“We must take into account several important considerations for preparing and maintaining older horses throughout the cold season,” said Amanda Adams, PhD, associate professor and MARS Equestrian Fellow in the Department of Veterinary Science, who maintains a herd of senior horses as part of her program at the Gluck Equine Research Center. “Some of the most important points to consider include body condition and nutrition, dental care, parasite control, vaccination status, exercise, and health monitoring.”
Beginning with body condition and nutrition, first assess a horse’s body condition score. While a little extra poundage won’t hurt going into winter, too much could bring problems.
“Is your horse too thin or too fat? Maybe it’s just fine as is,” Adams said. “This is a call you have to make before winter sets in and then feed appropriately. If you don’t feel comfortable making this call yourself, involve your veterinarian or a nutritionist.”
Adams says that horses at a body condition score of 5 or greater will have some extra fat stores that can provide insulation during the winter months; however, if the horse is overweight, insulin dysregulation could become a problem. Therefore, she recommends owners of senior horses to determine the horse’s metabolic status. Is the horse insulin dysregulated or affected by pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID)? This information will also help guide in how you feed and manage the horse throughout the winter. If the horse is on the thinner side with body condition less than 5 going into winter, increase the calorie intake slowly to improve his BCS. This can be done by providing additional forage, concentrates, especially those designed for senior horses or by adding sources of oil or fat supplements. Also consider pecking order and make sure your senior horse is not at the bottom of order, as this can make a difference in body condition. Access to shelter and blanketing can also help in maintaining condition, as less calories are being used to maintain body temperature.
During cold months, it’s important to provide a salt/mineral lick and make sure that they are always available and accessible. Likewise, make sure water sources aren’t frozen over and have good footing around them. Sufficient water intake in the winter for senior horses is important to help prevent impaction colic.
An older horse’s teeth need to be examined at least twice a year, one of which should take place prior to cold weather setting in. This will help them chew and consume hay adequately, allowing proper utilization of energy sources needed to stay warm in the winter.
“Dental care is important especially if you notice your older horses starting to drop grain, quid or lose weight,” said Adams. “Proper dental care also helps prevent things such as choking and colic. Hoof care is important as well since bad feet can lead to large bills if not properly taken care of. When considering hoof care, you should probably think about pulling or changing their shoes to prevent slipping on ice. Adding borium or snow pads to protect their sole might also be a consideration. Most importantly, keep an eye on your horses’ feet daily and remove ice accumulation as needed.”
Parasite control is critical, as older adults are likely to harbor more parasites. An example is a study by Adam’s team from UK that found older horses demonstrate statistically higher fecal egg counts compared to middle-aged adults. If given anthelmintic treatments, however, FECs declined significantly. It might be beneficial to deworm your horse after the first frost, up to three times a year taking into consideration FECs. Higher parasite load could also be contributing to poor body condition in the senior horse.
Make sure to maintain a regular vaccination program. Adams’ group has shown that senior horses have reduced immune responses to vaccination and are at risk for increased susceptibility to respiratory illness, in particular equine influenza. Horses with Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, also known as Cushing’s disease, are likely to have even further reduced immune response to vaccinations and increased susceptibility to infections.
“If you have a higher risk senior, think about having your vet administer a booster for risk-based vaccines,” Adams said. “These include EIV, equine herpesvirus-1 and potentially West Nile virus, every six months, particularly if your horses are showing or co-mingling with other showing horses during the winter months.”
Like humans, if older horses don’t get their share of exercise, then the less spritely they will become. During the winter months it is important to prepare your horse for exercise with ample warm-up and cool-down periods. After finishing, cool your horse out completely. Remember, use common sense when judging riding conditions, as older horses do not adjust well to stressful conditions.
Finally, monitor senior horses closely for health conditions which you might not have previously considered. These include respiratory illnesses, skin conditions, signs of colic and arthritis. As horses progress in years, a phenomenon called inflamm-aging happens.
“Inflamm-aging is a low-grade, chronic inflammation,” Adams said. “Inflamm-aging, like in humans, could be contributing to age-related conditions such as arthritis, however we have yet to understand the full picture in the senior horse. We have recently shown that season impacts the levels of inflammation and that levels are quite high during winter. Work with your veterinarian to determine if your older horse could benefit from anti-inflammatory therapies to help with arthritis discomfort. In the meantime, we are working on understanding if there are any effective, natural anti-inflammatories that would help the older horse.”
As horses age, we want to make sure that they are taken care of to keep them living a longer and healthier life. That protection starts by keeping them safe this winter.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the University of Kentucky’s Equine Science Review, Issue Issue 20, published on Dec. 31, 2021. It was written by Jordan Strickler, who is an agriculture communications specialist within UK’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.