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Winter fuel: Getting seasonal feeding right 

  • Written By: British Dressage Magazine
  • Published: Thu, 22 Feb 2024 13:02 GMT

Deciding on the right winter diet for your dressage horse can be a minefield, here’s what to consider and how to ensure your horse is getting everything he needs through the colder and wetter months.

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For many of us, the shorter days mean that it’s not always possible to ride as often as we might like, and the UK’s reputation for torrential downpours can cause a restriction in turnout and access to quality grazing. Feeding routines therefore need to take these factors into consideration. 

Forage

“Forage should form the basis of every horse’s ration,” says Lucy Woods, nutrition adviser for Saracen Horse Feeds. “This is extremely important, and in many cases, condition, performance and mental well-being can be improved if close attention is paid to exactly how much forage is being eaten. In the winter months, forage fermentation also acts as an internal radiator and can help to keep horses comfortable. The minimum that a horse should eat in forage on a daily basis is 1.5% of their bodyweight, with this being increased to 2-2.5% in horses that struggle to maintain their condition.”

Concentrate feed

Winter diets usually include concentrates for two reasons; nutrients, and energy (calories). “Hay and dormant grasses don’t have the same nutritional value as fresh grass, and this can be overcome by feeding a fortified feed such as a compound mix or cube,” says Lucy. “Horses that are working hard or consuming large amounts of hay but not maintaining weight may require additional calories to maintain optimum body condition.”  The type of concentrate will depend on the individual horse and their workload. “Higher starch feeds that contain cereals will help to maintain energy levels in the more laid-back types that might be having an increase in their training prior to moving up a level for the following season,” she adds.

Water

Cold temperatures and frozen water troughs can lead to horses drinking less in winter. “Maintaining sufficient water consumption is vital not only for reducing the likelihood of impaction issues, but in maintaining optimum performance through reducing the effects of dehydration,” explains says Lucy Woods. “Dehydration and loss of electrolytes can lead to muscle stiffness as well as early fatigue, and so it is vital that you begin competition with optimum levels of both fluids and electrolytes. Adding warm water to your horse’s bucket or using a soaked product can be a great way of tempting fussy drinkers and maintaining water intake.”

Antioxidants

Travelling even short journeys can cause all horses some degree of stress, even in well-seasoned travellers who do not display any signs. “Travelling can use up the horse’s stores of antioxidants and it can take a long time to build these levels back up again, leading to a lack of energy and decrease in performance levels,” Lucy Woods says. “Antioxidants are readily supplied by fresh, green grass, and so in the winter months it is likely that requirement levels are not always being met. Supplementing concentrates with additional vitamin E will help to boost the antioxidant level in the body, helping the competition horse to recover quicker and support optimum performance.

Supplements for winter

Kate Hore RNutr (Animal), R.Anim.Technol (Cert). senior nutritionist at NAF, advises on the key supplements to feed your dressage horse through the winter months.

Digestive health 
Feed a daily supplement targeting digestive health that includes key ingredients like prebiotics, such as MOS and FOS, to fuel the microbes of the gut; live probiotic yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) for microbiota production, and new postbiotic metabolites which target the whole microbiome environment, particularly of the hindgut. 

Joint health 
A high specification daily joint supplement will help to maintain flexibility and keep horses’ joints fit for the winter indoor season, and strong for increased work in spring. Choose a joint supplement which includes glucosamine sulphate, chondroitin sulphate, H.A. and MSM. For older horses, look for a product specific to senior joint health, which could also be fed to horses where additional joint stress is recognized. 

Electrolytes 
If your horse is working and sweating then those essential electrolytes need to be replaced to maximize recovery and performance, even in winter. Horses can dissipate sweat relatively easily, and often you won’t even notice that they have sweated up. If the cloth is damp, or you see steam rising, they have sweated and their daily feed should be supplemented with broad spectrum electrolytes. Ensuring they have free access to a salt lick in the stable is also useful for maintenance. 

Mares 
We increasingly see many mares cycling all year round due to modern stabling management. The mare’s breeding cycle is governed by day length, not temperature, therefore, if your mare is in a barn where the lights are on from early in the morning and well into the evening, her system can be tricked into thinking she should be cycling. Even when they do take a seasonal break, the early seasons, known as the ‘transition period’ are often particularly irregular and can result in extremes of seasonal changes. This transition period can kick in from late January onwards, so it’s good to be prepared. Maintain your competition mare on a suitable supplement for hormonal balance to keep her comfortable and focused, whatever the weather.

Spicy winter behaviour

Reduced work and turnout may bring added concerns about behaviour over the winter months, so what can you do to keep the lid on fresh horses? 
“Cereal starch is the most common culprit when it comes to feed related excitability, but in some cases, over-supplying energy (calories) can also have an effect although this is less common,” explains Spillers product manager Sarah Nelson. “Traditionally cereals have been used as the main source of energy for competition horses, but the downside is that their high levels of starch can result in unwanted fizz. High starch diets also increase risk of gastric ulcers, colic, tying up and laminitis.” 

Tolerance to cereal starch varies between individuals but if the horse is prone to excitability, as a guide, opt for a feed containing less than 15% starch (or less than 10% for very sensitive horses). Having said this, it’s important to remember that the amount of starch consumed from any feed will depend on how much of it is eaten!

“Alternatively, look at supplying extra energy from fibre and oil rather than cereals for those that need help maintaining condition,” adds Sarah. “This will help to reduce the risk of excitable behaviour and support your horse’s digestive health. “Oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy compared to cereals and starch free. By fine tuning the source of energy in your horse’s bucket you can help to support digestive health while also reducing the risk of unwanted excitability.”

Article originally published in December 2022 
© British Dressage Magazine 
Author: Stephanie Bateman 

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