Winter Care for the Older Horse: Part 1

Published: January 25, 2013
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I’m always amazed at how well most horses cope with the wintertime blues. Most healthy adult horses, given their coats aren’t clipped, hold up pretty darn well when the thermostat starts to dip, as long as they have access to plenty of good quality forage and a shelter for protection against strong winter winds and precipitation.

The catch here, however, is the qualification, "most healthy adult horses." The young, the old, and the compromised do have special needs as the weather turns nasty.

I am lucky enough to see many older and greatly beloved equines in my area — horses are living longer thanks to owners who treat them as companion animals rather than discarding them after their "usefulness" is diminished, and thanks to ever-evolving advances in veterinary care. Therefore, I do see a fair number of elderly equines in need of some special TLC whenever winter rolls around. As such, here are some tips on keeping your older equine in good shape over the winter.

This week I’ll focus on horse-oriented tips and next week I’ll discuss environmental considerations.

1. Dental Care

Proper dentition is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge for the senior equine. As horses age, their molars often wear unevenly and teeth are lost, creating gaps where the lost tooth once was and overgrowth of the now unopposed tooth on the opposite side. Without regular dental care (called floating), these changes can wreak havoc on an older horse’s ability to properly chew roughage such as grass and hay, leading to less efficient digestion and nutrient utilization. Furthermore, rough edges created by uneven molar wear can create ulcers on the cheeks and tongue, making eating flat-out painful. Although younger horses also experience these dental issues, older equines seem much more plagued with dental issues and secondary health consequences, such as weight loss.

Regular dental care is of utmost importance for the senior equine. Dental floating at least once a year is recommended and, for some older horses, may need to be done on a semi-annual basis.

2. Be on the offensive — get your hands on your horse

For many horse owners, winter is sort of a down time — the weather is crappy, the horse is shaggy, and darn it, it’s cold out! As such, days and sometimes weeks can pass without people actually getting their hands directly on their horses. Additionally, extra shaggy winter coats can give the false appearance of a pudgy equine. This is reason alone to bring your horses in from the tundra on a regular basis for a good once-over. Take the time to get your hands on your horse. Even a quick grooming session will tell you if ribs are easily felt under that winter coat, indicating winter weight loss. This grooming also allows for a quick assessment of any superficial wounds and proper hoof care.

Additionally, if you don’t have one already, any owner of an older horse with weight problems should invest (don’t worry, they are cheap) in a weight tape. These simple tools provide a relatively accurate estimate of a horse’s weight and provide an objective number to record and monitor over time.

3. Out to pasture? Perhaps not yet!

If you still ride your older horse, try your best to continue working him during the winter. Cold weather is hard on arthritic joints, but even occasional work under saddle, or even on a lunge line, can help keep those muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules limber. Remember, colder weather will mean spending longer to warm your horse up, and proper cooling down is essential, especially with a thick winter coat, to avoid chills. If winter riding is simply not an option, consider incorporating some stretching exercises into your horse’s routine. Neck stretches for a carrot and knee bends can also add some bonding time between you and your best horse bud.

Stay tuned next week for the second installment!

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Irina Moskalev / via Shutterstock