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Preparing the Older Horse For Winter


By Kaitlin A. Mielnicki, DVM

Caring for an older horse can be a rewarding experience full of love and joy. As horses age, however, their needs may change, requiring special attention and extra planning - particularly in preparation for the challenges that the winter season often brings.

Assessing his weight
The Henneke Body Condition Scoring system is used by veterinarians to assess your horse’s weight over time. The system takes into account fat coverage over the neck, ribs, back and tail head. While veterinarians detect changes in your horse’s condition from year to year, you can utilize this scoring system monthly to detect changes sooner. In addition, taking and reviewing monthly photographs of your horse allows you to appreciate trends in weight loss or gain.

With the assistance of a veterinarian, determine if your horse is heading into the colder months with an appropriate body condition score. If he is underweight or overweight, develop a feeding and exercise plan to combat this issue. Weight loss (or weight gain) may be a cue to re-evaluate the nutrition he is receiving, to determine if it is appropriate or if changes can be made to increase (or decrease) his body condition score. Weight loss (and, less commonly, weight gain) also may be a sign of illness, so it is important to work in conjunction with his veterinarian to determine the cause.

Feeding the older horse
As winter approaches, your horse’s feed intake must increase to supply his body with the amount of energy he needs to keep warm. Most horses require 2% of their body weight in forage per day. (For an average 1,000 lb. horse, this equates to 20 lbs. of forage.) As pasture availability decreases in the winter, this should be provided in the form of hay.

If your horse is underweight and is receiving 2% of his body weight in forage per day already, a pelleted feed or grain may be added to his diet. Additional calories may be added, as needed, by increasing the percent fat provided in his diet. Some pelleted senior feeds have higher concentrations of fat than others – look at the labels or consult with your horse’s veterinarian. There are several commercial fat supplements available that are sold as top dressings for feed or that are built-in to the senior feed that your horse may already be eating. Flaxseed oil may be used as an alternative source of fat. (Note: Some horses find the consistency of oil displeasing, so start by drizzling a teaspoon over his feed twice a day and gradually increase to a maximum amount of ½ cup twice daily.)

Whether it is an increase in the feed he is already eating, a transition to a new feed, or the addition of a new supplement such as flaxseed oil, all feed or nutrition-related changes should be made gradually over 7-14 days. A nutrition consultation with your horse’s regular veterinarian will be beneficial to ensure all of your horse’s needs are being met as the year comes to an end.

Dental Care
Horses are born with a pre-determined length of adult teeth below the gum line. As they age, their teeth erupt, or grow, continuously. When they chew, the top and bottom teeth grind against one another, wearing them down. Routine dental floats by a veterinarian ensure that the teeth wear evenly; however, despite regular care, the tooth roots will eventually reach the gum line causing loosening and subsequential loss of teeth. As teeth are lost at random, the opposing teeth no longer have a surface against which to grind, allowing dental abnormalities to develop. Thus, horses may actually require more frequent dental floats than they did at a younger age to maintain an even chewing surface.

Excessive wear, loosening or missing teeth may cause your horse greater difficulty in chewing his food. An inability to appropriately grind food before swallowing predisposes horses to episodes of “choke” (esophageal obstruction). As a result, veterinarians may recommend that older horses with bad dentition not be fed any hay whatsoever. A complete, pelleted senior feed is recommended in this case. Sometimes, this feed may even need to be mixed with various amounts of water, creating textures from a “cookie-dough” consistency to a slurry or soup. 

Parasite Control
Tapeworm infestations are highest in the fall. Despite this, fecal examinations routinely miss tapeworm eggs due to the irregular shedding of the eggs into feces and the small sample of feces that collected for examination. Thus, the AAEP recommends that every horse, regardless of life stage or strongyle fecal egg count (parasite burden), be dewormed in the fall with a product containing praziquantel. Praziquantel is a dewormer that kills only tapeworms, thus it is sold in combination with other dewormers (i.e. ivermectin/praziquantel or moxidectin/praziquantel). The deworming medication with which praziquantel is paired will kill strongyle worms that may be present within your horse’s gut.

Regular, low-level exercise can keep stiff, arthritic joints limber and relatively pain-free. If any form of exercise causes your older horse discomfort, consult with your veterinarian about joint supplements, non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) or other medications/treatments that may help keep your spring chicken spry.

Frequent turnout also stimulates gastrointestinal motility and decreases their exposure to dust in the barn that may precipitate or exacerbate respiratory conditions.

The core vaccinations (as determined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners or AAEP) that are recommended for all horses include those that effectively protect against rabies, tetanus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), Western Equine Encephalitis (WEE) and West Nile Virus (WNV). Without vaccination, each of these five diseases can be fatal. Thus, it is important that your horse receive these vaccines yearly, whether that be in the spring or fall.

If your horse receives his “annual vaccines” in the spring, then it is recommended that he receive his “semi-annual vaccines” in the fall (or vice versa). “Semi-annual vaccines” consist of a booster for the mosquito-borne diseases- EEE, WEE and WNV- as protection against these diseases is generally only conveyed for 6 months after each vaccination. Thus, vaccination is recommended every 6 months for horses living in regions of the United States with prolonged mosquito seasons (i.e. the Mid-South!).

Another common “annual” and “semi-annual” vaccine conveys protection against equine influenza (“flu”) and equine rhinopneumonitis (“rhino”) caused by Equine Herpesviruses 1 and 4. If your older horses still travels on/off the farm or is exposed to horses that do so are at a higher risk of contracting these respiratory infections. To provide year-round protection, it is recommended by the AAEP that this vaccine is also administered every 6 months.

Consult your horse’s veterinarian to develop a vaccination protocol that is most appropriate for him and to schedule an appointment to have him vaccinated this fall. With proper care and attention, you and your older horse can have a happy winter season!

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