By Sharon Biggs Waller who is a freelance writer for equine science and human interest publications and Diane Weinmann
People often think a nice restoring cup of hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate or a steaming bowl of oatmeal will warm us on cold days, but it doesn’t work that way for our horses. Hot food, such as a warm bran mash, might temporarily knock the chill off, but it won’t help him stay toasty throughout the night. I used to make a hot bran mash using peppermints melted in water that I heated up then I threw in bran and sweet feed with some apples or carrots. Now that was a treat and it keeps horses tummies warm and everything else moving well if you get my drift…..But what will really help keep those fires stoked is– hay.
It’s been said that “It is how they digest hay that creates the heat”—but did you know that the hay you provide to your horse is fermented in the hindgut, and that fermentation gives off a long-lasting heat. It works just like the steam that rises from your fermenting manure pile. Mmmm, just breathe deep (HA HA HA).
According to vets, horses use that heat to maintain their core body temperature. So as a horse owner, you’re stoking the furnace by feeding them a good quality hay that they can digest and gather nutrients from.
Of course it goes without saying that the forage has to be of good quality. The better the quality of the forage, the more they can eat and the more they will eat.
Any good-quality hay that you can get locally will fit the bill. Just note that as long as it wasn’t overly mature when it was harvested and has a high leaf-to-stem ratio, and absolutely no dust and mold it will work. If you are in an area where you can get reasonably good alfalfa/orchard grass hay, that would be great. If you are in an area that allows for growing high-quality timothy hay, then that is equally good.
Grain still has plenty to offer in winter, if the quality is good. However, many people think that grains, particularly corn, are “warming” feeds. The truth is, a small amount of high-energy feed will only keep a horse warm for a short time. With hay you get calories, but also heat from digestion.
According to vets, grain helps, but it’s easier to break down and it won’t cause that heat of fermentation, There are readily available calories from a grain that should be part of the maintenance pack, but it still behooves you to base your horse’s diet largely on hay.
What Role does the Water Play?
To help your horse keep his core body temperature up, you must make sure that his digestion is able to function at its peak. That means making sure he has a readily available source of drinkable water which does NOT include snow.
Horses need to have a certain amount of water for the digestion process. If you are in a position where your horse is being fed hay and he has to eat snow for his water, he won’t be able to eat enough snow to compensate for the amount of water he needs for digestion and hydration. Then he may get an impaction…the dreaded COLIC!
In the old days, it was believed that eating snow cooled the horse’s body, but studies done with beef cattle showed that lots of snow had to be consumed at one time before the core body temperature was cooled. Cold water, however, is a different story.
There are some water sources that horses will drink from that may prove the cooling theory correct. If you think how cold some water can get before it freezes, a belly full of that would probably change his core temperature—I mean it would yours’— right?
A bucket of half-frozen water will not fulfill your horse’s needs; he needs unfrozen water that is free of slush and snow. It’s even better if you have taken the chill off. If your horse is going to winter outside, you’ll need to invest in an automatic waterer with a heater. Vets have suggested that you set the water temperature to 37-40°F (2.7-4.4°C).
The colder the weather gets, the more calories your horse will burn to stay warm. If you see the thermometer dropping, the best way you can help your horse stay warm is by tossing him another flake of hay.
Do you hear that barn owners and horse lovers????? Warm your horse with love, treats and HAY (but provide lots of drinkable water)!