The seasonal influences on your horse’s nutritional needs vary depending on location. If you are located in an area that has very mild seasonal changes, the seasonal influences might be so little that you don’t have to make any changes to your horse’s diet.
On the other hand, if you live in a place that has drastic differences between seasons, your horse’s nutritional needs will be more impacted. Both extreme hot weather and extreme cold weather are difficult for horses to handle, though they are built to handle cold weather a bit more easily than hot weather. Summer and winter are often times when horse owners need to adjust their horse’s diet due to seasonal influences on nutritional needs, but spring and fall can also offer their own challenges. Read on to find out about just a few of the seasonal influences that can affect your horse's nutrition.
Like their human counterparts, to maintain a healthy weight, horses need to balance their calorie intake with their calorie output. During the winter, colder weather dictates that horses use more calories to maintain their body temperature. Depending on your climate, this can be a small increase in daily calorie needs, or a very large increase in daily calorie needs. Forage should be used to increase a horse’s daily calories when the increased calories are being used to maintain body temperature. This is because the microbes that digest the forage in your horse’s digestive system work harder (and longer) to digest these feeds, thus creating more heat for a longer period of time. Therefore, it is ideal to offer the horse extra hay or other forage, instead of extra concentrated feed or grains, during the winter months when they are working harder to maintain body temperature.
For horses in extremely cold climates, other winter horse care ideas can also help the horse more easily maintain body heat, and possibly decrease the number of extra calories the horse requires. Providing shelter, especially from wind and rain/snow/ice is one of the biggest things that a horse owner can do during cold weather.
...and not just on the OTHER side of the fence!
As the new grass grows in, it is a tempting treat for many horses, who will typically over-indulge if given the chance. There are two ways to ease your horse into increased grass consumption in the spring: limit time or limit space.
The first way to limit your horse’s grass intake is to limit the amount of time they are out in a grassy pasture. This works best for owners that have ample time and opportunities to turn horses in/out, and might only have one large pasture. Using this method, your horse is turned out for progressively longer periods of time until they are turned out for the desired amount of time. It is usually recommended to start with a time period between 15 - 30 minutes, the shorter time for horses at higher risk for colic and/or laminitis, longer for horses that aren’t prone to these issues. Every 3-5 days, increase the turnout time by 15 -30 minutes, until you are eventually at the entire desired turnout time. During the entire transition period, horses should be watched carefully for signs of colic or laminitis, or any other problems.
Using this method, its possible to start your horse’s transition to grass at either at the first signs of green, or to wait until a bit later in the season. The ability to wait until later in the season is a benefit for owners that have particularly delicate pastures, new pastures, or pastures that often remain extremely wet until later in the season.
The second way to limit your horse’s grass intake is to limit the space available to your horse. This can often be easier for owners that don’t have time to turn horses in/out every day during the transition period, or for owners (like me!) that have willful horses that refuse to be caught short periods after being turned out. Using this method, the horse is turned out into a smallish pasture right before the grass begins to grow. Since the pasture size is limited and the grass only grows so fast, these two factors work together to naturally limit how much the horse can eat. For horses more prone to laminitis/colic, the pasture size should be smaller, whereas it can be a bit more generous for horses not at high risk.
With either method, horses should be closely monitored at least daily to ensure that they are not showing signs of problems. Horses that are particularly prone to colic or laminitis can also wear a grazing muzzle using either method, to further reduce their intake of grass.
Seasonal influences on horse nutrition are varied and impacted greatly by your location and environment. Making adjustments to your routine to accommodate these seasonal influences will help keep your horse happy and healthy.