Keeping Your Old Friends Well in Winter

Long winters are a difficult time for the owners of elderly equines, worrying about the cold weather resulting in weight-loss, exacerbation of aches and pains and colic. However there are lots of ways we can avoid problems like these. Here are our top tips for keeping your old friends well in the winter.

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Here are our top tips for senior horse care in the winter

Regular dental checks – as horses becomes aged the grinding surface of the teeth becomes smooth making it difficult to chew food, particularly preserved forage (hay, haylage, chaff). Teeth can become loose, sharp points develop on the edges of worn teeth or overgrowths occur when the opposing tooth has worn away, causing pain and obstructing chewing. Whilst we can’t replace teeth that are worn away, with good dental care we can keep the mouth pain free and help the horse chew as efficiently as possible.

Make sure your horse can access his food – older horses are prone to bullying when in a group and tend to eat more slowly. By segregating them at feeding time you can access the food they need and have time to eat it at their own pace. Arthritic conditions of the neck or limbs can be painful and prevent a horse from putting his head down to a bucket on the floor or walking up the field to the hay rack or trough. Simply feeding from a raised or hanging bucket can allow a stiff horse to feed comfortably. Herbal supplement can be used to control the discomfort of early arthritic conditions but in more severely affected cases prescription pain relief (such as phenylbutazone) may be needed to allow the horse to move around more comfortably.

Keep them warm – lean older horses and ponies have much thinner layers of subcutaneous fat than their younger companions and are much more inclined to feel the cold. As they absorb energy from their food less efficiently, keeping them warm and dry will help them conserve their energy to maintain their body condition. It may help to keep arthritic pain under control as well by encouraging blood flow to the extremities.

Control parasites – as they age the horse’s immune system can become compromised and they tend to be prone to high worm burdens and louse infestations. Identifying and treating internal and external parasites will help your horse stay well and maintain his weight.

Encourage feeding and drinking – worn teeth can be increasingly sensitive to cold and horses that have poor dentition produce less saliva making it difficult to swallow food. Offering warm water to drink and added to food on cold days can help.

Change the diet – course fibre (chaff, chopped straw or alf-alfa) are hard work to chew and can get stuck between loose or gappy teeth. If your horse is eating slowly or has gone off his bucket food try replacing these with soaked beet pulp or grass pellets, or a mash feed. For fussy eaters try separating feeds into different buckets so the horse can pick and choose and is not over-faced by a very large bucket of feed. Change cereal mixes for a “nut” or “pellet” which is pre-digested and therefore does not need to be chewed before being absorbed. To increase the energy available for thin horses try adding vegetable oil, 200-400ml per day, but introduce gradually as some horse find oils unpalatable.

Alternatively feed a rice bran supplement which will provide high fat levels in a very palatable form. Avoid excessive carbohydrates as there is a risk of laminitis. For horses with very poor dentition pelleted foods can be feed soaked at 1-2% of body weight fed in 4-5 meals through the day. Always introduce new feeds over several weeks to allow the gut to adapt.

Rule out underlying illness – Cushing’s disease (PPID) or liver or kidney dysfunction can reduce a horse’s ability to maintain body weight or predispose to chronic painful diseases such as laminitis. These conditions can be detected through blood analysis.

During the older horse health check we look for signs of parasites, arthritis and other diseases, examine the teeth, carry out blood analysis, included reduced cost Cushing’s testing if required. By identifying which problems most affect your horse we can provide treatment and advice on senior horse care over the coming winter.

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