The Importance of Water and Hay to Horses in the Winter

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With the brisk temperatures and frequent fluctuations of our North Carolina winter weather, it is always good to remember how critical these changes can be to our equine companions. If you’ve been in the horse business long enough, you have probably encountered a horse experiencing colic due to temperature changes. Keeping horses warm and hydrated in the winter, as well as in good body condition can be a challenge. Key factors in achieving this are providing shelter from the wind and rain, along with plenty of clean water and good hay. Here are some things to consider as the winter progresses.

Maintaining ample water intake is the most critical part of ensuring the health of your horse during cold weather. The horse prefers a water temperature of 45-65°F. Under normal conditions, horses will consume one gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight per day. An 1100 pound horse will consume 10-12 gallons of water daily. But, as water temperature decreases, horses will consume less. An 1100 pound horse may consume as little as 1-3 gallons of water per day when water temperature is 32°F.

Low water intake is directly related to the increased incidence of impaction colic. Water intake can be encouraged by increasing the amount of forage being fed prior to a drop in temperature. The resulting increase of dry matter encourages the horse to drink more water. Concentrate mashes can also be fed during the actual cold period when water temperature is below 45°F. Feeding 2-3 gallons of hot water mixed in a mash with a textured or pelleted concentrate mix will provide additional water intake. To avoid gas colic, allow for the mash to sit for 15 minutes. This will permit the feed to expand prior to feeding. If possible, offer 10 gallons of water (at 65°F or warmer) twice daily. Break and remove ice from water tubs, making certain to provide water that is available free choice.

Providing good quality, nutritious hay is another critical aspect to winter management of horses. This is the time of year where hay supplies can get thin, so planning ahead and purchasing enough hay to get through the winter is critical. When temperatures get below freezing, winter pasture growth reduces tremendously, and hay is our only forage option. Horses, along with other grazing animals, need hay to stay warm. Hay and other forages are digested in the cecum and large intestine of the horse, and this digestion process is the primary source of regulating body temperature. Many horses can maintain their weight through the winter with just an increase in hay consumption. Those that are harder to keep weight on or older will often need a gradual increase of grain as well. Horses should consume at least 1.5% of their body weight in hay during cold periods. For example, a mature 1000 pound horse should consume 15-18 pounds per day of hay to meet these temperature needs in cold weather. It’s important to pay close attention to body condition during these periods, and actually “feel” your horse. A long hair coat or winter blanket can often cover up thin spots on a horse, so be sure to examine your horse closely and get a feel for where your horse’s ribs, backbone, etc. are and how much fat or “cover” there is over and around them. If a horse given plenty of hay is having trouble maintaining weight, increasing fat to the concentrate diet may also be helpful. Many “high fat” feeds are on the market just for this purpose.

These are just a few tips to help you and your horses get through the brisk winter days that are starting and will be here for awhile. For more information or advice, don’t hesitate to contact your extension office.