First frost? Top tips on how to manage horses, ponies and their turnout during the winter

4th November 2020

It seems that winter is well on its way with many of us experiencing a drop in temperatures and the first frost of the season this morning! Whether your horse lives out 24/7 or is turned out for a few hours a day, pasture management is of the upmost importance to your horse’s health all year round. Horses will spend up to 16 hours a day eating so where possible, investing time, money and resource into your pasture will be beneficial in the long-term from season to season, but especially during the winter.

Top things to consider when managing your winter pasture.

The size of your field and how many horses are grazing the land.

  • Over stocking a field can stress the pasture and increase the chances of weed species thriving over that of grass. If there are a certain number of horses that need to use a field, then it may be a good idea to start providing additional forage (by way of hay or haylage) sooner rather than later to reduce the chances of over-grazing the pasture early on in the winter season.

The amount of time the pasture will be used.

  • If possible, dividing the field and rotating your horse around the resulting paddocks can help to manage grazing pasture more effectively.
  • How many hours will your horse be grazing? Will you be riding in the grazing field too or is there space to section off a dedicated riding area?

Drainage & damage - is the field prone to flooding or damage in certain areas?

  • Try to minimise damage at gateways by using grass matting (ideal to lay during the spring), wood chip or gravel which can all help to minimise damage and avoid areas of deep mud.
  • In times of very heavy rainfall and particularly in poorly drained paddocks, it may be best to restrict grazing and substitute with other forages to prevent severe damage to pastures.
  • Avoid having water troughs or additional forage placed near the gateways to fields if possible; having everything in one place will make it more likely an entrance to the field can become severely damaged which often takes a long time to recover.
  • If possible, waiting for frosts to thaw before turning horses out can reduce the damage to grazing but always remain vigilant with laminitis prone horses as even when frosts have thawed, sugar levels in grass can remain elevated.

 General maintenance.

  • Is there sufficient access to water (especially during freezing weather) and is your water trough easy to clean/replenish through cold months without flooding parts of the field?  
    • What condition is your fencing in? Is it secure and able to withstand harsh weather?
    • Are you able to stay on top of poo-picking with the reduction in daylight hours? Keeping the pasture clear of faeces is important all year round to prevent damage to the grass underneath as well as reducing the potential worm burden of the pasture.

    Other important pasture checks to carry out regardless of the time of year include ensuring there are no poisonous plants growing in or around the field, make sure no rabbit/animal holes have appeared and that the paddock is free from litter and other stray objects.

    Many horse owners face the prospect of reduced or even no grazing during the colder, wetter months. In an attempt to lessen the negative effects of a reduction of turnout there are a number of things we, as horse owners, can do:

    Provide adequate forage to support natural trickle feeding behaviour throughout the day.

    Weighing hay and haylage for horses or ponies prone to weight gain and offering them a minimum of 1.5-2% of their bodyweight per day in dry matter will prevent unwanted weight gain; splitting their intake as evenly throughout the day as possible will help to maintain healthy gut function and motility. If possible, offer ad-lib forage where horses are poor-doers and/or don’t put on weight easily.

    NB. Ensure you provide appropriate forage for horses and ponies prone to laminitis, even when they are on reduced turnout. Have you considered using a bucket of chaff such as D&H Alfalfa, Fibergy or Fibre Fusion or even pre-soaked Kwikbeet as a partial hay replacer? Mix them with clean oat straw to provide lower calorie forage options (but only for horses with good teeth); remembering that all dietary changes must be done gradually over at least two weeks to allow the horse to adapt and hay/haylage/grazing should still remain the greatest proportion of the diet where possible.

    · Lessen boredom. If turnout isn’t an option and your horse or pony is prone to being anxious or restless in their stable, boredom breakers can be used to keep them mentally stimulated.

    Treat balls containing Classic Fibre Cubes are good fun for horses and encourage trickle feeding, a string of carrots, turnips and parsnips (or your horse’s favourite treats) hung in the centre of the stable will keep them busy and help to keep boredom at bay. Do not make stable toys too difficult however as to avoid any potential frustration.

    · Offer a partial hay/haylage replacer for horses who struggle to chew hay or haylage - a forage replacer can be created by combining chaff such as D&H Fibergy or Alfalfa, with Kwikbeet and Classic Fibre Cubes in suitable quantities for the individual (give our helpline a call for advice if you are unsure of the amount of each to use). For fussy eaters or those needing more tempting meals consider herbs such as Mint, Fenugreek or Dodson & Horrell’s Hedgerow Herbs to boost palatability.

    · Exercise. Allow time to exercise your horse or pony so they can stretch their legs if they are stabled. This could be in an all-weather arena, on hard-standing or in an under-cover barn. In-hand walking and grazing are good ways of getting horses out of their stables and provide you with an opportunity to bond with them when your time at the yard may have been cut short due to a reduction in daylight. Time out of the stable is essential for those horses and ponies who are prone to tying up, stiffness or other muscle disorders. The amount of exercise and free time needed will be horse dependent and the level of fitness and normal exercise routine should be considered.

    · Ensure stables are well ventilated or have alternatives available if bedding or hay is dusty. Steaming hay or using haylage as an alternative for horses more prone to respiratory issues is advisable in conjunction with a suitable bedding option.  

    Some horses will stable better than others, so it is very important that you assess your own horse or pony and make an environment and routine to suit their particular needs over winter.

    Our team of nutritional advisors are passionate about horses and are here to help so if you need any advice or reassurance with your feeding regime, then do not hesitate in getting in touch.

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