Winter Horse Nutrition — Extra Cold Requires Extra Calories

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Forage, not folklore. That’s the advice on horse nutrition from Les Burwash, who spent over 35 years in the horse division of Alberta Agriculture.

Burwash told the farm women’s conference here last month that there is a whole bunch of folklore about feeding in the horse industry. He emphasized that the diet of the horse should revolve around forage. Some horses have a diet that consists entirely of forage which encompasses various hays and grasses, said Burwash.

“A horse requires at least one per cent of his body weight per day of quality forage to keep the digestive tract working properly.”

Horses need food that provides water, protein, energy, vitamins and minerals with bulk in a form utilized and liked by the horses. “When you increase the horse’s workload, you need to increase the amount of calories that the horse consumes,” said Burwash. “You don’t need to increase the protein or vitamins.”

He said a 1,000-pound horse requires about 10 pounds of hay a day. Available hays include alfalfas and clovers, grass hays such as timothy, brome and crested wheat, mixed hays which include legumes and grass and cereal hays which include greenfeed, oats and barley. “All of these products are OK for horses. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different and require you to feed differently,” said Burwash.

He said silage is a fine feed except for young horses, who cannot absorb enough nutrients from this feed due to the high water content. Weaner horses and horses younger than one year should not be fed silage.


Burwash advises not to feed on the ground as it wastes about 20 to 25 per cent of the hay. “I don’t care where you go in the province. At least three-quarters of the horses that are fed hay are fed on the ground. That just doesn’t make sense to me. We throw a quarter of the amount of hay that we feed away just by feeding on the ground,” said Burwash, who recommends using feeders.

Grain should be fed to balance nutrients not included in the forage, he said. He recommends that owners weigh their grain so they know exactly how many calories the horse is getting.

All horses require access to salt and Burwash recommends feeding trace mineral, free choice and loose salt. Horses will consume more salt if it is available in loose form rather than a block, and may not get enough salt if it is fed in a block during cold weather.

Minerals fed to horses should generally include calcium and phosphorus at a one-to-one ratio.

Those purchasing livestock mineral supplements for horses should be careful to check the levels of selenium as cattle tolerate higher levels of selenium than horses.

“If you buy a mineral supplement with selenium in it, be sure that your salt does not have selenium in it,” he said. “You don’t want to run into a situation where you have toxicity.”

During the winter, horses kept outdoors will require additional feed in order to maintain their body temperature. Horses kept outside will grow a long hair coat and will need some form of shelter, but not necessarily a barn to keep them warm.

Burwash believes that putting blankets on horses kept outside is a disservice, as it pushes their hair down onto their body and prevents the horses from using their own insulation. The exception for this is horses that are driven or ridden frequently, especially in indoor arenas during the winter, as their long winter coats can cause them to overheat.

Snow is not an adequate source of water for horses during the winter and horses should always have access to free choice stock water, Burwash said.

“A horse requires three pounds of water for every pound of feed he actually eats.”

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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