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Prep Your Senior Horse For Winter

Here are five things you need to assess in your senior horse before winter.

By Anna O'Brien, DVM | November 23, 2016

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Prep Your Senior Horse For Winter
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Winter is frequently considered the hardest season for senior horses to weather. With its harsh temperatures and icy precipitation, horses that already struggle with metabolic issues, adequate caloric intake, and mobility can emerge in the spring somewhat worse for wear.

Being aware of your senior horse’s condition prior to the onset of winter can help you assess his overall health during the coldest months and allow you to begin management changes or talk to your vet, if needed. Here are five health checks to help you evaluate your older equine before the frost sets in.

1. Body Condition Score

Body condition score, or BCS, is the best way to objectively assess your horse’s weight short of using a scale. The BCS system evaluates a horse’s body in terms of fat coverage over multiple areas and runs from a 1 to a 9, with 1 being an emaciated horse to 9 representing one that is extremely obese. Ideally, a healthy horse should fall somewhere between a 4 and a 7.

In late fall, evaluate your senior horse’s body condition and record it. Continue to evaluate and record his BCS every month throughout the winter, and take note of any changes.

A reduction in BCS would indicate that a horse isn’t receiving enough calories to maintain his weight in colder weather. Reasons for this may vary, and could include competition for food in the pasture, poor dental health, inadequate calorie-dense feed, or the presence of a chronic disease.

Whatever the reason, the first step is to notice a change, and a regular measuring of BCS is a good alarm system. Remember to use your eyes as well as your hands when evaluating your horse’s BSC in the winter; shaggy winter coats can hide bony hips and ribs.

2. Ability to Eat

Take time to regularly watch your senior horse eat. Does he eat slowly? Is he dropping a lot of feed on the ground? Is there unfinished feed in his bucket? Any of these signs could be an indication of dental issues, one of the most common health issues in older horses.

Late fall is a good time to have your horse’s teeth examined by your veterinarian, who can file down any rough edges and do some maintenance on uneven wear before the winter sets in. This will allow your older horse to eat as efficiently as possible, consuming the calories he needs.

3. Coat Quality

Most horse owners know that the luster of a horse’s coat is related to his health. Take some time before winter sets in to take a good look at your senior horse’s coat. Is it coming in thick for the winter? Some horses don’t develop robust winter coats, and if an older horse’s coat seems a little sparse, consider blanketing as the temperature drops.

An evaluation of coat quality will also clue you into any sores or skin lesions that could be hiding and require care. If your senior horse is already wearing a blanket when out on pasture, check for areas of rubbing. If the coat appears to be particularly dull or dry and flaky, talk to your vet and ask if further evaluation is needed.

4. Lameness

The stiffness of arthritic joints can be enhanced by cold weather, but sometimes it’s challenging to compare pre-winter to post-winter aches and pains.

Take your senior horse out for a short walk at the start of the day before winter sets in. Watch his movement and take notes, preferably in the same location where you record his BCS. Run your hands along his legs and note any swelling or heat along joints and tendons. If anything seems noteworthy, continue to monitor it as the weather gets colder.

5. Eyes

Eyes age just like the rest of your horse’s body. Age-related ocular changes can impact a senior horse’s vision and make it harder to find food and water in a pasture, avoid mishaps with pasture mates, or navigate tricky footing.

With a bright light, take a quiet moment look into your horse’s eyes. Note any tearing or swollen eyelids, and then look directly into the eye itself. Do you see any cloudiness, either on the cornea or within the eyeball? What about other irregularities? A quick eye assessment is easiest to perform in a dim barn with a good pen light or flashlight with a strong, narrow beam.

Regular and thorough assessments of your senior horse are a good idea any time of year, but are especially important right before winter. You can identify problems—or potential problems—that could hinder your senior horse getting through the season in tip top health.

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