As the winter approaches, many of our horses will spend more time inside to save excessive poaching of pasture, to provide shelter and to make supplementary feeding easier. This change means adjusting to hay or haylage as the primary forage, rather than pasture grass.
The main difference between pasture grass and hay is the moisture content, with hay providing around 120 ml of water per kilo compared to pasture grass at about 700 ml per kilo. Haylage provides about 300 ml water per kilo. Hay and haylage are made from more mature grass than a grazed pasture, so – in most cases – fibre is higher and energy and protein are lower.
Research has shown that horses changing from pasture living to a stabling routine with conserved forage such as hay are at a higher risk of colic, probably due to a combination of a drier, more fibrous diet and a lack of movement. Rapid changes are the most risky, so if possible, always change over to stabling gradually.
Following are some ways to help your horse adjust from a diet of mostly pasture grass to conserved forage such as hay.
Change over from mostly pasture grass to mostly hay gradually, so that the horse’s digestive system has time to adjust. Both digestive enzymes and hindgut microbes need to adjust to the change in diet, and not allowing time for this adjustment increases the risk of colic.
Ideally, choose appropriate forage for your horse, depending on their energy requirements. In this way you can feed enough forage to fulfil the psychological need to chew and maintain digestive system health in horses with low energy requirements, and limit the amount of concentrate feed in horses with higher energy requirements.
Ensure dental care is up to date. Horses need healthy teeth to chew hay and haylage, and alternatives are necessary for those with poor teeth.
Allow free access to drinking water of an acceptable temperature. Horses will drink more in very cold weather if the water is warmed a little. Simply pour a kettle full of hot water into a water bucket to take the chill off. Doing so can reduce the risk of impactions, leading to colic.
Feed succulents or soaked feed. Feeding soaked sugar beet increases water intake, as does soaking hay. Soak for just 5-10 minutes to avoid nutrient loss and up to 12 hours to reduce nutrient content. Consider haylage for higher moisture intake, if appropriate.
Balance the hay or haylage carefully. If your horse doesn’t need the full recommended amount of a fortified compound feed, you need to feed a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement or balancer to ensure they receive enough essential micronutrients. Vitamins are lost during the hay and haylage-making process, and UK grass is always short of minerals (whether fresh or conserved). Always offer a salt lick.
Add a probiotic supplement if you need to change over from mostly grazing to hay or haylage rapidly, your horse is prone to colic or they have poor teeth. Probiotics support digestive function and improve the digestibility of fibre.
Turn out as much as possible. Aim for as little time in the stable as possible, to keep your horse healthy in mind and body.
In conclusion, try to choose appropriate winter forage for your horse. Always change over from mostly pasture grass to mostly forage gradually, as you would hard feed, ensure your horse can chew it efficiently and ensure free access to drinking water of an acceptable temperature. These, along with the other points listed above, will help ensure a happy healthy horse during more intensive management throughout the winter months.