Winterizing Your Senior Equine

When it comes to preparing your senior equine for winter weather, small steps can go a long way to support your horse's health and comfort. Nathan Slovis, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., shares some tips.

Shelter from the Storm If your older horse is going to be fully or partially turned out this winter, one of the most important things for them to have outside is shelter, Slovis said. This can mean just a tree line to break the wind, or a run-in shed for those that live outside year-round.

Blanketing While many older horses that live outside will have an adequate coat to keep them warm, a waterproof layer is also important.

"Older horses are more prone to skin diseases and bacterial skin infections from excess moisture," Slovis explained. "Infections can be devastating in winter because you can't give baths, and (the horse) might have to be on antibiotics. The rug doesn't necessarily have to be thick or heavy, but it should be waterproof and breathable."

Body Condition Score As the temperature drops, horses burn more calories. A good pasture might be enough to keep a horse at a consistent weight, but it is good to know how to supplement their diet. Use a body condition score chart weekly to assess your horse and know when to adjust his feed accordingly. A score between five and six is ideal.

"Watch their body score condition," Slovis recommended. "Take off their blanket and look at them regularly. You can find problems underneath there."

Consistent Caloric Intake The supplemental forage intake for an average 1,000-pound horse is 1.0-1.5% of their body weight, which translates to 10-15 pounds of average timothy hay per day. This will need to be adjusted depending on the horse's daily exercise routine. Is the horse being ridden daily or is it standing in a pasture?

If more than forage is needed to maintain your senior horse's body condition, consult a veterinarian to see how much and what kind of grain would be appropriate to add more calories and energy.

Keep Food Off of the Ground If possible, feed your horse's hay above ground and away from the fence line.

"If you feed your horse hay every day in the same place where they walk and are competing for food, the hay can get mixed in with the soil. When it warms up again, that can start rotting and is the perfect environment for botulism spores and an outbreak," Slovis advised. "If you are in an endemic area where the spores are present in the ground, like Kentucky and parts of California and the East Coast, rotate the areas where you feed hay so that the ground doesn't become boggy and muddy. The best way to avoid this is to feed above the ground."

Check Your Horse's Smile Before the winter season hits, have a professional examine your senior horse's teeth. Older horses sometimes cannot properly masticate (chew) their food. When the food is not utilized in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the calories are wasted.

"It's like getting winter maintenance on a truck," Slovis said. "Get your older horse's teeth assessed, so that every bite they eat can utilize that energy."

Watch Their Feet In the winter, the ground can be wet and very hard on horses' feet. Keep your blacksmith on an appropriate schedule, and don't neglect the feet thinking that they won't grow much in the winter months.

"Foot abscesses can be a nightmare in the winter," Slovis noted. "Also be aware that due to the extremely hard ground in the winter, horses' feet are prone to bruising."

Parasite Control Set up a good parasite program for your elderly horse before wintertime.

"Older horses' immune systems, especially horses into their late teens and beyond, are not like normal horses; they can be more prone to parasites," Slovis said. "A good deworming program will help prevent that."

Available Salt Offer your horse a salt block. "During other seasons, horses naturally get salt in the soil and ground," Slovis said. "In winter, when the ground is rock hard, they don't get that. A salt block is an easy and inexpensive way to maintain homeostasis."

Monitor Water Intake and Manure Output In order to monitor how a horse's health changes in the winter, it is important to have a good baseline of their usual routine in fair weather. Know how much water your horse drinks and what their average manure output is.

"In the winter, geriatric horses may have a decrease in manure output and water intake," Slovis said. "Adding a bran mash to their diet can help encourage drinking and keep their system regular."

More information on Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.

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