It’s a deep, cold winter. I’m in your barn to check out one of your horses for one reason or another. I like to run my hands over every part of a horse that’s reachable as part of my exam. In the process I slide my hands slide over his ribs. Whoops! I’m feeling way too many boney ribs. There is lots of hair, lots of bone, and very little covering in between. I ease into the topic. “How much feed is he getting?” I usually get a question back: “Why? Do you think he’s too skinny?”
Winter skinny is pretty common. There are two reasons for it. The first is that that your horse burns a lot of calories just keeping warm. Those calories that would have put weight on in the summer are now being burned to maintain body temperature. The second is that horses grow this great hair coat as insulation. Even in a deep Maine winter most horses grow enough of a hair coat to keep warm. It’s better than the best Baker blanket. The problem is that it makes your horse look like he’s in great shape. All that hair could be hiding a thin horse.
The next time you are at the feed store, ask for a weight tape for every horse you own. They usually give them away. When you feel that your horse is in perfect condition, use the tape to get his approximate weight. Proper placement is just behind the elbows of the front legs, and up over the withers. Pull it tight and mark the spot on the tape with the date. Bring the tape out again in a month and note the difference. For this purpose it really doesn’t matter how many pounds you read on the tape. What is important is that you don’t want your horse to be showing less pounds than you had earlier on. It’s much harder and more expensive to put weight on than keep it on.
Contrary to what many think, it’s the digestion of roughage that keeps a horse warm. Every winter feeding program should be built around hay and not grain. Look on grain as a supplement and not the main source of nutrition. Most horses, if given the right amount of hay, (generally always available) need very little grain. Only if your horse has the naturally thin build of a thoroughbred might he need extra grain, rice bran, beet pulp, or fat in the diet to maintain in the cold months.
If you’ve never used a weight tape, have a knowledgeable friend or your veterinarian show you how to properly place and read it. When the hair coat is the heaviest you have to allow for that and subtract 20 or 30 pounds, depending on the thickness of the coat.
The weight tape is a tack trunk necessity, not used as often as a brush or foot pick, but certainly every month through the cold winter.
– David A. Jefferson, D.V.M.