– By Gary J. Coleman –
Many things can be blamed for an unshorn, underweight equine during the winter months, but several of the most common causes include the following:
Poor Feeding Program;Not taking into account increased caloric needs; Feeding the wrong quantity or quality of grain and hay; Dehydration; Parasites; Dental issues; Age.
Of course, some of these factors are out of your control; you can’t turn back the clock for your retired eventer, but being aware of the causes can help you correct those things you can control.
Poor Feeding Program
Horses need constant access to quality grass or hay, rather than one or two big hay and grain feedings morning and night. Horses are foragers that eat up to 18 hours a day, which is why you’ll notice happy, healthy horses during the summer months if they’re turned out on good pasture to graze.
Negligence to Increased Caloric Need During Winter Months
Like people, horses need to burn more calories to stay warm during winter months. Humans often use that as an excuse to indulge in a second slice of cake on a long winter’s evening, but horses legitimately need those calories in the form of forage. A healthy digestive system is an active digestive system — and digestion helps create heat, too.
Feeding the Wrong Quantity or Quality of Hay
All hay is not created equal. You probably already know that hay varies in quality, ranging from low-protein oat hay, to mid-protein grass/timothy hay, to good-protein coastal bermuda hay, and up to protein-heavy alfalfa. If you have any doubts about hay quality, request a professional hay analysis from your hay dealer or bring in a sample to the Clemson Extension office for testing.
Feeding the Wrong Quantity or Quality of Grain
As any owner of a hard-keeping horse will tell you, giving your horse more to eat doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll put on weight. Feeding more grain in the morning and night can actually cause your horse to lose weight, since processed feeds are harder for horses to digest, especially in large quantities. Undigested starch in the hindgut can cause diarrhea, ulcers, colic and plenty of other problems that cause weight loss.
Since horses need water to process their food, dehydration can lead to all sorts of problems in the hindgut, including increased acidity and toxins that can make your horse uncomfortable or lead to more serious issues like hindgut acidosis, colonic ulcers, and colic.
Your horse is probably already on some type of de-worming schedule, but remember that while worms are dormant in the winter months, they don’t die off completely. Be sure to stay up-to-date on fecal exams, being that October and April are good-targeted months.
Poorly tended teeth are a common cause of winter and summer weight loss. If a horse can’t chew, then he / she can’t eat. Chewing also produces saliva, which buffers the continual production of acids in the horse’s stomach – offering a natural protection against gastric ulcers. Also, these starches and sugars can reach the hindgut when the horse is unable to chew properly and when they consume grain meals too quickly. Undigested starch in the hindgut creates lactic acid, which causes the horse discomfort, and can also lead to colic and laminitis.
A horse’s age plays a major role in their ability to maintain their winter weight. Where as the fingerlike projections that absorb nutrients in a horse’s digestive tract, does not work as well, as the horse ages. Like humans, older horses’ teeth as well as kidneys and liver, deteriorate over time; which is why it’s imperative to keep your horse’s digestive system as healthy as possible through good feeding habits and attention to overall health.
For more information on tips for winter weight loss in horses you can stop by our office at 304 Gray Street or (864) 554 – 4504 Gary Coleman, Area Extension Agent