Cold-Weather Nutrition for the Competitive Dressage Horse

Learn how to keep your horse comfortable through the winter months.
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Credit: Dusty Perin/ www.dustyperin.com In the fall, pasture grasses will begin to lose much of their nutritional value.

Credit: Dusty Perin/ www.dustyperin.com In the fall, pasture grasses will begin to lose much of their nutritional value.

As we head into changing weather conditions in the fall and then the occasionally harsh months of winter, some adjustments must be made to ensure your dressage horse stays healthy and comfortable.

As cold weather approaches, there are some special considerations if horses have access to pastures. In certain situations, such as the warm, sunny days and chilly nights of fall, plants may store higher levels of sugars as polysaccharides, including starch and fructans, which can be problematic for some horses. This means that horses with sensitivities to soluble carbohydrates may need to have their access to pasture grasses restricted or removed entirely. Through the fall months in most regions, the pasture grasses will begin to go dormant and the vegetative portions of the plants will lose much of their nutritional value. Dry, brown grass is less digestible for horses and provides fewer calories, less protein and will lose some vitamin content. At some point it is likely you will need to provide hay to replace the pasture in your horse’s diet. 

Hay, which contains a higher level of fiber than grains, provides more of a warming effect internally, because greater heat is released during the digestion of fiber than of starch from grain. Horses need at least 1 percent of their body weight per day in roughage (on a dry-matter basis) to maintain a healthy digestive tract, but 2 percent or more may be appropriate during cold weather, especially if the horse lives outdoors. 

Many horse owners believe that when the weather is cold, horses need to be fed rations containing more corn, because they think of corn as a heating feed. However, corn and other cereal grains do not cause the horse to become warmer; they simply provide more calories. Although grain does not provide as much of an internal warming effect as hay, it is often necessary to supplement a horse’s winter ration with additional feed to boost calorie demands. Cold temperatures increase the number of calories a horse needs to maintain body weight and support athletic activity. It is also important to maintain your horse at an appropriate body condition score (5 to 6, or moderate to moderately fleshy), because a layer of fat under the skin provides insulation against the cold. 

In general, feeding an additional quarter pound of grain per 100 pounds of body weight to nonworking horses will provide adequate calories during cold, windy and wet weather. Hard-working upper-level dressage horses may require up to an additional half pound of feed per 100 pounds of body weight, depending on the intensity of their workload.

Bear in mind that while straight grains are good sources of calories, corn, oats and barley do not provide adequate balanced amino acids, minerals and vitamins to meet your dressage horse’s nutritional needs. Choose a well-balanced feed that is fortified with essential nutrients as well as proper calories to meet your horse’s requirements. 

Careful monitoring, simple planning and attention to changing weather conditions will help your dressage horse stay healthy and comfortable all winter long.

Katie Young, PhD, is the lead technical equine nutritionist with Purina Animal Nutrition. Her responsibilities include formulation of branded horse feeds, support of Purina equine research and development projects and technical support for customers and dealers. She works closely with plant-quality assurance and manages all in-bound horse-owner inquiries from customer service. She received her PhD in equine nutrition from Texas A&M University. In her free time, she enjoys her four horses, gives riding lessons and competes in dressage and eventing.

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