Winter Care for Older Horses

Winter Care for Older Horses

Owners need to consider how they will meet their older horses' (or their younger, hard-keeping horses') nutrient requirements during the winter.


Owners need to consider how they will meet their older horses' (or their younger, hard-keeping horses') nutrient requirements during the winter. Providing adequate energy is the prime concern, and how you will provide those extra calories depends on available feed and each horse's individual needs.

A good place to start is assessing your horse's body condition score (BCS). Horses with a BCS of greater than 5 will have some extra fat stores that can provide insulation and serve as a readily available source of energy when the daily ration falls short as the temperature drops.

In developing your feeding strategy, consider increasing your horse's hay intake to meet his energy needs. Hay is digested in the gastrointestinal tract by fermentation, which produces heat that the horse can use to maintain core body temperature. There is a limit as to how much hay he can consume daily. In most cases, he will consume 2.0-2.5% of his body weight per day. If he can't consume enough hay, then adding grain to the diet will also provide calories.

Temperatures well below freezing, or wet snow or freezing rain conditions, greatly increase a horse's energy requirements, especially if he's maintained outside. Rain and wind can cause the horse to lose the insulating capacity of his hair coat, and he'll use body reserves to maintain core body temperature, often resulting in weight loss. Owners must increase the daily feed to meet these increased demands, but they play catch up with the feed unless they can accurately predict the weather or can put horses in the barn when things turn nasty.

Assess BCS regularly to ensure you've provided enough feed to maintain weight; also check BCS of pastured horses after a particularly cold, wet spell, when they can lose weight rapidly. Be thorough: get your hands on each horse, because a winter hair coat can hide a lot. You don't want to find an overly thin or fat horse when he sheds his winter coat in the spring.

Conduct an inventory of how much hay you have on hand (in tons, not bales) and its nutrient content. Consult your county extension agent about hay sampling and testing. Analysis will give you an estimate of energy content, and it will help you determine how to supplement effectively.

Ensure older horses and hard keepers have some form of shelter to protect them from the winter precipitation and wind. For the older horse or the hard keeper, losing weight is not an option, as getting that condition back during the winter is difficult and often impossible.

Consider supplementing the older, harder-keeping horse's high-quality hay with a suitable concentrate, such as a senior horse feed that has been specifically formulated to meet the older horse's nutrient needs.

In addition, adequate water intake ensures adequate feed intake. Keep the water source warm to prevent freezing. Researchers have noted that water warmed to 39°F (4°C) resulted in greater water intake. If the horse drinks less, he might eat less, or, more importantly, he's at an increased risk of impaction colic.

For horses unable to consume enough long-stem hay, consider adding beet pulp to the diet. This is an easily digested fiber source that can help meet the horse's energy needs. For other hard keepers, you might need to supplement the diet with vegetable oil to increase calorie intake.

Consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist with specific questions.

Reprinted with permission from theKentucky Horse Council.)

About the Author

Bob Coleman, PhD

Bob Coleman, PhD, grew up showing horses and harness ponies in Brandon, Manitoba. He worked as an animal nutritionist for two feed companies in Western Canada before joining the Alberta Horse Industry Branch, where he worked for 18 years as the provincial extension horse specialist. He is currently an associate extension professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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