By Vicki Glasgow

Nutritionist, Harbro Ltd

The ultimate all round athlete, the riding club horse or pony club pony. Many riding club horses work pretty hard over the summer months and some may even approach medium work level in terms of the amount of exercise that they do.

The average leisure horse undergoes a massive reduction in exercise during the winter; frequency, intensity and duration. Many will only be ridden at the weekends and maybe once or twice during the week.

Do less, feed less

It would never be a good plan to continue to feed a horse, whose exercise regime has decreased significantly, the same type and amount of feed.

For horses, which have evolved as trickle feeders, it is important that the changes to their feeding regime are not so much in quantity but in the type of feed it receives. This generally means that the main focus of our winter feeding regime should be on forage.

Get all that you can from the forage portion of the diet and then top up with what extra is required accordingly. This is a good rule for any time of the year but most particularly in the winter months. Think Fibre.

As we all already know not all horses are the same when it comes to feeding but there are a few common problems to look out for over the winter months.

Losing too much condition

Some horses just do not keep well over the winter. For many horses losing some condition is not a problem and if they look a little thinner over the winter then this is perfectly normal and in some cases a good thing.

So long as you cannot see their ribs and they are not noticeably losing any more weight, then there is nothing to worry about, in fact it is healthy!

Look at the forage portion of the diet, firstly, are they getting enough (they should be on ad-lib forage), secondly, is the nutritional quality of the hay or haylage good?

It is amazing the difference that the quality of hay can make to a poor doer, since it makes up the largest share of what they eat the impact can be enormous.

If in doubt get your forage analysed. Make use of the many, high energy forage chops that are available (Alfa-A, Graze-on etc) to replace a proportion of your hay, replace on a weight for weight basis.

Feed choice for the poor doer

Next look at the type of feed you are feeding. Look for feeds with a high oil level and that contain super fibres (sugar beet pulp, soya hulls etc).

It is not always necessary to use a conditioning feed, although for horses that are a problem every year these are the best solution. Some general purpose horse feeds are more than adequate for the job of keeping condition on most horses and ponies.

Harbro Horse and Pony Nuts as an example, are high in oil and in super fibres and will keep your horses in good condition throughout the winter.

With all feeds please make sure that you are feeding at the recommended level and if you are not then top-up with a general purpose vitamin and trace element supplement (check out Harbro One Scoop).

Sometimes the difference between a horse that is looking well over the winter and one that is lacking is just that, its vitamin and trace element levels are sub-optimal and this will manifest itself in poor hoof quality and a lack-lustre coat and general vitality. Keep meal sizes to 2kg or less and feed more often if necessary.

Gaining too much condition

It is increasingly common for many horses to actually put on weight over the winter. The natural thing is for the horse to lose weight in the winter so large increases in weight, or no reduction of weight in already fat horses is a problem.

This can be due to a decrease in exercise and/or turn out time. On top of this it is mostly due to an under-estimation of the contribution that hay/haylage makes to the diet of a good-doer.

Again look at the forage, soaking hay for at least four hours will greatly reduce the nutritional quality of the hay meaning that they can still get fed ad-lib without the weight gain.

Use the smallest holed haynets that you can find. Consider feeding straw instead of hay or as a partial replacement. Also make use of molasses-free, high straw content chops as a partial hay replacer.

If your horse is gaining too much weight or not losing enough then it most certainly does not require a nut or coarse–mix.

The horses vitamin and trace element levels still need to be met so feed them a handful of chaff with a mineral (One Scoop) or a balancer pellet mixed in. This may be all they require.

Obesity in horses is becoming of great concern so try to use the winter as an opportunity to get some weight off your good–doers, as you will be fighting a losing battle once spring arrives.

Good-doers should come out of winter running up a little thin as a buffer before the spring. Remember you are responsible for your horse’s welfare and a fat horse is a far greater welfare issue than one that is a bit on the thin side.

Too fizzy or too lazy

One problem over the winter is that your horse who is a little angel over the summer may turn into a tear away over the winter or vice-versa.

Whilst it is impossible to change your horses character by feed alone, it is possible to ease the situation with a little bit of fore-thought.

Most of these problems stem from the afore-mentioned dramatic decrease in work-load, and perhaps no real change in feed.

Avoid feeds with high cereal levels, particularly barley or maize which basically means avoid most coarse mixes. Stick to a high oil nut, or a conditioning feed with a low barley content (Harbro horse & pony nut or conditioning cubes) if he is a poor keeper.

Some horses will become a bit lazier over the winter as their fitness drops. If you are still doing some competing over the weekends and training sessions over the winter then adding a little bit of whole oats to their feed can help with some oomph.

Feed a small handful all the time to ensure that the gut bugs are used to it and increase slightly just before an anticipated competition or training session.

You will not require a lot to have an effect and it could make a big difference to energy levels. If your horse is not a particularly good doer then feeding a mix containing some oats through the winter will help.

Harbro Horse and Pony mix, has good fibre and oil levels but also contains a small portion of oats to give some sparkle without the fizz, perfect for maintaining weight over the winter in horses who are still competing and training over the winter months.

Winter feeding can become quite complicated if the basics are not looked at first, but needn’t be.

Forage supply is paramount and careful monitoring of weight using a weigh tape should prevent any need for panicked sudden changes in feeding which can result in more problems. If in doubt speak to a nutritionist.