Winter Care for Senior Horses

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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Winter care for senior horses is essential. We share our top tips on caring for your horse during the winter season.

Regular Dental Checks

As horses become aged, the grinding surface of the teeth becomes smooth making it difficult to chew food. Teeth can become loose, sharp points develop or overgrowths can occur. This can cause pain and obstruct chewing. Whilst we can’t replace teeth that are worn away, with good dental care, we can keep the mouth pain free. In additon, this helps the horse to chew as efficiently as possible.

Make Sure Your Horse Can Access Food

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

Keep Senior Horses Warm During Winter

Lean older horses and ponies have much thinner layers of subcutaneous fat than their younger companions. As they absorb energy from their food less efficiently, keeping them warm and dry will help them conserve energy to maintain their body condition. Moreover, it may help to keep arthritic pain under control by encouraging blood flow to the extremities.

Control Parasites

As they age, a 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 the cold. 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.

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 this 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. Additionally, 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. Introduce this 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 throughout 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. Moreover, 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, including reduced cost Cushing’s testing if required.

If you have any concerns about your horse or you would like further advice on winter care for senior horses, please  contact your vet to book an appointment.

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