One of the golden rules of feeding – feed according to work done – is a fundamental rule to bear in mind when deciding how to feed your horse.

It becomes particularly pertinent at these transition times of the year. We are now definitely in to autumn with winter fast approaching and many horses experience a change in workload at this time of the year.

These sometimes sudden changes should be borne in mind when coming up with a feeding plan for your horse for the winter. Feeds are classified by the level of work they are designed for.

Feeding your horse the wrong type of feed can lead to problems, some more serious than others.

Behaviour issues

Overfeeding your horse by using a feed intended for harder working horses can lead to undesirable behaviours. This may manifest itself as out of character 'fizziness', or spookiness or general bolshieness.

The horse is basically experiencing the effects of having too much energy and is using it up at the first given opportunity (ie when you get on him to go out for a nice, quiet hack!).

Some of this effect is not just due to the amount of feed but to the type of feed you have given him. Feeds formulated for higher levels of work will tend to have a much higher starch content, which provides fast release energy and can make some horses fizzy.

A change to a feed formulated for the appropriate, lower level of work will make life much easier for you and your horse and will generally be a lot easier on your pocket too!

Select feeds that are high in fibre and oil, rather than starchy feeds, when your horse is in a lower level of work.

Weighty issues

A more serious consequence of over feeding or incorrectly feeding your horse is that it can lead to him becoming overweight or, at the extreme, obese.

'Fit, not fat,' always used to be the watch phrase used to describe a fit healthy horse, now there seems to be a growing number of fat and fairly fit horses out there.

Carrying too much weight can put excessive strain on joints and major organs (heart, lungs etc) and potentially shorten the working life of a horse. Laminitis is also a very real concern in overweight horses.

Whilst the jury is still out on what exactly triggers laminitis, there is no doubt that overweight and obese horses are more susceptible to this disease. For many horses, carrying extra weight can make them lethargic and lazy.

Feeding them more feed will only exacerbate this problem. Before running to the feed shop to change your horse’s feed to make him more lively, make sure he is not carrying excessive weight and that he is fit enough for the job expected of him.

Imagine how much better and livelier you feel for shedding a few pounds?

Most good doers thrive well on a balancer pellet or a good general purpose mineral supplement (look out for Harbro One Scoop) to ensure they are receiving all the vitamins and minerals they require and an appropriate low calorie chaff.

Work level

Ascertaining what level of work your horse will be doing over the winter is one of the first steps to getting your winter feeding regime sorted out.

The below table should serve as a guide as to the level of work your horse will be doing but if in doubt make use of one of the many help-lines available to you and ask the question.

Resting Also includes very light hacking

Light work One-hour hacking a few times a week, novice dressage and show jumping

Light-medium One-two hours hacking/fittening, pre-novice/novice eventing, up to medium level dressage

Medium Advanced dressage, Intermediate/1* eventer, A and B show jumper

Medium-hard Advanced/2* eventer; International show jumper

Hard Racing, 3 and 4* eventer

Selecting a feed

Once you have ascertained the amount of work your horse is doing it makes it easier to select an appropriate feed.

The use of a weigh tape will help you to decide what amount of feed is required and, used on a weekly basis, will soon alert you to any increases or drops in weight enabling you to adjust feed levels before there is a big issue. Remember to feed by weight and not volume and this in itself will prevent any over or under feeding.

Fibre first

Fibre in the form of grazing, hay or haylage, should always be the basis of your horse’s diet, along with the provision of minerals and vitamins.

For some horses and ponies this will be all that they need, particularly if they are good doers and/or their work level is vastly reduced for the winter period.

A proportion of horses, particularly if they are in work or do not hold condition over the winter period, will need extra feeding over and above this base diet.

What is required will be down to the individual horse. Most will benefit from being fed a feed that is high in oil and good quality fibre rather than a high starch feed.

If you are in any doubt as to what to feed your horse please do speak to a nutritionist.

Individual needs

Do remember that all horses are individuals and what works for one horse won’t necessarily suit another, even if they are the same weight and doing the same work level.

Stand back and look at your horse and ascertain if you need to make any adjustments according to the amount of work he is doing, his current condition, his breed, his current energy level and his temperament.