The cold wind and rain is upon us. Yes it’s true, winter is here. Along with the holiday “to-do list,” there is a “to-do list” of things to make sure your older horse is kept warm and healthy through the winter months, as this time of year can be more of a challenge for them than their younger counterparts.
PROTECTION FROM THE ELEMENTS
Primarily, older horses need shelter from the elements. This means an easily accessible stall and/or a shelter that has solid Southwest walls to block the prevailing winds of the Puget Sound area. A rain sheet for horses in good weight with a healthy full hair coat or a heavier blanket for horses struggling with weight or health issues is also usually a necessity. We all know how our horses like to stand in the pouring rain even if shelter is available! Just make sure to periodically check your horse for rubs, skin issues or weight loss, and to make sure that they aren't getting too warm.
FEED FOR THE COLD
During the cold winter months, calories are what keep horses warm. Horses need most of their calories in the form of hay/roughage. The type and amount of roughage fed determines the calories available. Also, the actual act of digesting by the cecum and colon creates a lot of heat that keeps them warm from the inside out. The right amount of hay to feed is whatever it takes to keep them at a body condition score (BCS) of 5. On average a horse will consume 2% of their body weight in hay daily (20 lbs for a 1,000 lb horse), though in the winter months you may need to increase this, especially in older horses who typically are leaner.
Horse feeds can be added in addition, but other things like age of the horse, how normal the teeth are and any diseases present will determine what gets added to a hay diet. For example, PPID horses need a low starch diet added to hay, horses with dental issues either get Equine Senior (sometimes made into a mash), soaked hay pellets or chop hay, and a show horse may get an extra fat supplement with joint medication. Make sure you work with a knowledgeable veterinarian to develop the best feeding plan for your horse.
KEEP THEM HYDRATED
Access to clean, ice-free water is imperative to help prevent colic due to dehydration and impactions. Older horses can benefit from access to warm water via a heated water bucket or trough, as this will encourage them to keep drinking since some horses are opposed to drinking frigid water. If you are concerned about your horse's water intake, you can add very warm water to your horse's grain to make a soupy mash.
MAKE SURE THE HARDWARE IS WORKING
Fall and winter are a great time for your horse’s dental checkup. Abnormal, painful teeth are one of the top reasons for older horses to be skinny, even in the face of enough food being fed. Horses need to be able to chew with force in a circular motion. If pain or physical impingement prevents that motion, the rough stems of hay will not be macerated fine enough for bacteria to digest in the colon. Then the horse won’t absorb the calories from the food and will lose weight, especially in the winter when more calories are needed to stay warm. Abnormalities that can occur include sharp edges that cut the gum, worn teeth that cup and don’t provide a good grinding surface, tall teeth that obstruct movement, infected loose teeth and separations of teeth that encourage food packing and gingivitis.
MAINTAIN THEIR FEET & JOINTS
Keep their feet trimmed and in good shape to help battle the ravages of Northwest mud. Make sure your Tetanus vaccine is up to date because hoof abscesses are very common in the winter “mud” time. Cold weather and frozen or muddy footing can make it a challenge for arthritic horses to get around comfortably. Some horses require anti-inflammatories prescribed by their veterinarian to stay comfortable, and it is important to remember to keep their food, water, and shelter easily accessible if their mobility is limited.
FIGHT THE WORMS
Finally, fall/early winter is the right time to deworm with Quest Plus or a Panacur Powerpac. These are the deworming medications that kill the parasites that have encysted within the intestinal wall, sleeping for the wintertime. An inflamed, thickened intestinal tract responding to this invasion is not healthy enough to digest food. Please check out the “Strategic Deworming Schedule” on our website for more information about deworming. It is important NOT to use Quest products on foals, minis or skinny horses!
Tacoma Equine Hospital is dedicated to keeping all horses healthy and, to that end, helping owners do the right thing. It is during this time of year that we get the most calls by concerned citizens and Animal Control regarding skinny, suffering horses. Hopefully this blog post will help you understand the basics of keeping an older horse happy and healthy, but please don’t hesitate to call us if you have any questions.
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