Wondering how to feed your horse in the winter?
Another summer has come and gone in the blink of an eye. As winter approaches, we shift gears a little in our daily routines to make the cooler days a bit more tolerable. Can I get a “yay” for headbands, fuzzy socks, and pumpkin spice lattes?
But what about winterizing our horses?
If you are anything like me, few things cause me as much stress and uncertainty as trying to keep my horse happy and healthy year-round. This is especially true when it comes to decoding nutritional needs for my specific horses.
In my early years of horse ownership, I did a LOT of research on allllll the things I needed to do before the temperatures dropped. If there’s ONE thing I wish I would have realized made the greatest impact…it’d be hay!
Why Hay Matters (A Lot)
Hay may not seem like a big deal, but it’s one of the biggest ways you can contribute to the health of your horse year-round, support overall wellness, and keep them at an optimal weight.
Changes in season can impact how you feed hay, how much you feed, and what else you might need to add to your horse’s diet.
In this article, I’ll break down the steps you need to take to insure your horse’s winter hay diet is fed correctly.
Feeding enough hay is essential
OK, great. But how on earth do you know what’s “enough?” And how do you account for the drop in winter temperatures?
Like all animals, horses need energy to survive and that energy is provided as calories from the foods they eat. The primary energy or calorie source for horses is hay or pasture (i.e. forage and fiber sources).
During the winter, if pasture grass is limited, you need to supplement a whole lot more calories in the form of hay.
Always start with hay
When you’re mapping out your horse’s winter diet, hay must always come first.
Your primary goal should be to provide the “correct” amount of energy/calories your specific horse requires via hay.
Think of this as the amount of energy (via hay), needed to stay at “maintenance level,” also known as your horse’s baseline of optimal weight and Body Condition Score (Don Henneke Ph.D., 1979, Texas A&M, “A measure of body fat and condition”).
In general, a high-quality Timothy, Orchard or Grass hay is calorie-dense and provides adequate nutrients to keep your horse healthy.
With that in mind, start by feeding 1.5-2.5% of the horse’s total body weight per day in hay alone.
Example: If your horse is 1,000 pounds, start by feeding 15-25 pounds of hay each day.
Need help with the math? Check out this hay feeding calculator at Montana Farm Life.
Pro Tip: Quality is everything, so I always hunt for the best quality hay. Yes, take into consideration availability and budget, but better quality hay will serve you and your horse far better. To know the quality, you must have it tested, or ask your hay supplier if they have a testing certificate.
Want to learn more about hay? Check out our blog about Horse Hay FAQs: List of Types of Hay, What Hay is Best, etc.
How do I make changes to the amount of hay for winter months?
The first factor which will require you to feed *extra* hay (i.e. more than what you give in “mild” weather to maintain health) is outside temperature.
Digesting hay has the greatest WARMING EFFECT for your horse.
That simply means that if a horse is eating and digesting hay, he is producing heat to warm his body from the inside out.
According to Carrie Hammer from North Dakota State University, “For each 10-degree change below 32 degrees F, horses require additional intake of approximately 2 pounds of feed per day.”
Additional rough winter conditions, such as wind, rain, snow, or ice needs to be factored *in addition to* the increase due to outside temperatures. These harsh winter conditions put a strain on any horse to maintain internal temperatures and overall health.
Hammer also explains, “A 10- to 15-mph wind will require horses to consume an additional 4 to 8 pounds of hay to meet their increased energy requirements.”
Keep yourself warm too! Check out our 5 best winter riding coats.
Changes in the way you feed hay
This reduces waste because the horse has to pull bites out of the small holes, which keeps more hay in the bag and leaves less waste on the ground.
The second benefit is slowing down the horse’s eating rate, which extends the time the horse is digesting. Remember, digestion is what helps produce body heat to stay cozy and healthy!
How often should I offer hay to my horse?
After many winters with horses, I’ve come to understand the negative impact of letting a horse go too long between meals.
When the weather is severe, and a horse spends many hours between meals, this can impact their ability to stay warm. The body can go into shock and begin to quickly use stored fat and muscle to make energy for heat.
In the cold winter months, I ALWAYS feed hay at least 3 times a day.
The largest of the meals being evening so that it lasts throughout the night.
Winter Horse Feeding Infographic
You’re welcome to use this infographic on your own website *as long as you link back to horse-rookie.local.*
Feel free to share on Pinterest, as well by hovering over it and clicking the Pinterest icon. #knowledgeishorsepower
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do horses need more hay when it’s cold?
Yes! A horse, in general, at maintenance level in “mild months” should consume between 1.5-2.5% of their body weight in hay each day.
It’s recommended that you add *an additional* 2 pounds of hay for every 10 degrees F drop in temperature below 32 degrees. So for example, that means a 1,000-pound horse who eats 18 pounds of hay for a maintenance level, would need 20 pounds if the temperature is 30 degrees.
Q: How many bales of hay does a horse eat per month?
Always remember to take into consideration the quality of your hay. If the nutrient quality is poor, then the horse will require more hay (by weight).
Q: Why is getting a Body Condition Score so important?
This system was designed to make it easy and effective for the horse owner to understand, track, and record the amount of body fat on the horse.
It’s done by feeling 6 key areas along the body. Body fat, along with muscle mass, indicates condition giving you a clearer picture of how healthy your horse is physically. Just like us, bodyweight doesn’t always give a clear picture of the overall condition we are in.
I cannot recommend enough how valuable this information is, and making it a routine habit can be key to keeping any horse at optimal health! (One to two times per month is ideal.)
“I’m not fat…I’m fluffy!” Have you ever heard this saying? Well, horses (especially ponies) can grow an amazing fluffy winter coat. But what’s actually underneath? Is it “healthy” fat and muscle, or is it all “fluff?”
A fluffy horse might be skinny and unhealthy underneath. ONLY a Body Condition Score, which requires you to touch the horse, can give you this insight. It also forces you to take any blankets off, which can hide a skinny horse!
Q: How do I figure out how many calories my horse needs each day?
Your go-to resource should be the National Research Council – Nutrient Requirements of Horses, which offers comprehensive charts on exactly what your horse needs.
Using these chart, you’ll see how horse-specific factors like age, breed, workload, and weight are used to determine energy needs.
You can also look up the nutritional content of all horse feeds (forage and grains). The best way to know the exact nutritional makeup of your hay, however, is to have it tested.
Q: How do you tell if a horse ate too much hay?
The most obvious sign that a horse is eating too much hay is what’s known as a hay belly (think of this like a beer belly for horses).
A hay belly looks disproportionately round, almost giving the appearance of a pregnant mare. The belly sits low, sagging out on both sides, and the horse will appear to sway as they walk.
Feeding hay with a slow feeder or hay net can help your horse slow down and start self-regulating hay intake. If you feed hay in a pasture, spread out the hay into multiple one-flake piles to mimic natural grazing habits.
Q: Can horses have unlimited hay?
There’s a difference between unlimited hay (which can make a horse overweight) and providing constant access to hay (which can increase gut health and reduce stress).
Horses are forage animals, meaning they were designed to spend much of their day grazing. Providing hay in a condensed block means that, over time, a horse will learn to self-regulate and munch on hay throughout the day.
If you can’t do a block, try to feed hay in small amounts more frequently (1 flake 3-4 times per day) and consider using a hay net if your horse inhales his hay.
Test Yourself: Winter Hay Feeding Quiz
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- Horse Hay FAQs: List of Types of Hay, What Hay is Best, etc.
- How to Soak Hay for Horses (And Why Bother!)
- Winter Horse Care: A Helpful Beginner’s Guide
- Food or Foe: What Do Horses Eat (And Why)
- Beginner’s Guide to Horse Hay Nets & Bags
- Horse Weight Loss for Beginners
- 7 Best Blankets for Happy Horses (Winter, Turnout, Rain)
- Fact of Fiction: Do Horses Eat Meat?
- How Horses Sleep: A-Zzz Guide to Equine Rest
- Horse Lifespan 101 (Life Stages, Teeth, Senior Horse Care)
- Why Some Horses Wear Shoes (And Others Don’t)
About the Author
Erica is an Oregon native, adventure seeker with big ol’ dreams, coffee craving gal who loves a good story. She, like many of us, caught the “horse-crazy” bug early in life and never looked back. Many horses are to thank for crafting who she is as a horsewoman today. Through in-person workshops and online resources like a blog, ebook, and courses, her focus is on building a trust-based bond and lasting connection with our horses so every moment is nothing short of amazing!
Connect with Erica and Hoofbeat Collective on Instagram, her blog, or access her free download of 10 Exercises to Easily Strengthen the Bond With Your Horse.
National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th ed. Washington, DC: National.
Academies Press, 2007. https://www.nap.edu/read/11653/chapter/1.
Fabus, Taylor. “Body Condition Scoring in Horses” Michigan State University Extention. 2019.
Hammer, Carrie. “Feed Horses Properly in Winter” North Dakota State University NDSU Agriculture Communication 2013.