As we prepare for winter, Sarah Poucher from Emerald Green Feeds looks at how the long, dry summer of 2018 meant a different approach feeding. Plus a guide to top tips for taking the stress out of weather feeding. First published in Carriage Driving November 2018.

When I was asked to write this feature, it was a beautifully hot summer’s day. I thought to myself by the time I sit down to prepare it, the weather will have turned and my head will be the right place to think about winter. But in true British style the weather is as unpredictable as ever. So, it still seems funny writing about winter feeding when the glorious summer sunshine is still lingering on. But actually, the beautiful sunshine of summer 2018 has caused lots of people to not only think about, but to start their winter feeding regimes early this year. Likened to the drought of 1976, the severe lack of rain most of the country has suffered this summer and early autumn, really has had an affect on the amount of grass growth in everyone’s fields. The drought conditions we have experienced over the previous months have made feeding a bit of a nightmare. When usually your horse or pony would happily spend its summer nibbling away at grass in the paddock, hardly ever seeing a feed bucket. I would hazard a guess that now, many of you have had to break into the winter feed rations early to supplement the lack of grazing available.

Planning your winter feeding this year could be tricky, with reports of an extremely cold period coming our way we could be looking at potentially having a major lack of available forage in the ground after an already difficult growing season. Make sure you have a plentiful supply of hay or haylage, if you have plenty of storage and the ability to buy your feed in bulk. This is often a great money saver as well as ensuring you have stocks to last the winter month. Most feeds if stored correctly, in the dry and un-opened will last for months and months.

I’m sure if you talked to any feed company representative, they would agree that if you feed good-quality forage, whether it is growing in your field or off the shelf in your local feed store, you will be offering a good source of fibre for your horse and you will probably save money. Make sure you offer quality ad-lib forage in the stable and the field. Feeding a high-fibre forage based diet will reduce the risk of metabolic conditions causing your horse to become too excitable or tie-up. The digestion of fibre also helps the horse to keep warm, which is particularly important during cold weather, it’s like having a hot water bottle on the inside.

Research shows that horses eat for between 14-18 hours out of 24 hours and that forage should make up at least 60% of their diet. Forage comes in lots of different forms and when feeding you can supplement forage with forage. For example, you could use a basic forage, hay or even Alfalfa hay and supplement it with better quality forage, like haylage, dried Alfalfa or grass in pellet or chop form, dependant on the need and level of work your animal is in.

One of the big concerns we hear about we are when out and about at shows, is that people are worried that over the winter months their horse loses condition. This is often put down to the lack of good forage available in the fields, the nutrients in the grass during winter are not as rich and therefore not comparable to those available in summer grass. This can be easily combatted by replacing or supplementing home-grown forage with bagged or baled forage. Such as dried chopped grass or alfalfa or pelleted grass or alfalfa which contain the nutrients of summer grass. Forage contains fibre which should come from quality fibre sources such as hay, haylage and short-chop forages or pellets, you can also use oil in the feeds if you would like to top up calories, particularly in competition horses. If weight loss is a concern gradually increase the horse’s total amount of forage and feed intake per day up to 2.5% of bodyweight.

Natural Feeding is very much in vogue these days but the concept is by no means a new one, horses have evolved over thousands of years to eat natural forage, predominantly grass but also alfalfa which has been used for grazing animals since the Ancient Greeks and Romans. I would recommend feeding as natural as possible, there are some great 100% natural feeds on the market, that way if you want to add any else you are not overdoing the vitamins and minerals required.

If you are planning to change your winter feeding make sure you introduce any changes to your horses feed gradually over a period of at least a couple of weeks giving your horse’s gut flora a chance to adapt. This will also reduce the likelihood of a possible colic episode that could be avoided.

Top Tips

Looking ahead to winter bringing with it short days, long nights and cold weather we talked to our brand ambassadors to see how they coped with feeding during winter and daily routines. Here are a few tips they offered:

  • Make the most of the morning light – try and get out to your horse before work (if of course your horse isn’t your work!) and make sure you prepare the feed for that evening. Get your jobs done at the yard before a busy day and a dark evening.
  • Plan ahead and Be organised – set your self a plan for the winter, how often and when do you need to ride? Are your rugs ready and your feed buckets on hand? Have you ordered your feed? You don’t want to run out and struggle to fit in another trip to the feed store.
  • Be quick and Don’t waste time – keep everything in its place so that you don’t waste time looking for things when you get to the yard. Prepare feeds ahead, muck out while they are having their feed, keep your equipment near by if possible.
  • Keep it simple – feeding can be over complicated at times, assess the needs and energy levels required by your horse and work out a simple feeding plan for the winter keeping forage the basis of the diet.
  • Location is key – if you’re not lucky enough to have your horses at home then make sure when you choose the location of the yard you us it is convenient at all times of the year, there’s nothing worse than having to travel miles before and after work every day in those dark cold winter months.

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