Caring for Your Senior Horse by Cassie LeMaster

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Many senior horses struggle with winter weather conditions more so than their younger herd mates. This could be because of metabolic differences, weight struggles, or dentition issues, as well as skin diseases, such as rain rot, that are more prevalent in geriatric horses.

As you begin developing a management plan for your senior this winter, start by accessing their body condition (BCS). A numeric score ranging from 1 to 9 is used to describe the overall condition and fat cover of a horse, with 1 being the thinnest and 9 being obese. Older horses that are below a 5 BCS and struggle to keep weight on during other parts of the year, will have an even tougher time in the winter as more calories are diverted for heat production. Horses produce the heat necessary to maintain core body temperature by fermenting hay in the digestive tract. Therefore, when increasing the calorie content of the diet, start slowly by
increasing available forage or by offering a higher quality forage option like alfalfa. You can utilize your local Extension Service to help you collect samples for a forage analysis, interpret results and develop a nutrition plan for your horse.

Since there is a limit as to how much hay a horse can consume daily, additional calorie sources may also be required. In most cases horses will consume between 2.0-2.5%; however, during times of harsher weather conditions, they might consume upwards of 3% of their body weight per day. If your senior can’t chew long-stemmed hay because of dentition problems or can’t consume enough calories from forage alone to increase his condition, consider replacing some
of his hay with an alternative fiber source, such as beet pulp or soy hulls, which can be more easily digested and absorbed while still offering the added benefit of fermentation and heat production. If there is evidence of dental problems, be sure to have your senior horse’s teeth checked and have sharp points, hooks and loose teeth addressed before continued weight loss occurs. Further calorie increases can be made by adding a fortified grain source and/or fat. Fat is the most calorie-dense feed ingredient and is often supplied in the diet by various seed or vegetable oils, but must be introduced slowly to avoid digestive upset.

In addition to diet, pay special attention to your senior’s shelter options this winter. When cold winter temperatures, precipitation and wind are combined, many horses may struggle to maintain core temperatures. Free access to a three-sided shed is often adequate shelter, as most horses prefer outdoors over stall confinement. If stalls are used, be sure to allow for plenty of ventilation to reduce the incidence of heaves (recurrent airway obstruction/COPD) and turnout to exercise stiff aging joints. If blankets are used, be sure to remove them often, as damp conditions underneath can lead to skin diseases such as rain rot.

As with any health condition, consult your veterinarian or nutritionist for a more tailored management plan. With a little forethought, simple adjustments can be made to your senior horse’s diet and management to make him more comfortable this winter.