Keeping Your Horse at His Optimal Winter Weight

No matter what that groundhog said, there’s still plenty of winter left! Dr. Joyce Harman of Harmany Equine offers expert advice on keeping your horse at his prime over the winter months.

Flickr/Mike Durkin/CC

Flickr/Mike Durkin/CC

As humans, we have winter-weight everything: winter-weight jackets, socks, hats — we may even find a new weight for ourselves over the course of the cold months! But how closely do you monitor the winter weight of your horse?

“Because many of us see our horses every day, it’s easy not to notice subtle weight-changes,” said internationally known integrative veterinarian Dr. Joyce Harman, owner and operator of Harmany Equine. “We might not even notice our horses have lost or gained weight until their weight has changed a substantial amount. Also, so many times horses are hiding under blankets— their body condition might be a surprise when we go to remove their blanket.”

The average 1,000-pound horse needs about 13,500 calories to operate each day. Add in some cold weather, and he’s probably burning closer to 15,000 to keep warm. Because they’re burning extra calories, it’s not uncommon to see horses shed a bit of weight in the colder weather

So what can we do to keep our horse feeling and looking his best during the cold months? Dr. Harman is here to help:

Check out what’s hiding under the blanket or winter coat!

Daily: Once every day or so, run your hands down your horse’s side to evaluate body condition. Dr. Harman suggests that you should just be able to feel the ribs in the center of your horse’s barrel. If you can’t find those ribs, you’re getting closer to a 7 or 8 on the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System (too fat). If you can run your finger down the side of your horse’s barrel and feel every rib, your horse is under weight. You should also to feel a nice, thin fat covering around the hip bone—you shouldn’t feel as if you’re palpating the bone.

Weekly: Get out the weight tape! Gradual changes in your horse’s body condition might sneak up on you. It’s best to get an accurate idea of how much weight, if any, your horse is gaining or losing.

Feed the best quality hay you can get your hands on. Horses need extra fuel during the winter months to keep warm. While eating a large amount of a poor or mediocre quality hay will keep their bellies full, it doesn’t do much to fuel the maintenance of the horse. It would be a bit like us gorging ourselves on cardboard!

While grain provides nutrients, it should not be fed in large quantities, no matter how cold it gets. Feeding heavy grain meals causes large fluid shifts, acid-base shifts and changes in the bacteria in a horse’s digestive tract. When the horse is fed a large amount of grain and very little long-stem fiber, such as hay, the incidence of colic is higher.

If you’re concerned about keeping weight on your horse, consider making an extra barn trip around bedtime to throw hay one last time.

If your horse is gaining too much weight, you can feed the more fiber-based hay to keep them warm (digesting hay does add internal warmth). They do need the fiber, just not the rich hay.

Hard keeper? Add fat! If you have a hard keeper and need to increase caloric intake, choose fat instead of carbohydrates. In a perfect world, organic, non-GMO fat sources would be best. Good fatty supplements would be stabilized rice bran, Cool Stance (coconut-based), non-GMO corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil (not blended vegetable oil). Oils are usually high in omega-6 fatty acids and can cause inflammation, so you should add additional omega-3s (flax seed, hemp oil or chia seeds) to keep a healthy balance.

Turn ‘em out. Though it’s counter-intuitive to turn horses out in cold weather, it helps keep the horses healthy by reducing stress and arthritis. If you aren’t able to keep your horse out 24/7, do turn them out as much as possible. A little bucking and running keeps them happy and healthy!

If you do have your horses out full-time, it’s important they have some sort of shelter—even a mature stand of trees works well—to act as a wind break.

As always, you should also provide plenty of clean water. If you think your horse isn’t drinking as he should, add a tablespoon or so of salt to his grain each day to promote drinking. To keep his gut healthy throughout the winter, you might also consider adding probiotics to his diet. For more tips from Dr. Harman, check out the Harmany Equine website at

Article contributed by Emily Thomas Luciano on behalf of Dr. Joyce Harman.

Dr. Harman will be writing a regular column for Horse Nation in the future about a variety of subjects within the world of equine health. Have a question for Dr. Harman? Let us know in the comments section!


About Joyce Harman: Dr. Joyce Harman opened Harmany Equine Clinic, Ltd in1990, bringing holistic healing to horses from all walks of life, backyard retirees to Olympic competitors. Over the years, Dr. Joyce Harman has observed and adapted to the changing needs the industry. Twenty-plus years ago, no one had heard of Lyme disease or Insulin Resistance, yet today that makes up a large part of her clinical practice.

In 2001, she wrote the first paper in a peer-reviewed journal about the possibility that horses have insulin resistance (IR), and now it is part of our every day conversation. In 2004 she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800’s, with the western version of the book following in 2006. To this date, these books are the only books written by an author who is independent from a saddle company, which brings unbiased information to the horse world.

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