Last week we discussed a few tips to ensure your older horse stays happy and healthy throughout the winter. This week, let’s explore some environmental considerations to bear in mind when caring for your older horse. Basically, this comes down to remembering the essentials: water, food, and shelter.
Remember that older horses may have increased nutrient requirements in the winter, as they burn extra calories to keep their core body temperature up. Poor dentition is a major player in this, as mentioned last week, as are other issues, such as impaired immune systems and inefficient metabolism, which can result from the aging process and other underlying or sub-clinical health problems.
Older equines can benefit from easy access to high quality forage and two or three-times-a-day feedings of a concentrate such as a pre-formulated senior equine feed. Some older horses may benefit from high-calorie additives such as a top dressing of vegetable oil on their feed for added "oomph." Be sure to talk with your veterinarian before drastically changing your horse’s diet.
Water, of course, should be offered ad libitum for any horse, but here’s my chance for a VSA (Veterinary Service Announcement): Remember to check those water buckets and troughs at least twice daily to break any ice formation when the temperatures drop below freezing. A frozen water bucket is the most common cause of impaction colic in winter. Please check buckets even if you have electric warmers — they can be temperamental and I never trust them completely.
Also take some time to survey your older horse’s environment. If out in pasture, does he have access to a run-in to protect him from the elements? If pastured in a herd, will other members in the field allow the older horse, who sometimes has fallen to the bottom of the pecking order, in the shelter with them? If the horse is primarily stalled, how drafty is the barn? Although you don’t want a constant rush of cold air finding its way inside, also remember that stalled horses need proper air circulation to prevent buildup of toxic ammonia fumes from urine-soaked bedding.
Another winter environmental consideration is the build-up of mud and ice in the pasture and the obstacle course they can create. Constant exposure to mud and other wet muck pre-disposes feet and legs to conditions such as thrush and the aptly named mud fever. Ice can cause more accidents than bacterial problems; I’ve seen lower leg lacerations from breaking through ice. Also keep in mind that a more cautious older horse may forgo venturing into ooey-gooey mud or slick ice and therefore miss out on water and food.
I am often asked about blanketing horses in the winter. Many healthy adult horses do not need blankets in the winter, as their own natural winter coats are usually enough protection against the cold. However, wet weather puts a major hole in that guideline — soaking rain in freezing temperatures will chill a horse fast. Additionally, people who ride frequently in the winter often clip their horses to prevent excessive sweating during rides. Any clipped horse needs a blanket in the winter months.
But what about the older horse, especially one that is not clipped and not ridden? I often tell owners of older horses that if the horse has a substantial winter coat, is not prone to winter weight loss, and hasn’t worn a coat in years past, he’s probably okay without one this year too. However, the caveats about excessively wet cold weather still apply.
Thankfully, there really are no special mysterious rules to follow when keeping an older horse during the winter. Another nice aspect about this topic is that these recommendations are really good guidelines for horses of all ages, not just our older friends.
Dr. Anna O’Brien