Worried about your horse’s weight this winter? Top tips to help

  • 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.

    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. Using lighter-weight rugs – or not rugs at all – can help to encourage increased energy expenditure on keeping warm rather than being stored resulting in weight gain.

    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 and resulting in weight loss
    • Worms: Internal parasites may compete directly for the nutrients inside the digestive tract and taking nutrients from the horse. A heavy worm burden may also result in damage to the intestinal lining, affecting nutrient absorption and leading to weight loss.
    • Pain: horses in pain, especially with chronic back or muscle problems, do not thrive, and a vet should be consulted.
    • Disease: discuss the problem with your vet if the weight loss has happened quickly.

    Once these options have been ruled out, the next step is to look at the horse’s calorie and nutrient intake.

    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 role to play, and these are available in the form of a balanced, high cereal conditioning mix or cube, as well as straights such as oats or barley. 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. As a very general rule, hay or haylage which is softer, leafier and greener in colour will typically be of better quality than that which is more coarse, stalky and yellow-brown in colour, but the best option is to have your forage analysed so you know exactly what you are feeding. Fibre intake should be carefully monitored, with high-fibre bucket feeds being offered where intake is reduced.

    Feed little and often

    Give bucket feeds little and often (no more than the equivalent of 400g per 100kg of bodyweight, per meal — e.g. a maximum of 2kg per meal for a 500kg horse). This is because the horse has a relatively small stomach (about the size of a rugby ball) and therefore is best suited to eating small feeds more frequently. Larger meals tend to be effectively “pushed” through the digestive system faster so may be less efficiently digested, and so smaller meals are preferable for ensuring your horse gets the most out of every meal. Ensure compound feeds are fed to the recommended levels for the horse’s size and workload. If you are feeding a low energy mix or cube, try stepping up to a higher calorie, conditioning mix or cube, as this will provide more calories per scoop.

    Other options

    For horses requiring a low starch/low sugar feed for clinical or behavioural reasons, conditioning feeds containing higher levels of oil and fibre are now available on the market. Oil provides a very concentrated calorie source so it can also be added separately into the feed, though high levels of straight oil may affect the palatability of the ration. Additionally, the more oil that is included in the diet, the more antioxidants the body requires to deal with the free radicals produced during its metabolism.

    Alfa-A Oil is Dengie’s highest calorie fibre feed combining chopped alfalfa with a rapeseed oil coating. At 12.5MJ/kg digestible energy Alfa-A Oil supplies as much energy as a conditioning mix or cube, but without the starch. Based on entirely slow-release energy sources and being low in sugar and starch Alfa-A Oil is particularly suitable for weight gain without the fizz.

    Soaked beet products can also be a useful low starch but high calorie addition to the ration, such as Fibre Beet from British Horse Feeds.

    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. These may be included as additives within compound feeds, but various supplements are also available.

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