Farming Magazine - January, 2013


Working Horses: Winter Feed Potpourri

By Vicki Schmidt

Home designers call it potpourri - that mixture of dried, naturally fragrant material we use to provide a gentle, natural scent inside our homes. Taken one step further and applied to a barn ideally designed for the comfort of the resident working horses: The dried, naturally fragrant material is their daily ration of feed.

While round bales do not satisfy a horse's need to move while grazing, they do offer an efficient way to feed hay if they are fed in a safe and clean manner.

The best advice for feeding hay and grains is: There is no perfect way that suits every horse and every farm. Working horses do best in well-ventilated areas, but stalls or sheds subject to harsh weather and winds will cause your draft discomfort and probable illness. Spend time taking a critical look at your pastures, shelters, stalls and barn areas to help determine the best solution for a comfortable and efficient feeding strategy for your drafts.

The heat created by the digestion of hay is the number one way horses keep warm in the winter. Hay rich in fiber creates the best "warmth" for working drafts, though it may lack the nutrients required for a full day's work. Munching on hay also reduces boredom. So, if you happen to be a "fair-weather" draft owner or one who escapes to a warmer climate for a few weeks every winter, keep extra fiber hay on hand.

There are a few tricks to feeding hay efficiently and in a way that your horse can utilize the nutrients in the hay to its best advantage.

Nature designed horses to chew most efficiently with their heads low - this keeps their nasal passages clear of debris. Flexing, nibbling movements add moisture to the feed as they chew. While feeding low is best for the horse, it is not always easy for owners to accommodate this need. In addition, if hay is not properly fed, it can lead to waste and a barnyard of dirty, soggy, rotting hay, which comes with its own troop of problems.

Hay for your working draft should always be free of dust and mold and, ideally, free of weeds.

The number one rule is to always feed hay that is free of dust and mold and, ideally, free of weeds. Dust and molds cause severe respiratory issues, and sometimes death, for horses of all ages. While horses will avoid most toxic weeds in hay, the presence of any weeds will discourage horses from eating the hay, leading to waste. Another negative aspect of weedy hay, especially if fed outside, is that it will quickly seed your fields and pastures with undesirable vegetation.

Sheds designed to provide shelter from sun and rain will not provide sufficient shelter from harsh winter winds and chilling weather.

Straight stalls with cribs deep enough to let a horse lower its head past its chest to feed make for efficient mealtimes and allow for easy grooming and harnessing. If utilizing straight stalls for daytime, do not feed more hay than your horse will consume in a few hours. This helps reduce waste and also allows for easier daily cleaning of the crib. If grains or concentrates are fed in the crib, place them in a rubber tub or bucket to keep them from mixing with dirt or chaff and attracting birds or other vermin.

Hayracks, nibble nets and round bale feeders are useful in some situations, but there are pros and cons to these as well. Most drafts make short work of hayracks due to their secondary use as a scratching post. Hayracks also allow easy passage of dust, chaff and other debris into your horse's eyes and airways. Nibble nets reinforce a horse's need to graze and are great for horses that overconsume, are bored or otherwise need to while away time. But as a general rule, nibble nets won't allow your working draft to consume enough hay to maintain weight and allow the extra calories needed for a day's work.

Round bale feeders and other devices for feeding large amounts of hay can be useful if carefully designed and well cared for. Do not allow uneaten hay to build up, as it will dampen, rot and harbor deadly molds and mildew. Maintain any feeders in such a way that all horses are allowed to feed equally. Aggressive horses will drive younger and less competitive horses from these types of feeders, which will leave some horses with forage and nutrient deficiencies. Above all, ensure that any large feeder is designed for your horse's safety. Many a horse, both young and old, has met with injury and tragedy after being caught or trapped in hay feeders designed for cattle or other livestock.

One final tip that can add efficiency to your working draft's feeding program: Prebiotics and probiotics are a feed item worth considering. They complement and improve the health of your working draft by aiding in digestion and reducing the negative effects of stress, illness and aging. Both items help to keep the correct balance of live and active cultures of beneficial bacteria in the horse's stomach, which has positive benefits for the horse's overall health and vitality.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manager of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The working draft horse farm features Shires for work, sport and show. Visit them online at or contact them at