Suggestions for keeping horses in the stables in winter

by Dr. Christa Finkler-Schade / Schade & Partner

Winter has arrived and as every year many horse owners once more ask themselves what they need to change in the way they keep their horses and how feeding should be adapted to the horses’ needs in the cold season. For many horses, grazing outdoors is not possible and they are kept in stalls or paddocks with no access to open pasture.

Dr. Christa Finkler-Schade

Informations by Dr. Christ Finkler-Schade

To make sure that horses remain in good health throughout the winter, their care must be well-organised, feeding should be planned carefully and the facility must have a suitable concept for protecting them against infection (vaccinations, worming).

Can diet support the immune system?

A strong immune system requires a healthy gut! For this reason feeding conditions have a great influence on effective protection against pathogenic germs, viruses, parasites and fungi. Depending on the immunity situation as well as the type and extent of an infection, pathogens in the body can either be quickly defeated or allowed to spread, causing infection. The body has natural protective barriers that prevent the entry of pathogens. The main protective barriers of the body are the skin with coat and the mucous membranes. If these are healthy and protected by the natural bacterial flora (skin, stomach, intestines) or thick mucus (mucous membranes), it is difficult for germs to penetrate. In the same way the very acidic conditions in the stomach and digestive enzymes that flow into the intestines prevent the entry of any infectious pathogens. Any injury, insect bite or sting can be a portal through which these pathogens can enter the body. In addition, any use of antibiotics increases the body’s susceptibility to infection by negatively affecting the intestinal flora.

How can the quality of the roughage be assessed?

Winter feed is essentially made up of the roughage harvested in the summer as well as concentrates and/or supplementary feed. Roughage as hay, grass silage or haylage can contain very different nutrients. These depend on the one hand on the botanical composition of the growth and on the other hand the point in time when it is cut. Hay or haylage can be cut either early or late in the year. The time of cutting and therefore the age of the plants have a significant influence on their energy and nutrient content. In the case of horse hay or horse haylage, the first cut is mainly used. The second cut made from the new growth (so-called aftermath) can also be used for horses if the plants have been able to grow for a sufficiently long time to be able to form a suitable structure. This means that the second growth should be at least six weeks old, depending on weather conditions. Only then is the required crude fibre content of more than 20 % achieved. 

Do requirements change during the cold season?

Horses with thick winter coats often look much rounder than they actually are. The nutritional condition of horses with a long winter coat can only be judged well with a hands-on approach.  Feeling the rib arches gives important clues to the fat coverage of the ribs and therefore provides clear indications as to whether a horse is overweight or more underweight, as ideally it should be easy to feel the horse’s ribs. You should not have to apply a lot of pressure to feel the ribs and they should not be too prominent!

Basically the nutrient requirements of a horse must be adapted to its training level. Depending on the type of housing and weather conditions, the basal metabolic rate of a horse for heat management can increase during prolonged cold periods. This is especially true of horses kept outside or in open stalls. Horses that have free access to roughage can be observed eating significantly more during such phases. If this is not possible, their increased energy requirements can be met by giving them slightly higher amounts of concentrated feed (their energy requirements can increase by up to 20%).

The proportion of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E) in hay and haylage decreases the longer it is stored. The addition of a suitable vitamin-supplemented feed/mineral feed is necessary over the winter alongside hay or hay/oats. In addition, each horse should have access to a white salt lick (NaCl).   

Old horses

Due to tooth wear, old horses often have the problem that they cannot chew or grind their fodder efficiently, especially feed that is difficult to digest, which significantly lowers the digestibility of nutrients. Higher digestible feeds, such as early cut hay, soaked hay cobs and dried pulp can be used for horses that are losing their body substance as well as feeds containing high quality proteins (breeding feed, soybean meal, brewer's yeast) as well as vegetable oils. Oats should be crushed for old horses or given as flakes. 

Grazing in frosty weather?

Horses that enjoy regular grazing and are used to it can eat frozen grass without any problems. However, horses kept predominantly in stalls and paddocks and breeding horses that otherwise have no access to it should not eat frozen grass, as it can trigger colic under certain conditions.

How can horse owners maintain the health of their horses in winter?

For horse owners it is essential to ensure a good feed quality, ensure that feeding 

is balanced and to provide good living conditions. Balanced feeding ensures a good supply of nutrients, a healthy gastrointestinal tract and a healthy horse! 


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Dr. Christa Finkler-Schade

Schade & Partner, Fachberatung für Pferdebetriebe