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Prepare your horses for cooler temperatures

Jennifer Earing, PhD, PAS, TFC Nutritionist 4/27/2015

Though winter conditions are not as severe in the Southeast as they are in other areas of the country, they do warrant changes in management practices in comparison to what we’ve been doing with our horses in summer and fall.  Here are some things to consider:

First, assess your current feeding program. As temperatures drop, horses require more energy (i.e. calories) to maintain body temperature.  If horses are not receiving adequate energy in their diet, they will begin utilizing energy, or fat, stored in their bodies to supply those requirements.  This results in weight loss and poor body condition and is especially problematic if the horse starts out the winter in poor condition.  The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System ranks a horse’s condition on a scale of 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat) and is a good way to monitor his status.  Visit for a complete description of the scoring system and to see where your horse falls.  Ideally, horses should be no lower than a 5 on this scale going into winter.

Now is a good time to look at your feeding program so you can get your horse into appropriate condition before cold weather.  This may mean providing more of your current feeds (hay and concentrate) or offering higher-quality versions of these feeds.

Start with your forage.  Normal, healthy horses can easily consume 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight (16.5 to 22 pounds/day for a 1,100-pound horse) as forage.  Increasing the amount or quality of forage offered can offset many increased nutrient demands of winter.  Several factors can affect hay quality, including field fertilization, plant species, maturity at harvest, harvesting techniques, and storage.

Next, look at the feeding directions on the concentrate (or grain) being fed.  Compare the amount you’re feeding to the recommended rate; there may be room for adjustment.  If your feeding rate is at the upper end, consider switching to a feed with a higher energy content.  You may also need to feed problematic horses separately to ensure they’re consuming the intended amount. For more information, visit with us at the Co-op.  We’re happy to help select the most appropriate feed for your situation.

As nutritionists, we talk about the importance of water in hot, humid conditions, but it’s just as important during the winter.  Before cold weather hits, check automatic waterers and water tanks.  Make sure they’re clean and functioning properly.  Among other things, water helps to maintain proper gut motility.  Reductions in water intake, whether from an inadequate supply or unclean conditions, may lead to impaction colic, particularly when dry hay makes up a substantial part of the diet.

Also, consider the availability and quality of shelter.  Remember, shorter days mean you’ll likely be working after dark, so do you have adequate lighting?  If your horses are going to spend a lot of time indoors, is your ventilation adequate to prevent respiratory issues? 

Finally, don’t forget about pastures.  Late fall is ideal to apply herbicides and fertilizer.  Weeds compete for the same nutrients as desirable species in our pastures, so eliminating them will result in less competition and stronger stands of grass.  While fall fertilizer application may not significantly improve yield, it helps build stronger roots and allows for quicker green-up and more vigorous growth in the spring.  Visit with your Co-op for help with soil sampling and forage management advice.

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