Use winter wisely

06 Oct 2021

Consider the wild horses of the world. They do not tend to suffer with obesity and all the conditions associated with it (eg. laminitis, hyperinsulinaemia).

This is because any weight they might have gained during the summer grazing will be lost as they utilise body fat to stay warm during the winter. Horses have evolved over millennia to use this natural cycle of weight loss and gain to stay healthy.

But, we mollycoddle our horses! We tend to imprint our human feelings and experiences onto them. We feel sorry for them when we feel cold, and it is tempting to spoil them. We don’t like to see them lose weight in winter, so with every summer weight gain, our horses are getting fatter and fatter year on year.

Research shows that we owners are rather poor at recognizing when our horse is overweight. A conversation with a North West Equine Vet might be a good place to start. Instead of being offended if we are told our horse is overweight, we should use the information to take charge of the situation. We are responsible for our horse’s health, and we control his calorie intake and usage.

It is very difficult indeed to encourage weight loss during summer by diet alone. Winter, however, gives us the perfect opportunity to get some weight off our horses gradually. The following advice is aimed at healthy horses with no underlying conditions. The very young, the very old, the pregnant or the nursing mares, may well need to maintain weight through winter.


Most domestic horses in light work do not ‘need’ a rug at all. They are waterproof and warm with a full winter coat of hair. Horses do not have to burn calories to maintain their core body temperature until the outside temperature reaches 0c. Compare this to humans, who, left naked, would start to use energy to stay warm if the temperature dropped below 20c. In very wet and windy conditions, a no-fill rug will keep your horse clean and dry.

Clipped horses do need a rug to provide the insulation that the long hair coat would have done. But to achieve weight loss, remember they need to burn more calories to stay warm.


Fibre is what horses have evolved to eat. Their specialised gastro-intestinal system is designed to provide them with all the nutrition and minerals they need, from grass and shrubs alone. But grass quality drops significantly during winter, and many horses have little or no access to it due to yard restrictions. We must judge the amount of extra forage we need to provide to keep the hind gut working. As we are wanting our horses to lose weight though, remember to wait until they actually are losing it before providing extra winter rations.

Hay nets

The smaller portions of hay we are using when dieting our horses can be fed in a small-holed net. This helps many horses eat more slowly, especially overnight. The gut stays healthy, and the horse is kept occupied.

Hard feed

If we are honest with ourselves, most of our horses are in only light to moderate work. Their energy and nutritional needs can be met with forage alone. A vitamin and mineral lick can be provided. If our horse lacks the energy he needs for the work we are asking him to do, then we can add in hard feed.

If the weather turns very cold for a prolonged period, extra rations of hay are much more beneficial than extra hard feed. The horse’s specialised hind gut ferments grass and forage, creating energy in the process, and providing a very efficient internal ‘central heating’. Hard feeds are digested in the small intestine, with no fermentation process, and therefore no heat production.

Aim to see the ribs!

We should be aiming to see our horse’s ribs at the end of winter. The general perception of what is a healthy weight for a horse needs to change. We must teach ourselves to perform body condition scoring on our horses. We must remember that horses are not big humans. They do not feel cold when we do, they are not designed to eat starch and sugar, and they evolved to walk many, many miles a day. They have very different needs, and we are responsible for providing them with as close to a natural, wild existence as we can.