Feeding Horses in Winter

Unless your horse is stabled year-round, feeding horses in winter requires a somewhat different approach than feeding in summer.

Lisa Elliott – equine nutritionist at Smart Horse Nutrition – gives us some insights into best feed our horses in winter, for optimum health and performance.

Grass is the horse’s primary natural feed and what the majority of Irish horses enjoy plenty of for the majority of the year. However, the drop in temperature in winter is accompanied by both a reduction in availability of grass and a loss of nutrients and as a result we need to supplement our horse’s diets with an alternative form of forage such as hay or haylage. This forage will provide your horse with essential calories (energy) throughout the winter and in many cases, the bulk of his or her energy and protein requirements.

Check your horse’s body condition

The first stop in evaluating any required changes in your horse’s feeding programme is to assess his body condition. If your horse has been out on grass all summer and you haven’t yet started to supplement his diet adequately, you may find your horse has started to lose condition. Use the Equine Body Condition Score Chart to evaluate your horse’s condition and to get a base line to go forwards.

Forage first and foremost!

Forage should be the foundation of your horse’s diet throughout the year. But while in summer our horses are likely to be able to get the majority (if not all) the forage they need from pasture, in winter you will likely have to provide your horse with extra hay or haylage to satisfy his or her forage needs.

The horse’s digestive system has evolved over many years to be sustained by a high fibre, forage based diet. The fibre in the forage consumed is fermented and broken down into energy by the billions of microbes residing in the horse’s hindgut.

A by-product of the fermentation process is the production of heat. This is particularly important in winter when the temperature drops, helping to keep your horse warm from the inside out and, in effect, ‘centrally heated’! This central heating helps to prevent a loss of condition from getting cold and the better quality the forage, the more heat is generated.

The amount of good quality forage your horse needs over winter is an important consideration. Horses need to eat about 2% of their body weight per day, so with a 100% forage diet that’s 10kg per day for the average 500kg horse.

Ideally forage should be provided as a constant supply, or ‘ad lib’. This can be done by putting hay or haylage out in the paddock over the winter, in addition to what the horse receives if he is stabled overnight or during the day. A constant supply of forage will ensure your horse’s gut microbes are kept healthy and healthy microbes = a healthy horse!a

Could you horse benefit from Feed Balancer?

Whilst a forage only diet can meet the energy (calorie) requirements for most horses in light – moderate work, it is unlikely to provide a fully balanced supply of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and quality protein such as lysine, which is often low in Irish grown forage.

This is where the addition of a Feed Balancer to your horse’s diet is extremely beneficial. A Feed Balancer is a nutrient dense feed, formulated to be fed to horses in small amounts. When fed alongside forage at the recommended quantities, it will balance the diet and ensure your horse’s daily vitamin, mineral and protein requirements are met, for optimum health and performance.

A good quality balancer should be your first choice, containing only wholesome, nutritious ingredients that provide superior nutrition, without the use of cereal by-products, fillers and GMO ingredients, which have no nutritional value for your horse. Balancers often contain other beneficial ingredients such as probiotic live yeasts, which have been shown to enhance fibre fermentation, allowing your horse to get the most out of his forage diet and further enhancing his health over the winter months.

Does your horse require additional feed?

While for many horses, a forage diet supplemented by a good quality balancer is sufficient to satisfy his or her nutritional needs, it may not be enough for all horses. For example, hardworking horses or those that are getting on in years may start to drop a little weight and may need more feed to satisfy their calorie / energy requirements over the winter.

When looking to increase your horse’s calorie intake, look for feeds containing good quality sources of fibre and suitably cooked cereals e.g. micronised cereals, which are highly digestible, to help your horse gain or maintain weight and condition as needed.

Adding fat to your horse’s diet is a great way to increase calories without increasing feed volume if your horse is really struggling to maintain weight in winter. Cooked linseed is a great option as it is high in oil and has been fed to horses for many years for its significant health benefits. Adding fat to a horse’s diet has also been shown to improve coat and skin condition, making linseed an excellent feed to promote skin and coat health.


To keep you horse happy and healthy throughout the winter months consider these key points:

  • Make sure your horse has plenty of good quality forage, fed in a constant supply to meet daily requirements.
  • Add a good quality balancer to optimise nutrition and health.
  • Add in extra feed that is low in starch and sugar and high in oil if your horse struggles to maintain condition on a forage only diet.
  • Remember to make any changes in your horse’s diet gradually. This is so that the microbes living in the hindgut can adjust to any changes, helping to prevent digestive upset.

Always remember healthy microbes = healthy horse!!

Our equine veterinary expert Nikki Walshe also wrote a great piece ‘5 tips to ensure your horse stays in excellent condition this winter’ with much useful information on keeping your horse in top shape this winter.

Smart Horse Nutrition is brand new feed company with an overarching mission – to provide your horse with superior nutrition, whilst saving you money.

Smart Horse Nutrition allows you to take control of your horse’s diet by providing you with the 3 essential building blocks of a balanced diet – micro nutrients (Smart Balance), macro nutrients (a Smart Museli) and fibre.

For more information see, Tel: 0044 1497 570345; Email:

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