Tips for Preparing Your Older Horse for Winter

Fall is here, which means it’s time to prepare your aging equine (15 years or older) for the winter ahead. Horses, like people, are typically faced with more challenges handling the cold weather as they age. Thus, preparing them ahead of time and providing proper care throughout winter is important.

With the cold weather almost upon us, we must take into account several important considerations for preparing and maintaining older horses throughout the cold season. Some of the most important points to consider include body condition and nutrition, vaccination status, parasite control, dental and hoof care, housing, exercise, and health monitoring.

Body Condition and Nutrition

Start by assessing your horse’s body condition score (BCS). Is he too thin, too fat, or just right? You must make the call now and feed appropriately to prepare for the winter months ahead. If you don’t feel comfortable in making this call, involve your veterinarian or nutritionist in body scoring your horse. Be sure to get your hands on him or her as well, because a growing winter coat can hide a lot. Horses at a BCS of 5 or greater will have some extra fat stores that can provide insulation during the winter months; but your horse should not be overweight for the breed, as insulin resistance (IR) could become a problem. If you are worried about IR, have your veterinarian perform an oral sugar test to determine if your horse is IR or simply check basal insulin levels for an indication of hyperinsulinemia.

If your horse has a BCS below 5, increase his calorie intake slowly to improve his BCS score going into winter. If you are worried about putting weight on your horse because of IR, or perhaps because your horse has PPID (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, also known as equine Cushing’s disease) and you think he might be IR, it is best to not guess or worry, but instead have your veterinarian check your horse’s insulin levels so you know it’s safe to add calories to his diet.

In developing a feeding strategy for the horse that needs to put on weight, first 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. But there is a limit as to how much hay a horse can consume daily. In most cases horses will consume between 2.0-2.5%; however, during times of harsher weather conditions, they might require upwards of 3% of their body weight (BW) per day. For example, if your horse weighs 1,000 pounds and is eating 2% BW per day, he should be consuming 20 pounds of hay per day. Be sure to accurately weigh your hay and grain using a scale because estimating can lead to under- or overfeeding. Allowing hay consumption throughout the day is important to provide the continuous calories your horse needs to keep up with the energy demands of staying warm when temperatures drop. It is important to feed a good-quality hay that’s free of mold, dust, and discoloration. Consult your county extension agent about hay sampling and testing. An analysis will give you an estimate of energy content and will help you determine how to supplement effectively.

If your horse can’t consume enough hay due to poor dentition, adding a grain concentrate and/or a fat source such as oil to the diet is important to provide enough calories.

Consider feeds designed for older horses, as most provide additional fiber and fat that are important energy and health considerations for older horses. In fact, University of Kentucky researchers recently conducted a study in collaboration with Purina to determine if a new formulation of Equine Senior might reduce inflammation and improve older horses’ immune responses to vaccination. The results were positive. The new Purina Equine Senior product will become available Nov. 7. Regardless the feed brand, this study is an important example of how quality nutrition can improve aged horses’ health.

It is also important to provide a salt/mineral lick throughout the winter and be sure these are always available and not covered by ice or snow. In addition, adequate water intake ensures adequate feed intake. If possible, keep the water source warm to prevent freezing. Researchers have noted that water warmed to 39 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) resulted in greater water intake. If your horse does not drink well during the winter months, feeding water-soaked feeds (one to two gallons of water per feeding) will help increase fluid intake. It is critical to monitor older horses’ water intake. If your horse drinks less, he or she might eat less and, more importantly, be at an increased risk of impaction colic.

Overall, remember that you might need to increase your senior horses’ daily feed to meet his body’s increased demands during harsh winter weather conditions. It is critical to assess BCS regularly to ensure you’ve provided enough feed to maintain weight throughout winter. Consult your veterinarian, equine nutritionist, or geriatric horse specialist with specific questions.

Vaccination Status

Cold temperatures can stress older horses and potentially set them up for illness. Here at the University of Kentucky we have shown that older horses have reduced immune responses to vaccination and are at risk for increased susceptibility to respiratory illness, in particular influenza (EIV). Moreover, we have recently shown that older horses with PPID are likely to have an even further reduced immune response to vaccination. Thus, it’s important to make sure you maintain your old horses on a regular vaccination program. At the minimum, make sure they are up-to-date on core vaccines recommended by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. If you have a higher risk senior (an older show, trail, or 4-H horse), consider having your veterinarian administer a booster for risk-based vaccines, including EIV, equine herpesvirus-1, and potentially West Nile virus, every six months, especially if your horses are showing or co-mingling with other showing horses during the stressful winter months. Consult your veterinarian with specific questions.

Parasite Control

Parasite control is an important part of caring for and managing horses. We have recently conducted an experiment to evaluate whether aged horses demonstrate statistically higher fecal egg counts (FEC) compared to middle-aged adult horses and to investigate whether they respond differently to the dewormer moxidectin compared to horses treated with pyrantel pamoate. This study’s results indicated that old horses have significantly higher FEC than middle-aged adults. FECs declined significantly following anthelmintic treatment in both age groups. In summary, older horses are likely to harbor more parasites; however, it is important to perform FECs in order to determine if your older horses fall into this category. In our hands, both dewormers were effective at reducing FECs, but test your dewormer’s efficacy, and use ones that work on your farm. It might be beneficial to deworm your horse after the first frost and perhaps two to three times per year. Again, let the FECs tell you what is appropriate for your farm. It is also wise to involve your veterinarian in your deworming program.

Tips for Preparing Your Older Horse for Winter

Dental and Hoof Care

Have your veterinarian examine your older horses’ teeth at least twice a year. One of these exams should happen in early fall. Normal dental care will help your horse chew and consume hay adequately, which will allow him to utilize the energy sources needed to stay warm and maintain body weight. This is especially important for older horses that tend to drop grain or quid (store a bolus of food in the side of the mouth, or drop food after a few bites). Proper dentition will also help prevent problems such as choke and colic.

Keep your horse on a schedule when it comes to hoof care. You might consider pulling the shoes or changing shoes to prevent slipping on winter ice or adding borium and/or snow pads to protect the sole from bruising due to ice or frozen ground. It all depends on winter’s effects on your terrain. Most importantly, clean your horses’ feet daily to remove ice accumulation or what we call “snowballs.”

Shelter and Blanketing

Providing shelters or wind breaks such as a barn, three-sided shed, rolled bales of hay, or plywood on fence rows is critical for older horses. Keep these areas dry, clean, and well-ventilated. Providing shelter will help older horses tolerate more severe weather temperatures and might help reduce his energy requirements slightly.

Consider blanketing the senior horse when temperatures or wind chill drop below 5 degrees Fahrenheit if there is no shelter available, a chance the horse will become wet (not usually a problem with snow, but much more of a problem with rain, ice, and/or freezing rain), the horse is bodyclipped, the horse has not been acclimated to the cold (i.e., recently relocated from a southern climate), or the horse has a BCS of 3 or less.

If you do blanket your horse, make sure it fits properly. If the horse is blanketed continuously, you should remove the blanket daily to check that no sores or skin conditions develop and to inspect the blanket for damage. Keep blankets dry, and do not blanket a wet horse; wait until he is completely dry before blanketing. Keep in mind a horse will continue to develop a natural winter coat until late December, while days become shorter. Thus, blanketing before Dec. 22 will decrease a horse’s natural winter coat.

Exercise

Low grade, non-intensive exercise is important for the aging horse. In fact, in human medicine researchers have shown this type of exercise to be anti-inflammatory for seniors, which might impact or improve age-related conditions such as arthritis. During the winter months it is important to prepare your horse for exercise with ample warm-up and cool-down periods. Cool the horse out completely with the help of coolers. Warm the bit before bridling him. Use common sense when judging riding conditions, as older horses do not adjust well to stressful conditions.

Health Monitoring

Because older horses face changes that naturally occur to the immune system with increasing age, it is important to monitor them more closely for health conditions you might not have considered previously, including respiratory illness, skin conditions, signs of colic, and arthritis. We have shown that as horses age, a phenomenon called inflamm-aging occurs and is defined as low-grade, chronic inflammation. We have recently shown that season impacts the levels of inflammation and that levels are quite high during winter. Currently, we have ongoing research to determine safe, effective levels of natural anti-inflammatory treatments that might help reduce this inflamm-aging, thereby improving age-related conditions such as arthritis. It is important to consult with your veterinarian and get a therapy plan on track so you can optimize your horse’s mobility during winter.

Summary

In preparing for winter, make sure your horse is up-to-date on vaccinations and deworming and is maintaining a proper body condition score. During winter you should provide your horses with warmed water, additional hay and/or concentrate during extreme cold, access to shelter, regular hoof and dental care, and regular body condition assessments. Also evaluate your shelters and their ventilation frequently. Horses, given the opportunity to acclimate to cold temperatures, often prefer and are better off outdoors with access to shelters.

Amanda A. Adams, PhD, assistant professor and equine immunologist specializing in geriatric horse medicine in the Gluck Equine Research Center provided this information. She can be reached at amanda.adams@uky.edu.


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