range of low calorie fibre feeds including Hi-Fi Molasses Free and Hi-Fi Lite that are suitable for good do-ers in light work. To provide a balanced ration these should be fed alongside Dengie Leisure Vits & Mins or Leisure Balancer.”

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