By Christine Barakat, EQUUS Magazine
Horses, like people, tend to have more trouble handling cold weather as they grow older so practicing proper winter horse care is important. Snow, sub-freezing temperatures and frozen footing may keep an elderly horse from doing even the simplest things, such as walking to the water trough. It’s not uncommon for horses in their 20s or beyond to have difficulty holding their weight, staying warm and/or moving around during the winter.
To keep older horses comfortable and healthy through the season, David Trachtenberg, DVM, owner of Ledgewood Veterinary Equine Clinic in Ontario, New York, recommends focusing on the two areas of winter horse care that can have the biggest influence on the health of older horses---horse feeding and horse blanketing.
Warmth from the feed tub: winter horse feeding
In cold weather, horses utilize feed to stay warm over both the short and long term. Within minutes of eating a meal, the horse’s digestive processes start to generate body heat. And over the long term, the calories not immediately converted to energy that supports bodily processes are stored as fat, which helps to insulate against the cold.
Forage, such as hay, is metabolized more slowly than grain---in fact, because hay has a longer “burn time,” it ultimately produces more heat. “Feeding hay---lots of it---will go a long, long way to keeping a horse of any age warm,” says Trachtenberg. “A horse who has access to hay all night long is going to be much more comfortable than one that gets only a flake or two that’s gone by dark.”
As a result, it’s wise to increase your aging horse’s feed ration during the winter. “People tend to underestimate the amount of food that older horses require in winter,” says Trachtenberg. “They may not appreciate how much nutrition their horse gets from the pasture in the warm months and do not give them enough hay to make up the difference. So, in reality, they are feeding less.”
If older horses don’t take in enough calories, they can get caught in a self-perpetuating weight-loss cycle in the winter, Trachtenberg says. “Older horses tend to be thinner, with less muscle and fat layers. The feed these horses eat goes toward creating these insulating layers and keeping them warm. If they cannot maintain body weight they become colder and use more energy to stay warm, which in turn makes them even thinner.”
Additionally, when the majority of a horse’s nutrients go to keeping him warm, he has fewer resources left for fighting off illness or repairing tissues, leading to a decline in over-all health.
Compounding the problem is the fact that older horses don’t digest food nearly as efficiently as younger horses do, says Trachtenberg. “Specifically, their ability to digest fiber is 5 percent lower and their ability to utilize protein is about 15 percent lower. So even if they are being fed the same amount of feed as the younger horses, older horses will not utilize it all and can lose condition quickly.” With all of this in mind, Trachtenberg recommends a four-step approach to feeding older horses in the winter:
- Try to send an older horse into winter with a body condition score of at least 5, which means his ribs are not visible but can be felt, his withers are rounded, the fat around his tail head is slightly spongy and his shoulder blends smoothly into his body. But don’t overdo weight gain: You don’t want to send a horse into winter with too much extra body fat. “Older joints don’t need to be carrying extra weight any time of year,” says Trachtenberg, “but in winter it can be particularly problematic because the horse is also likely to be more inactive, which isn’t good for joints either.”
- Increase a horse’s forage intake during the winter months, getting as close to the ideal of around-the-clock, free-choice hay as possible. “If an older horse with dental issues can’t chew hay properly, you can buy a chopped hay product---it will accomplish the same thing,” says Trachtenberg.
- Feed only good-quality hay. Fibrous, stemmy hay is not digested well by horses of any age, making it essentially useless in helping a horse gain body condition or stay warm.
- Monitor an older horse’s weight all season long, making adjustments when necessary. If needed, add calories as fat instead of sugars or carbohydrates, both of which can aggravate metabolic conditions of older horses.
Blanketing for good health
Although a full winter coat will protect most horses well enough in sub-zero temperatures, blankets can be an integral part of maintaining an older horse’s health during the winter.
“An older horse, even a perfectly healthy one, is going to have a harder time staying warm in very cold weather,” says Trachtenberg. “They tend to have less muscle mass and fat to act as insulation.” A cold horse not only becomes thin, but he will also become stressed and weak as his body struggles to maintain its temperature. That can lead to a compromised immune system less able to fight off illness or infection.
As a general rule, Trachtenberg recommends blanketing any horse older than 20 when temperatures drop below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “That doesn’t mean you should feel guilty about not blanketing a 21-year-old who is in great shape,” he says. “If that horse has shelter and is maintaining his weight and seems healthy, he probably doesn’t need a blanket. But with the older horses in colder climates, it’s better to start from the assumption that they need a blanket rather than the other way around.”
For horses on the cusp of old age, the decision to blanket needs to be made based on a number of factors. “A 17-year-old horse with a body condition of 4, for instance, may need blanketing while his 23-year-old pasturemate in good shape doesn’t. Horses with poor dental health may also need a blanket because they are unable to properly chew and digest hay for warmth,” says Trachtenberg. Arthritis and other lameness issues can make it harder for an aged horse to keep warm---sound horses can generate heat by moving around, but a sore horse may not.
And pay attention to more than simply the ambient temperatures: “A horse will be much colder in 38 wet, windy, sleety degrees than in 20 degrees with an insulating layer of dry snow on his back,” says Trachtenberg. In addition, he says, it’s wise to invest in a couple of blankets of different weights: “That will give you the freedom to blanket on the relatively warmer days without the worry of overheating the horse. A horse that is kept too warm under a blanket will begin to sweat, and that can quickly lead to dangerous chills.”
If you’re unsure about blanketing, watch your horse for signs that he’s cold. The most immediate and obvious is shivering, says Trachtenberg: “It revs a horse’s metabolism and burns calories. The horse stays warm, but not for long and at an extremely high cost. An older horse can shiver an alarming amount of weight off in a short period of time.”
No one style or type of blanket is best for older horses, but a good fit is critical. “I’ve treated some older horses who got tangled up in blanket straps that were too long,” says Trachtenberg. “A younger horse will just rip the blanket to shreds to free himself, but an older horse may not have the strength to fight his way out. Be extra careful when fitting.
Finally, it’s very important to take your horse’s blanket off regularly. “A lot of problems can go unseen under a winter blanket, especially weight loss. Older horses may not have a cushioning layer of fat over points like the withers, shoulders or hips and can develop pressure sores. Older horses with Cushing’s can also be prone to bacterial and fungal skin infections. You’ve really got to take the blanket off each day and take a look at what’s going on underneath it,” says Trachtenberg.
Owners of geriatric horses often talk about getting their beloved animals through “one more winter,” and with good reason. This time of year can be the harshest for the oldest members of the herd. With attentive feeding and blanketing, however, you can lessen the worst of the wintertime burdens for older horses to have them greet spring in good health.
Ideally, winter care for older horses begins in fall, says David Trachtenberg, DVM. “I’d like to see an older horse before the weather gets cold to ensure he has enough weight on him and is in good physical condition. If an older horse goes into the winter with problems that aren’t identified or addressed, the situation is only going to get worse.”
Several health conditions common in older horses are aggravated by winter weather.
Respiratory disease: Extremely cold air, inhaled deeply, can irritate lung tissue. Turnout in a stable herd is fine, but avoid asking an older horse with heaves to exert himself in very cold weather.
Poor mobility: Horses with arthritis, chronic laminitis or neurological disease may find it difficult to negotiate frozen terrain. Snow, ice and even frozen mud can be hazardous. Pay close attention to what is underfoot each day and keep older horses in areas with the best traction.
Cataracts: The glare from sun-light bouncing off snow can make it difficult for horses with even minor cataracts to see. Consider outfitting these horses with dark fly masks, which will act as sunglasses.
Arthritis: If you’ve got arthritis yourself, you’ve probably noticed your bad joints hurt a bit more in the cold. While research has yet to explain this phenomenon, it’s safe to assume something similar occurs in horses. Judicious use of anti-inflammatory medications can help, but one of the best ways to manage a horse’s arthritis in winter is to keep him as active as possible. If continuous turnout isn’t practical, make sure he’s ridden or hand-walked daily and consider keeping him in an indoor arena overnight.