As we gear up for the colder winter season, it’s a good time to take a look at your horse’s diet and make any adjustments that will help him weather the colder temperatures. As the cold sets in in many parts of the country, access to grass and fresh hay may be limited – and some horses aren’t as easy to keep as others. Therefore, it’s a good idea to analyze your horse’s body composition and diet before any problems, such as weight loss, begin.

Testing your hay is one way to analyze your horse’s diet. Click here to read more about the process and its benefits.

Dr. Stephen Duren, of Performance Horse Nutrition LLC, advises using a “workhorse” hay as a general rule of thumb. “Grass hay is a great option for free choice, and you can supplement with alfalfa for extra protein and calories,” he explained. “From there, you can add grain for horses in full work, but forage should be the bulk of the diet.”

Colder temperatures can be particularly hard on older horses or those who have difficulty gaining and maintaining weight. For situations like this, Dr. Duren recommends alfalfa. And no, it’s not the culprit of making a horse “hot”. “Alfalfa has more calories – remember how much heavier a flake of alfalfa is versus a flake of grass,” he said. “In essence, you’ve got more calories per pound than grass or brome in a similar sized flake. That explains most of the difference in terms of feeding one versus the other.”

Proper forage feeding can also be instrumental in keeping your horse warm. As many blankets as you may layer on, the horse must also produce enough internal heat to keep himself warm. This heat is produced by the digestion and fermentation of fiber, so adequate hay feedings are necessary to ensure this process.

Another thing to remember, and perhaps a misconception, is that grass hay actually contains more sugar than alfalfa. Dr. Duren recommends mixing in some alfalfa for weight. “You want to increase the calorie content of the forage, which is where an alfalfa mix can help,” he said. Changing your horse’s hay? Remember to institute this change over time and not overnight.

Some horse owners may make changes in their hay feeding quickly, but in actuality a horse’s digestive system can take 21 days to fully transition to anything new, including forage. As the winter approaches, if you plan to make any changes, it’s better to start early to allow for enough time for the horse to properly adjust.

However, if you’ve got a particularly cold snap coming up, you can add more forage and fiber to your horse’s diets 24 hours ahead of time to help produce more body heat. And even ahead of time, it’s important to make sure your horse maintains proper body condition so that he’s not starting from behind each winter.