If you’re experiencing severe cold and the horse can’t hold its weight with free-choice hay alone, start to gradually add or increase grain. Beet pulp is another good choice because you can feed it warm and use it to help meet the horse’s water requirements.
Beet pulp can soak up four times its original dry weight in water, significantly more than wheat bran. Wheat bran is the traditional favorite for a hot mash, but its unbalanced calcium phosphorus ratio can cause problems if used regularly. And, if you’re going to feed it, you really should make it a regular part of the diet to avoid gut upset. Fortunately, beet pulp is heavier on calcium than phosphorus and a 75:25 % mixture of these two (75% beet pulp, 25% wheat bran) works out just right.
Keeping a close watch on your horse’s body condition and weight in winter is important in evaluating your feeding program. Don’t trust your eye. Thick winter coats can be deceiving, especially when the hairs are standing on end, as they will when it’s really cold out.
With a little practice, you can learn to feel how much covering the horse has over the ribs. Thick coats also interfere with accurate weight taping unless you really pull the tape tight. Feel along the horse’s neck just above the groove for the jugular vein to see if the bones of the cervical spine are more prominent. Right after you take off a blanket is the best time to look at how round the rump is since the coat will be laying flat.
WATER AND SALT. Yes, your horse needs salt in winter, too. Salt, AKA sodium chloride, is essential for maintaining normal amounts of water in the body. Without it, some degree of dehydration will be present, predisposing the horse to impactions and faulty circulation. Impaction colic episodes are common in the winter, related in part to the horse not drinking enough and not getting enough salt.
In winter the horse still needs a minimum of one ounce of salt (two tablespoons) every day to replace normal losses. Some can be added to the feed to ensure consumption (plain table salt is fine) or it can be left for the horse to eat free choice, although you should monitor to ensure he’s eating an adequate amount.
While salt helps guarantee your horse will want to drink enough, he also has to have adequate drinkable water available. Snow is not a satisfactory substitute for water! Horses will not drink water that is extremely cold.
Solar-heated buckets or troughs are ideal. If this isn’t possible, buckets can be wrapped with insulating material and enclosed in a wooden box to keep the horses from chewing on it. Some people add a few teaspoons of salt to the water, which is safe and will make it less likely to freeze, but you will have to find your individual horse’s preference level. Too much salt and the horse may not drink as freely. The horse is most likely to drink freely during and after eating hay.
If you have hot water at the barn, watering with very warm water at the same time the horses are fed will delay the time it takes to cool to an uncomfortable temperature. If you don’t have hot water at the barn, bring a gallon of boiled water with you in a thermos. Even this will help. However, you’ll need to be consistent about offering warmed water or the horse may try to wait too long to drink until you bring it to him again.