Winter Feeding: Failing to Prepare Can Have Disastrous Effects

This article is courtesy of the Horse Industry Association of Alberta

Our seasonal reality in Canada is that it will get cold and snow and our horses will need to be provided with a winter feed source. If we don’t prepare now, by November it could be too late.

Horses - winter feedingAs horse owners, we have a responsibility to care for our animals and poor planning for the winter ahead can have devastating effects. For example, one winter some horse owners in the south who normally rely on pasture for part or all of the season had to supply sufficient feed due to the heavy, hard snow pack. Most owners were prepared with a supply of hay on hand, but at least one large herd of horses suffered and came under the authority of the SPCA as a result.

Excuses like not having access to one’s horses, not enough money or simply underestimating the weather are not acceptable. Welfare agencies like the SPCA will intervene on behalf of animals in distress and the charge can be more than just monetary. If you are unable to properly feed and care for your horse then it becomes your responsibility to find an appropriate home for the animal. It is unacceptable to have horses suffer due to our inability to prepare or provide.

One of the most important things horse owners can do is secure ample forage NOW. Check pastures and see if they will support horses throughout the fall or into the winter and plan accordingly. Be cautious of over grazing and minimize waste by using feeders and forking rations from round bales instead of feeding free choice. If you have not already ordered hay for the winter months then do so as soon as possible. If your region has been hit hard with drought or has had crops damaged by extreme weather, you may need to look further away from home for hay suppliers. If you must resort to buying out of province, get together with a group of people in your area, contact a supplier and inquire about splitting delivery charges. Be neighbourly and see if there is a way to exchange services for extra feed or maybe your friend down the road has some extra space in their winter pasture for your horse. Being in touch with your community creates opportunities for ideas, solutions and action to take place.

Budget for what your costs will be. This is especially important for stable owners as your livelihood depends on your ability to budget accordingly. If the cost of hay is compromising your business, refer to your boarding contracts to see if there is room for change. Hold a meeting with your clients explaining that the increased cost of good feed necessitates a short-term increase in board until next year’s growing season.

The average horse requires 2 tons of forage through the winter. The average round bale is around 1300 lbs and small square bales approximately 50 lbs. With a decreased supply one can expect that the price of hay will increase significantly. Find out what the going rate is for the hay in your purchasing area, make your calculations, figure out exactly how much it will cost to feed just one horse for the winter and multiply by the amount of horses that require feeding.

Quality hay can be a huge asset to any feeding program but know that it may be scarce this winter and consider healthy alternatives. Take into consideration the needs of mares in foal, weanlings and older horses. Talk to your veterinarian and see what they would recommend for horses with special needs. Remember that hay is not the only source of fibre a horse can utilize. Supplementation is a consideration when standard feed sources are in short supply; but keep in mind that they will also be subject to cost increases if supplied from drought stricken regions. For further information on feed alternatives and supplementation read “Feeding When Feed is Short” by Bob Coleman.

In the event that you are having difficulty finding a quality hay source, look into the Alberta Government listing at, or try which connects growers and buyers in all sorts of regions. Remember that there are also out of the box places like, and that help people find the most interesting things; including hay. Check the postings on the board at your local UFA or ads in your area newspaper.

Get prepared. It is our responsibility as horse owners to provide sufficient feed to our horses — planning ahead ensures that it happens.