Proper Feeding During Drastic Weather Shifts in Winter


To follow along from last week’s blog about how to get your horse to drink more water in the winter, this week is about how to make sure your horse is getting the proper feed in the winter.

I’m not sure how the weather is where you live, but here in Maryland our winter transition is really weird. It doesn’t just go from a hot Summer to a cool Fall and then nicely into a cold Winter. That would make things so much easier.


Our Fall will just one day become really, really cold and you think, “Aha winter is here”. And you think that it will last all winter.

But it only lasts for a week or so. Then we have a few days of warm weather or even hot weather again. And then back to cool or cold weather. Back and forth, back and forth.

It’s crazy.

You can’t count on how warm or cold it’s going to be on a weekly or even a daily basis. At least not until mid-January where it’s just going to be cold all the way until the end of March.

This crazy weather also plays havoc on the horses. They start to grow their winter coats late in the Fall and then we have our weird transition into Winter. Then on the warmer days you’ll see their fur coats shedding and sometimes they’ll be in the pasture sweating as it feels like a hot Summer day.

Anyway, because of this nutty weather transition into Winter here I’ve had to up my research about how to make sure my horse, Merlin. I want to make sure he is getting the proper nutrition so he continues to stay healthy inside and out.

The good news is that when horses are given a chance to adjust gradually to changing seasons and weather patterns, they can typically tolerate heat and cold well. But it’s the combination of temperature extremes and drastic swings that can be stressful for your horse.

If you are having the same issues with the weather going from hot to cold, cold to hot, and then back again quickly – here is what I found:

One thing to manage properly is hydration and I discussed that in last week’s blog. The next thing to manage is proper feeding and nutrition.

For the most part, horses need forage in their daily diet for a healthy digestive system. Plus the forage helps them to manage their internal temperature when it’s cold out. This is especially important when you have crazy weather shifts.

Grass pastures become less and less nutritional and less and less consistent as the season progresses into winter. So if your horse is primarily on pasture grass this defiantly needs supplementing in the Winter.

The transition from grass in the pasture to a large round bail or something similar should be done gradually starting in the Fall. You should start supplementing with more hay/forage before the pasture grass starts to die off.

This will help your horse’s digestive system ease into the changes of the up and down weather. If you have an older horse you may want to begin this transition even earlier to maintain a sensitive system.

The proper forage supplies your horse with the right amounts of protein as well. So if you are supplementing your horse’s diet with grain, don’t forget to look at the protein content.

The higher protein grains and hays generate more heat in your horse when he digests it. Therefore helping him keep warm in the colder weather.

So, on the days that the weather is hotter, you may need to decrease the amount of protein in your horse’s diet and then when the days turn cold, increase the protein. Again, transitioning slowly if possible.

However, if the weather changes too quickly (day-to-day) or even drastically changes in the same day, you will be able to help your horse handle the changes more easily with subtle feed adjustments. Just by changing the ratios of protein you feed.

For example: on an unexpectedly hot day perhaps feed a bit less of his alfalfa hay and more of his orchard grass hay or find that bale with a bit less alfalfa in it. Or on a colder day add a bit of grain or alfalfa hay to his diet to raise his body temperature.

Everything in moderation.

For the most part horses are very adaptable and typically can handle significant temperature swings. Especially when they have lived in the same environment for years and their bodies have become used to the shifts in weather.

I have to really pay attention to my horses’ feed, water, protein intake, and body temperature because Merlin is still very young. His body is getting used to the world around him and especially the crazy weather changes.

He has only gone through one winter and two summers in his lifetime. This winter is really important as his body is adapting and learning what to do on a yearly basis. How and when to grow a winter coat and how much to grow.

Temperature swings are a stress, especially for foals as it can lead to diarrhea or pneumonia in young foals. So I am really watching Merlin. This happened with another foal that was born a month before Merlin. He just got over pneumonia.

Luckily these stressors are not so hard on adult horses.

These drastic weather changes are also harder on Merlin because his body is still growing and changing on a daily/weekly basis.

Merlin is now 16.2 hh on his shoulders and 17 hh on his rear. It’s funny to watch him learn to balance himself at a trot or when he is running full steam in the pasture because he is growing so quickly. He is doing exceptionally well though.

Friesians take 7-9 years to fully mature and I’ve even seen a 7-year-old Friesian have a growth spurt. Surprise, surprise. But withing Merlin’s first three years he will grow the most and at a very fast rate.

Because Merlin is still so young, this is the worst time to blanket him because I want his body to learn how to naturally adjust to the weather conditions. So along with the proper feeding, the amount I feed is higher going into winter.

Not drastically but adjusting slightly as I go into late Fall and into the Winter. I want Merlin to have a little more fat on him. Of course with him it’s a constant adjustment as he is also growing and filling out every week too.

I feel that the best I can put on him right now is a little fat. I actually do this with all my horses. This extra layer of fat will help Merlin with insulation. With a good winter coat and a nice layer of fat under the skin, he won’t lose much body heat.

A thin, undernourished, sick, or stressed horse cannot handle a sudden cold swing, especially if he doesn’t have enough forage.

The fermentation of fiber also helps your horse generate body heat to deal with the cold. So along with more protein, your horse needs a higher fiber diet in the winter because your horse’s digestive system needs a certain amount of fiber to function normally.

On warmer days you may want to lower your protein and fiber amounts but not too low as to create other problems like colic. It’s a fine line when you are dealing with the quick weather changes from hot to cold and vice versa.

All this being said, your horse’s ability to adapt to drastic cold also depends on his breed. A Shetland pony, Norwegian Fjord, and a Friesian are more comfortable in cold weather than a Thoroughbred with thinner skin and less hair.

That is something to think about as well when looking at what you feed and how you feed your horse in the winter or during drastic weather changes.

Lots of things to think about when working on keeping your horse healthy and happy with the transitions into Winter.

If this resonates with you and you haven’t yet dipped your toe into my programs, then click this link. Check them out and let me know if you have any questions, by contacting me. I look forward to hearing from you.

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