Wintering Your Old Horse?
There’s something special about the relationship you have with your senior horse. That partnership that’s endured years, tears, ups, and downs. You probably know your horse better than you know your best friend.
While he might seem like the same old horse, his needs are changing as he ages. Cold weather can be especially challenging for senior horses, so it’s important to make sure he’s getting the care and support he needs even if he’s weathered previous winters without any trouble.
How Old is a Senior?
We all know the saying “you’re only as old as you feel.” As it turns out, it’s as true for our horses as it is for us. While some horses might be starting to slow down at age 15, others are still fresh and frisky well into their 20s. No matter your horse’s chronological age, if he’s starting to show signs of aging such as stiffness, difficulty maintaining weight, or decreased immune response, it’s time to start thinking of him as a senior.
The good news is that senior horse care has advanced significantly in recent years. Just because your horse is getting older doesn’t mean you need to “put him out to pasture.” You can keep your golden oldie going strong with smart care and good nutrition.
One of the best ways to help your senior start winter off right is by making sure he’s at a healthy weight. Many veterinarians recommend that senior horses get two physical exams each year, so your horse’s fall physical is a great time to ask your veterinarian to show you how to evaluate his body condition. Once you know his body condition score, you can consider whether you need to make any adjustments to his diet now. You can also discuss your horse’s diet, and any necessary changes to it, with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist.
It’s also important to monitor your horse’s teeth. If your horse can’t chew properly, he’s not going to receive the full benefit of the food you’re providing. That means wasted calories and wasted nutrients, and a horse whose diet isn’t meeting his needs. Every horse needs an annual dental exam, and seniors might need one twice a year. Schedule a dental exam now to ensure that your horse’s teeth are in top shape when winter comes.
Next, be sure to evaluate your horse’s serving of forage. As with any horse, he should be eating at least 1 to 2% of his body weight in roughage every day, so weigh a serving of his hay to ensure that you’re supplying enough to meet his daily forage requirements. When evaluating your horse’s daily serving of hay, keep in mind that horses burn more calories in the winter staying warm. Your horse’s body ferments roughage in the hindgut, which creates heat that helps keep him warm from the inside. Even if he’s getting 1 to 2% of his body weight in forage already, an increase in hay might be warranted to make up for what he’s using to maintain his core temperature. This is especially true for older horses because some can lose digestive efficiency as they age, so your senior might not be able to digest and utilize his hay as well as he used to.
Finally, consider whether you’re going to blanket your horse this year. Even if you didn’t blanket him when he was younger, it might be a smart choice to start now that he’s a senior since older horses can have more trouble regulating their body temperature. Some older horses can benefit from the warmth and protection from the elements that blankets provide. Just don’t forget to remove the blankets for regular inspection of your horse’s skin and body condition, and to give him a good grooming.
Some senior horses can benefit from supplements added to their diets. Some popular supplements among senior horse owners can include joint, immunity, and weight-gain products.
Years of traveling, training, and competing can take a toll on joints, and some horse owners find that their horses experience stiffness and discomfort during colder weather. Making sure your horse moves every day is one of the best ways to ward off stiffness, but some owners believe adding a joint health supplement to their seniors’ diets can help support joint health and ease discomfort from joint pain.
You might also notice that a senior horse’s immune system might not work as well as it used to. A healthy immune system is necessary for your horse to withstand stress in the environment, and a less efficient immune system means that seniors could be at risk for illness. Some supplements are marketed to use antioxidants and other ingredients to help support healthy immune function.
And finally, if your senior struggles to maintain adequate weight throughout the winter, you’re not the only one! First, talk to your veterinarian to make sure there’s not an underlying medical issue. If he still needs extra support after you’ve ruled out health issues and evaluated his diet, you might find a supplement purported to help horses gain weight beneficial.
Go Forth and Conquer the Cold and keep your old horse warm!
By using these tips together with your veterinarian’s expert advice, you can ensure you’re providing your senior horse with the support he needs to stay happy and healthy all winter long.