A cold horse will burn calories in an attempt to stay warm at the expense of maintaining his body condition. If an older horse has trouble holding his weight to begin with, being cold will just make it more difficult. Cold can also exacerbate pain and stiffness in arthritic joints, making it more difficult for an older horse to get around.
• Before the cold sets in check to make sure the blankets you intend to use on your older horse still fit. Changes in weight and musculature can dramatically alter the fit of a blanket. The body shape and thinner skin of elderly horses in particular can lead to painful pressure sores, especially at the withers, under blankets that otherwise seem to fit.
• Remove your horse’s blanket daily to check for problems and if you are short, or the horse is tall, stand on a step stool to inspect his back regularly.
• Make sure your horse has access to shelter. An older horse does not need to be kept indoors—in fact, that can be detrimental to his respiratory health (more about that later)—but he does need protection from wind and precipitation. A run-in shed provides more than adequate shelter without respiratory risks.
• Keep an eye on him. As you monitor your old horse this winter to make sure he’s comfortable, keep in mind that horses have individual tolerances for cold just as people do. A content-looking horse with a flat coat is likely coping with the cold just fine. If his coat is “puffed” out—with the hair standing on end—it means his body is making an extra effort to stay warm. He’s not cold yet but could be if the temperatures drop further. If, however, you find an older horse shivering this winter, he’s cold and you need to help him. Bring him into a sheltered, dry area right away and cover him with a blanket, even if it doesn’t fit perfectly. In an emergency you could bring the horse into a heated garage or shop space, but you’ll want to remove as many of the tools and vehicles as possible for safety. Avoid using space heaters due to the fire risk. Once the horse is secure and blanketed, make sure he has forage and slightly warmed water and call your veterinarian for further guidance. When your horse has recovered and is comfortable, you’ll need to find a more permanent solution with appropriate shelter and a properly fitted blanket.
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