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Horse Health in Winter: The Older Horse

Advice from a vet for keeping your horse healthy this winter.

By Anna O'Brien DVM | November 2014

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Senior horses are the most challenging to care for during the winter months. Generally, poor dentition is the reason for weight loss that so commonly plagues this age group year-round, with cold weather increasing a caloric deficit. Worn and missing teeth prevent the senior horse from properly chewing food, leading to fewer calories consumed. Older horses often have less efficient metabolisms as well, and require more energy to stay warm than a younger horse. For these reasons, a full physical exam, dental float, and fall vaccine boosters prior to cold weather (such as a rhino/flu booster if needed) is a good idea for senior horses.

During your vet’s fall visit, discuss your senior horse’s winter diet. Adding a senior feed specially formulated for older horses may be recommended, as these are easily chewed and can help pack on calories without containing as much sugar and starch. Sometimes wetting hay cubes or making pelleted concentrate into a gruel helps senior horses slurp their supper, preventing excessive dropping of feed, and also helps decrease the chance of choke.

Adding beet pulp to a senior horse’s winter diet or top dressing it with a small amount of vegetable oil are other easy ways to increase calories. Beet pulp should be soaked for one to four hours before feeding to help prevent choke; discard any excess as it will quickly go bad. If you choose to top dress with vegetable oil, remember to slowly introduce oil in the feed over a span of about two weeks, working up from 2 tablespoons to ½ cup twice a day. Offering plenty of high-quality forage is also important in helping the senior horse maintain a healthy digestive system.

If you notice your older horse losing weight, talk to your veterinarian about ways to increase his caloric intake. Also re-evaluate his housing situation and consider the following questions:

  • Does he have enough protection from wind and precipitation if pastured?
  • Is the blanket he’s wearing an appropriate fit and thickness?
  • Is he being bullied away from feed, water, or shelter by herd mates?
  • Is he having a difficult time walking through excessive snow or mud to reach forage?

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ANNA O’BRIEN, DVM, is a large-animal ambulatory veterinarian in central Maryland. Her practice tackles anything equine in nature, from Miniature Horses to zebras at the local zoo, with a few cows, goats, sheep, pigs, llamas and alpacas thrown in for good measure.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!

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