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Ask the Vet, Sallie S. Hyman VMD, DACVIM: Cold Weather Care for the Senior Horse
Cold Weather Geriatric Horse Care
Older horses are affected more by the cold weather than their younger companions. Many owners talk about getting their geriatric horse “through just one more winter.” With a little bit of knowledge and planning, your older horse can stay comfortable and healthy, and getting through winter doesn’t have to be an ordeal.
Seasonal Check Up
A pre-winter veterinary examination is a good way to start getting ready for the cold weather. This exam can be conducted at the same time that your veterinarian does fall shots if you do those later in the season. If not, it is money well spent to have your vet out to check you horse out and discuss any issues that might need to be addressed before and during the cold weather.
Your veterinarian can assess you horse’s weight and make specific recommendations for nutritional needs. Old and new conditions such as Cushing’s disease, arthritis, heart murmurs, or lung conditions like Heaves can be discovered and addressed before the cold weather makes them more difficult to deal with. Many conditions will increase your horse’s caloric needs, so knowing if your horse is affected before the cold arrives will help you to send him into the winter in better condition.
Remember that it may be more difficult for an older horse to get around on frozen terrain due to arthritis, foot problems, or neurological disease. Anti-inflammatory drugs can help make achy joints feel a little better in the cold weather. Keep feet properly trimmed and pick them out regularly to prevent snowball formation. If your horse wears shoes, consider providing a little traction with borium. Make sure that food and water sources are easily accessible for horses with mobility issues. An often-overlooked condition in older horses is cataracts. The glare of the sun off of the snow can make it difficult for horses with cataracts to see. If your horse has cataracts, consider putting a dark fly mask on him to help reduce the glare. A thorough dental exam should also be performed at this time. Untreated dental issues will affect your horse’s ability to properly chew hay and grain.
Water, water, water
Just like with younger horses, it is critical to make sure that an older horse is drinking enough water during the colder winter months. Water is important for temperature regulation and also for helping digestion. Too little water consumption can result in impaction colic. Older horses who do not chew their grain or hay thoroughly may already be slightly more prone to digestive disturbances and too little water lead to impaction colic. Provide clean, warm, ice free water to your horse. If you are uncertain about the amount of water he is consuming, you can always add warm water to his grain. This will help to ensure a certain amount of daily water consumption.
Feed for warmth
Feed itself and the fat layer that results from it help to keep your horse warm. Within minutes of eating a meal, the horse’s digestive processes begin to generate heat and warm the body. Over time, calories that are not immediately used are stored as fat that acts as insulation against the cold. Older horses are usually leaner with less fat and thinner muscles. Adding to the problem of trying to get adequate calories into your horse is the fact that older horses don’t utilize calories as well as younger horses. It has been shown that older horses have a 5% decrease in their ability to digest fiber and a 15% lower ability to utilize protein. Making sure that they are consuming adequate calories to maintain what they have and have enough to keep warm is paramount to maintaining your horse’s weight in winter.
Hay is the best way to produce heat. The process of breaking down hay takes a long time and creates more heat over a longer period. Feeding as much hay as a horse will consume without waste is the best way to help keep him warm. Most horses will consume 2% of their body weight in hay a day. For a 1000 lb horse that is 20 lbs of hay. In winter, you probably will need to increase that amount. It is amazing how much nutrition horses get from pasture during the warmer months and owners are often very surprised by how much hay is needed to make up the difference in winter. Providing hay at night will keep the “burning” process going, so try to make sure that there is some forage available then.
Many older horses have dental issues that don’t allow them to chew hay anymore. There are a variety of hay alternative for these horses such as soaked hay cubes and chopped, bagged hay products. These will not produce as much heat as regular hay, but will provide needed fiber and a good amount of “heat”.
It is often necessary to supplement an older horse’s diet with grain. If your horse normally gets grain, you may need to increase the amount in winter. Older horses need these calories to stay warm and maintain body condition.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is to make sure that older horses are able to eat without being disturbed. If they are out in a pasture setting, make sure that they are not being bullied away from their hay or grain. It may be necessary to find a way to feed them separately or to temporarily fence off a small area for them.
Blankets and Shelter
Harsh winds and cold rain can take their toll on older horses. Believe it or not, snow actually acts as an insulator, even when it lands inches deep on a horse’s back, so it is not a worry. Wet rain that mats down hair and cold winds that blow the warm layer of insulating air are what cause problems. Keeping you horse out of these elements will go a long way towards keeping him warm. If he lives out on pasture, make sure that there is some type of shelter available so he can get out of the wind and rain if he chooses. A three sided run-in shed that blocks the prevailing winds in the best option. Again, if he is in a herd situation, ensure that he is not being bullied out of the shelter and that conditions such as ice, snow, or mud don’t make it impossible for him to get to it. It may be necessary to shovel a path and put down straw, hay, gravel, or shavings to make it safe to walk on. Keep the run-in shed clean of manure so the horses don’t have to stand in it.
The general rule about blankets for unclipped horses is that they don’t need them. Most older horses are an exception to the rule. An older horse in very good weight with no health issues probably does not need a blanket. Any older horse that is thin going into winter or has any health issues that may increase his caloric needs or decrease his ability to take in calories should be blanketed. It is safer to assume that he needs a blanket than to let him lose a lot of weight and realize he needed one sooner. If you are unsure if you horse needs a blanket, look for clues. If you see him shivering then he definitely needs a blanket. Shivering is the body’s way to generate heat my causing muscles contractions. This can produce heat for a limited period of time. It is effective, but short-lived and uses up a lot of calories. A shivering horse can drop an astounding amount of weight in a very short time.
Blankets come in a number of styles and weights these days. It is a good idea to have a couple of different weights, one for moderate temperatures and one for very cold temperatures. You can also layer blankets according to how much warmth you think your horse needs. The key, however, is not to get your horse too warm. If they sweat under their blankets they will have a hard time drying off and will get chilled and might start shivering. This defeats the purpose of the blanket. The most important fact about a blanket is that it is entirely ineffective if it is wet through to the horse’s skin. Make sure your blankets are waterproof and/or have several blankets so you can change them as needed. An equally important fact about blankets if fit. Make sure that your horse’s blankets fit properly. An ill fitting blanket can cause severe rubs on withers and shoulders and belly and leg straps can get tangled and cause injuries. Inspect blankets every few days for fit and for any damage.
It is also very important to take off your horse’s blanket regularly. You can check for any signs or rubs, skin disease, and weight loss. It is easy to not recognize weight loss if you never take the blanket off.
Do also run your hands over your unblanketed horse regularly as well. A fluffy, thick hair coat can hide weight loss. It is better to discover weight loss early and be able to manage it, then it is to find a very thin, unhappy horse in the Spring.
Older horses need a little extra care in the winter. Helping them to maintain weight and stay warm through proper feeding and blanketing, along with good veterinary care will help your older horse get through another winter.
Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian for their horses' medical care.
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