Poor grazing and cold weather make winter a particularly challenging time for poor doers (and their owners!). Encouraging weight gain for horses can be challenging during these months. Even maintaining your horse's weight can be difficult. If you are looking for the best ways to put weight on a horse during winter. The following tips and advice may help.

Winter weight gain for horses starts with preparation

Sometimes the best way to put weight on a horse is for them to simply not lose the weight in the first place. Provided they are otherwise healthy and not laminitic, going into winter at a body condition score (BCS) of 6/9 may help horses buffer excess weight loss.

Identifying the cause of weight loss

In many cases weight loss is simply the result of under-supplying calories. Check whether you are feeding the recommended amount of your current feed as a simple increase alongside ad lib hay/ haylage may be all that is needed. However seek veterinary advice if your horse’s weight loss is sudden, severe or unexpected. Weight loss can also be a sign of poor teeth so have your horse’s teeth checked regularly by your vet or an equine dental technician.

The importance of forage to create weight gain for horses

Forage is essential for digestive health and accounts for a significant portion of daily calorie intake. This means forage is also a vital part of encouraging weight gain for your horses. 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 unable to manage hay/ haylage.

Calories explained

Calories is a term we all associate with bodyweight. But have you ever noticed the word ‘calories’ doesn’t feature in the nutrient table on the back of your feed bag? Calories are a measurement of energy in the UK. Energy in equine feeds is measured in ‘megajoules of digestible energy’ (MJ DE). As opposed to kilocalories in human food.  If your horse is prone to excitability, choosing a high-energy feed can seem daunting. However, in the large majority of cases. It is the source of energy that you feed rather than the amount that may increase the risk of feed-related excitability (cereal starch is the most common culprit!).

The benefits of fibre and oil in weight gain for horses

Choose fibre-based feeds that are low in starch and sugar. This helps to support digestive health and reduce the risk of unwanted excitability. Oil is approximately 2.5 times higher in energy compared to cereals and starch free, making feeds high in oil a sympathetic alternative to mixes and other cereal-based feeds. Tolerance to cereal starch varies between individuals but if your horse is prone to excitability, start by choosing feeds containing less than 15% starch (or less than 10% for very sensitive horses). High fibre, low starch feeds are also ideal for horses prone to conditions such as laminitis, colic, gastric ulcers and tying up but in these cases, seek advice from a nutritionist before making any changes in diet.

Sugar beet

Sugar beet has been a winter staple for generations. It’s an excellent source of highly digestible fibre, low in starch and gram for gram, contains a similar level of calories to a conditioning feed. However, the increase in volume after soaking can make it easy to under-estimate how much you are actually feeding. In fact, a scoop of ‘Horse and Pony Cubes’ may be 4 times higher in calories than a scoop of soaked sugar beet! Always weigh sugar beet and other soaked feeds before soaking.

Balancers are not ‘conditioning’

Due to the low feeding rate, all balancers (except stud balancers) provide a negligible level of calories to create weight gain for your horse. Feeding the recommended amount of an appropriate compound feed, fibre or mash is often the most convenient and cost-effective way of providing additional calories and a balanced diet. However, if you are feeding ‘straights’ such as sugar beet, alfalfa and oil instead, a balancer is a great way to provide vitamins, minerals and additional protein.

Feed small meals

Feeding large meals can 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 for horses and less for ponies.

 Keeping warm

Ensuring good doers are appropriately rugged helps to ensure they don’t waste 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.

For more advice on feeding your poor doer this winter contact the SPILLERS Care-Line on 01908 226626 or helpline.horsecare@effem.com. Also please feel free to check out our range of feeds and balancers.