Winter throws equestrians its fair share of challenges. Love it or loathe it, the mud, wet and cold weather is on the way.

Whether you have a good doer, poor doer, senior or youngster, the best way to tackle this inclement season is to plan ahead. Unpack those winter rugs (or perhaps not if you have a good doer), get your forage in and importantly, assess your horse’s body condition.

Remember, for good doers, the winter presents an ideal opportunity to shift a few extra pounds so get ready take advantage of the colder weather. Having said this, keep in mind that grass can continue to grow for most of the year, particularly if the weather is mild.

On the flipside, poor grazing and cold weather make winter a particularly challenging time for poor doers (and their owners!) too. Provided they are otherwise healthy and not laminitic, going into winter at a body condition score (BCS) of 6/9 may help poor-doers buffer excess weight loss.

The importance of forage

Forage is essential for digestive health and accounts for a significant portion of daily calorie intake. Unfortunately, ad lib forage isn’t always practical for good doers and in order to achieve weight loss, some level of restriction may be necessary. Total daily forage intake should not be restricted to less than 1.5% of current bodyweight (dry matter) which on average, equates to approximately 9kg of hay (11kg if you intend to soak it) or 11-12kg of haylage (fresh weight) for a 500kg horse without grazing.

Dividing hay/ haylage/ straw into as many smaller servings as possible helps to prevent long periods without forage for those on restricted rations. If stabling 24/ 7, try to make the last serving as late in the evening as possible and the first serving as early in the morning as possible. Splitting forage between multiple, double-layered, small-holed haylage nets can also help to make restricted rations last longer.

Consider feeding soaked hay. Although not always practical in very cold weather, soaking hay helps to reduce the sugar (water soluble carbohydrate) content and of course, less sugar means less calories! Due to the loss of nutrients (and therefore dry matter) into the water, each haynet will also contain less ‘hay’ and more water post soaking. As a guide, increase the amount of hay you soak by approximately 20% to compensate.

For those that struggle to maintain weight, feed good quality hay or haylage ad lib, ideally in the field as well as the stable. Hay replacers are essential for horses and ponies with poor teeth who are unable to manage hay/ haylage.

Balancers are not ‘conditioning’

Due to the low feeding rate, all balancers (except stud balancers) provide a negligible level of calories. This makes them the ideal choice for horses and ponies on calorie restricted diets as a source of vitamins, minerals and protein without excess calories. They are also a great way of providing a balanced diet if you prefer to feed ‘straights’ such as sugar beet, alfalfa and oil instead of compound feed.  However, for the majority of horses, feeding the recommended amount of an appropriate compound feed, fibre or mash containing added vitamins and minerals is often the most convenient and cost-effective way of providing additional calories and a balanced diet.  

To rug or not to rug?

Although we may soon need our winter woolies, healthy horses adapt to regulating their own body temperature relatively quickly. Avoid over-rugging and encourage good doers to use some of their excess body fat for keeping warm as nature intended.

Making sure poor doers are appropriately rugged helps to prevent them wasting valuable energy keeping warm. However, rugs can hide a multitude of sins, so remove them regularly to assess your horse’s body condition and check for signs of rubbing.

Feed small meals

Large meals may increase the risk of conditions such as colic and tying up and in some cases, may even contribute to weight loss. Feed no more than 2kg per meal in total (dry weight) for horses and less for ponies. Remember to weigh sugar beet and mashes before soaking – the increase in volume after soaking makes it easy to over-estimate how much you are feeding!

Adding a low-calorie chaff/ short fibre such as SPILLERS Fibre Lite Molasses Free to meals helps to bulk out the bucket and extend eating time without compromising your horse’s waistline. A token ration of low-calorie mash such as SPILLERS SPEEDY-MASH Fibre can also be a useful way of filling up the bucket whilst limiting calorie intake.

Fabulous fibre & oil

Choosing fibre-based feeds that are low in starch and sugar helps to support digestive health and reduce the risk of unwanted excitability. If your horse needs additional calories, consider low starch feeds that are high in fibre and oil such as SPILLERS Digest+ Cubes, SPILLERS Senior-Super Mash and SPILLERS Conditioning Fibre. Oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy (calories) compared to cereals but starch (and sugar) free!

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Monitor your progress

Try to monitor your horse’s weight, body condition score (BCS) and belly girth regularly to help you keep track of gradual changes and assess whether any further changes in diet or management may be necessary.  It can take several weeks (or longer) for BCS to change, especially in very overweight horses, so try not get too disheartened if your horse’s progress seems slow initially.    In fact, belly girth may be the most sensitive indicator of fat loss in overweight horses, particularly in the early stages. Although they may over or under-estimate your horse’s actual weight, weigh tapes can be a useful for monitoring gradual changes if used correctly.

Example diets

Pearl – TB – light work - approx. bodyweight 500kg

2-3kg SPILLERS Digest+ Conditioning Cubes per day

1kg SPILLERS Conditioning Fibre per day

Ad lib  hay/ haylage in the field and stable.

Frog – Cob – approx.  bodyweight 400kg

400g SPILLERS Lite + Lean Balancer per day

Double handful SPILLERS Fibre Lite Molasses Free per meal

Turned out  during the day , stabled overnight with soaked hay

Contact the Care-Line

Don’t forget that a SPILLERS nutritionist is always happy to help. We understand that feeding can be confusing, and ensuring your horse is getting a balanced diet that matches calories demands without increasing the risk of unwanted excitability can be a daunting task. Our friendly team are on hand Monday – Friday 9am-5pm and can be contacted via 01908 226626 or on email