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The first horses are already starting to shed their winter coats in preparation for spring. During this period, it is especially important to support the horse’s detoxification organs, namely the liver and kidneys. A 6-week course of detox herbs aids the horse in better managing its overloaded protein metabolism and, consequently, facilitates a smoother transition through the change of coat.

During the coat change you can support your horse with sulphur & zinc. © Adobe Stock / Petra Fischer

Additionally, it is crucial to ensure a sufficient supply of the minerals sulphur and zinc during this period. For healthy horses, a proper and regularly offered mineral feed is entirely sufficient as a source. Horses experiencing inflammatory processes in the digestive tract (FFWS, flatulence, colic tendency, sour-smelling faeces…) utilize excessive amounts of sulphur. In such cases, sulphur should be provided in organic form (MSM), for instance, as OKAPI Sulphur Plus. Horses experiencing skin problems (mud fever, eczema) should also be given additional zinc, besides sulphur, during the change of coat, such as with OKAPI Zinc Chelate Plus.

Hay shortage – the big problem in winter

Crop failures result in hay being fed sparingly in many stables. As long as the horses are in their warm winter blanket or thick winter coat, it is scarcely noticeable when they gradually lose weight. Conversely, in many cases, one is pleased when the pounds tumble off. However, there is still a long way to go before they go out to pasture, and some horses are already getting ribby under their coats.

If you suspect that your horse is becoming too thin, you should begin increasing the protein content of its feed in good time. Sainfoin, for example, is suitable for this. Not only does it contain high-quality protein in an easily digestible form, but it is also starch-free (unlike most protein-rich concentrated feeds). The tannins it contains stabilize the intestinal environment, allowing for better utilization of the hay ration.

It cannot be emphasized enough: horses require hay, and they need it in sufficient quantities. In winter, the amount required is significantly higher. © Adobe Stock / VICUSCHKA

At the start of the grazing period, the sainfoin can be reduced, as horses can absorb a significant amount of protein from the young pasture grass, making supplementary feeding no longer strictly necessary.

Mould in your hay?

If the summer is wet, more bales with mould may appear. There are often several reasons for this. On the one hand, with ground-dried hay, there is always a certain amount of mould growth after approximately 50 hours.

As hay typically needs to dry for 3-5 days (depending on the climate), a small amount of mould is practically always detectable in the hay. So far, this is not a problem, as horses have evolved to cope with the fact that in nature, it can always happen for them to ingest a small amount of mould in their feed.

Additionally, there is, however, the often wet and mild winter. A damp climate, i.e., temperatures around zero degrees Celsius with high humidity, encourages the growth of mould in stored hay.

It can be the case that you have brought in some tiptop hay, stored it well under cover, but the bales are still slowly starting to develop mould. Under other circumstances, the clear recommendation would be to discard the hay and purchase other (hygienically flawless) hay. However, due to the persistent hay shortage in recent winters and the exorbitant prices, this is practically impossible for stable owners. Especially as there is no guarantee that the purchased hay is of better quality.

What to do with mouldy hay?

In such emergency situations, it has proven useful to add mycotoxin binders to the feed (e.g., OKAPI EndoProtect). These are feeds capable of binding the toxins of the moulds (mycotoxins) so that they remain in the intestine and are then excreted in the faeces. The mould itself cannot colonise the horse’s intestines; it is ‘carried through’ and excreted with the faeces.

Mycotoxin binders, therefore, make it possible to bridge the next few months until the start of the grazing season and the new (and hopefully better) hay harvest. It’s not ideal, but just as beggars can’t be choosers, does a horse sometimes have no other option than to eat the musty hay. For horses with respiratory problems, however, care should be taken to ensure that the hay is dampened or steamed. Moistening binds the mould spores, preventing irritation (and often resulting allergies to mould) of the respiratory tract.

If the horse already has an allergy to mould spores, moistening is often no longer sufficient, and steaming should be considered. The hot steam kills the mould, preventing it from emitting spores, and the moisture binds the spores already loose in the hay, preventing them from coming into contact with the respiratory tract.

However, the following also applies to moistened or steamed hay: if the quality is critical, it is better to feed mycotoxin binders. Although these processes relieve the respiratory tract, they do not bind mould toxins.

Stress on the winter turnout is often underestimated

Many horse owners are currently observing that their horses are grappling with FFWS (Free Faecal Water Syndrome), experiencing conflicts within the group, or displaying signs of tiredness and unwellness. It is often underestimated how much stress winter housing imposes on many horses. The turnouts are often too small for the size of the group. If the group lacks harmony or when new horses are integrated or old mates move out, this causes even more unrest.

Horses usually need 3-6 months to settle into a new stable, become part of the group, or come to terms with the sudden loss of a herd member.

The less space there is to move around, the more critical the stress factor becomes. In addition, many stables use hay and bedding very sparingly. Due to the increasingly frequent crop losses in summer, the prices for both often skyrocket in winter. However, a horse that does not have 24-hour access to roughage becomes stressed and, depending on its basic character, may become aggressive or depressed. Hunger puts you in a bad mood, and it’s not just women!

A horse that does not have 24-hour access to roughage becomes stressed. © Adobe Stock / Rita Kochmarjova

It is therefore all the more important to provide the horses with sufficient nibbling activities. In addition to hay and straw (which serves not only as bedding but also as feed), branches can be offered. In many regions, when the trees are being cut back, felled in the forest or the snow has broken down branches, you can bring a few branches and twigs home with you and set up a “dead wood corner” on the turnout. Constantly replenished, the wood is highly popular for gnawing on, peeling off fresh bark, or plucking off the last leaves.

All woody plants that are not poisonous are suitable, and lists of them can be found on relevant websites. In addition to optimizing housing and feeding—depending on the options available in the stable where your horse is kept—you can also provide support with herbs. Liquorice extract soothes inflammation of the mucous membranes and can be used as a two-week cure (no longer, please!) if stomach ulcers are suspected. If the horse shows visible improvement, you can use OKAPI GasterCare Forte for longer-term support.

It was specially developed for horses with stomach ulcers and has a mucolytic and anti-inflammatory effect to soothe the stomach. For horses that become very affected by the stressful housing situation, it can sometimes help to separate them into a single stable overnight. Not every horse is content standing in a group 24 hours a day and competing for food and places to lie down. Low-ranking and older horses, in particular, are often quite content to have some peace and quiet overnight. You can then also feed them extra, as these individuals tend to lose a lot of weight over the winter.

In addition to a well-filled hay net for the night, a trough of sainfoin can also be offered to maintain weight. For individuals who experience stress, it may also be advisable to undergo a course of treatment with a calming herbal mixture to break the cycle of stress – behaviour – reaction of others – stress. After 2-3 weeks of calming herbs, most horses are a bit more relaxed. FFWS is also often an expression of stress.

Horses with FFWS should therefore always be checked for gastric ulcers and ways to reduce stress. Only then can symptomatic support, for example with psyllium (husks) or OKAPI ColoProtect Forte, be effective. If the cause is not found, FFWS can often only be improved with therapeutic measures, but not completely treated. And let’s all hope that spring arrives soon, and the horses have more space in the pastures to express their unique personalities again – that’s still the best way to combat stress.

More on this topic: Providing specialised support during the spring shedding DELETE