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Winter Care for Geriatric Horses


By Leigh Ballard

Winter care for horses is often a challenge at best. There are several questions everyone should ask:
Is my horse getting enough to eat? Is he drinking enough? Is he getting enough hay to produce internal heat to keep him warm? Does he have adequate shelter? Is he maintaining weight?  These questions are especially important for the geriatric horse in winter. It is important to note that all aged horses are not geriatric, but that those with other health issues combined with age fall into the category for special needs seniors.

The main factors that especially affect geriatric horses’ ability to stay healthy and maintain body condition in winter are: nutrient absorption, disease, and environmental and/or herd stress. Nutrient absorption (or lack thereof) can be affected by many factors in the aged horse such as changes in the digestive tract, parasites or past parasite damage, endocrine or hormonal problems, chronic pain and dental problems.

Geriatric horses need highly digestible food always, and especially in the winter. While some older horses are fine through the months when they can eat easily-chewed fresh grass, the wintertime brings challenges with eating hay. Roughage is vital to keeping the digestive tract operating, but if a horse is not able to chew properly, something has to be done to help. Dental care is very important to keep an older horse in good condition. An owner should watch for low hay intake-is the horse leaving too much hay when fed? Also, watch for rolling or wadding the hay-quidding-which would indicate that the horse can’t chew properly. Other chewing problems might be caused by gum or teeth infections, or loss of molars. Is an alternative fiber source needed? Chopped and bagged forages or beet pulp might be useful. Senior feeds include forage and other easily digestible forms of nutrients for the horse with chewing or digestion challenges. It is advisable to watch a geriatric horse eat. Look for slow eating, tilting the head, dropping food, and rolling food around in the mouth-all symptoms of a problem.  In any case, it is important for the geriatric horse to have enough nutrient and calorie intake. If the horse has difficulty chewing and grinding (or swallowing) food for any reason, then the enzymes and microbes in the intestinal tract will not be able to break down and extract the nutrients from it and the result will be poor body condition.

Horses with digestion issues often have heightened sensitivity to the cold because of the lack of a good fat layer or good coat relating to their nutrition problems. Windy and wet conditions cause more rapid heat loss for any horse, but even more so for a horse without a good fat layer. These horses might benefit from a blanket, but the blanket should be waterproof and breathable. It needs to be checked often (daily or several times weekly) to see if it is hiding weight loss or creating sores or rubbed places.

Access to clean water is also important for the geriatric horse. Many horses do not drink well in the winter for various reasons including frozen water, or the water is too cold even if it’s not frozen. Horses will drink a good deal more water in winter if it is heated to about 45F. (Just like humans drinking ice water in the summer, drinking cold water makes the horse colder, so it’s just not appealing.) Many horses are already at higher risk for impaction colic in the winter because of low water intake, so it stands to reason that geriatrics with digestive issues are also even more at risk if they are not taking in enough water.

Years of wear and tear, stress or injuries take their toll on the body.  Just like with many humans, the cold damp weather can make a horse’s old bones and joints ache. The stress of chronic pain often affects a horse’s appetite-another reason for poor body condition. Chronic pain makes it difficult for an old horse to get up and down, so where some horses may find warmth absorbed from the ground, many geriatric horses are reluctant to lie down.  Lying down in deep bedding can also provide some warmth in a stall, as well as give a cushion for the hocks and other joints.  But being confined to a stall can cause the horse to stiffen up, so turnout and being able to move around is best, provided there is good shelter from wind and rain.

 One of the more serious problems for geriatric horses is herd stress. Older horses often fall at the bottom of the pecking order, and aren’t “allowed” by the dominant horses to get their fair share of hay at the feeder, water at the trough, or shelter under the roof. Being limited in hay and water intake when no fresh grass is available is especially detrimental, and exposure to wind and rain can deplete a geriatric horse’s calorie reserves quickly. And if the horse is already compromised by pain or other health issues, the horse’s condition can go down very quickly. Ideally, water, hay and shelter should be available in more than one location. The herd social order needs to be watched closely, so pasturing adjustments can be made if necessary to help the struggling horse.

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