Equine Nutrition Gaps During the Winter
With the dreary days of winter upon us, decreased sunshine and plummeting temperatures take a notable effect on our horse’s nutrition.
By this time in the year, green grass is long gone and last year’s hay is aging. Properly cured hay stores well in terms of the major calorie sources (fiber and carbohydrates) but it does suffer some important nutrient losses. The longer hay sits around, the greater the loss of some vitamins and minerals. By understanding the deficiencies in older hay you can help maintain optimal nutrition for your horse even over the long winter months.
Green grass is the horse’s largest source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. There are moderate amounts of omegas and vitamin E in fresh hay but amounts decline rapidly as the hay ages. Curing and storage reduce the natural fat content of hay to 50% or less of the value in fresh pasture, primarily by the loss of fragile omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements help replace these losses. Specific omega requirements for horses have not been fully elucidated, but daily omega-3 supplementation is recommended around 2 to 4 ounces daily.
Freshly harvested hay is rich in a pigment called beta-carotene which is the major precursor of vitamin A. As hay ages, levels of beta-carotene drop and the hay begins to lose its light green color. This is a reliable sign that the hay’s vitamin A value has dropped. Many tissues are affected by insufficient vitamin A such as the skin, eyes, coat, thyroid and ovaries. Good levels of Vitamin A promote good vision, skin health, bone formation, immunity, fetal development, and gum health. When hay is 6+ months old it is recommended to start supplementing with at least 20,000IU of Vitamin A.
Both vitamin A and vitamin E are fat soluble vitamins and require adequate fat for absorption and transport. Fat is also required for the conversion of beta-carotene to active vitamin A. This is another good reason for supplementing with healthy fats, such as found in ExcelEQ ProElite.
Vitamin C is another important nutritional factor, rich in fresh pastures but very rapidly declines when hay is cut, cured, and stored. The horse is capable of making his own vitamin C, but this may not be enough for optimal levels especially as blood levels of vitamin C are known to drop sharply over the winter months. Vitamin C is important for a strong immune system and healthy skin, lung and tendon/ligament tissues.
When looking at the breakdown of the horticulture of the forages we feed, it is easy to see where our horses can lack nutritionally in the winter time. What is most important to remember is that we don’t necessarily have to stack the horses with more supplements, we simply need to help them become more soluble to what they are receiving through grains and forage.