Tips for preventing winter weight loss

Older horses often drop weight during the winter but they don't have to. Here's how to head off problems.
A horse trotting through the snow in a winter pasture
With some pre-planning and careful are, an older horse can usually hold his weight throughout winter.

Older horses often drop weight in winter. This is usually the result of dental problems that make it difficult or painful to thoroughly chew food combined with an increase in the calories needed to stay warm. Add in the fact that weight loss can go undetected under winter blankets and a loss of body condition can become a serious issue.

Ideally, an older horse will go into winter with a body condition score (BCS) of 5 or 6. This means you may see ribs from some angles but cannot feel them without pressure. His withers will be rounded, and there will be some small fat deposits around his shoulder and neck. Anything less than a BCS of 5 may mean he’ll feel colder and his immune system may be less robust. In addition to making sure your horse is properly blanketed and has shelter, do the following to keep him healthy and in good condition:

Be proactive about winter weight loss

Assess your horse’s body condition before the winter, asking a trusted, knowledgeable friend or your veterinarian for help if needed. If your horse is underweight at the beginning of the season, you’ll want to figure out why and remedy the situation without delay. It’s possible he needs a more calorie-rich diet or perhaps just more of the feed than he is currently getting. You can also increase caloric intake by adding corn oil or a supplement designed for weight gain to his ration.

Have your veterinarian do a full dental checkup—if your horse can’t comfortably eat, what you feed him doesn’t really matter. Finally, consider asking your veterinarian to do bloodwork to rule out underlying health conditions, such as kidney disease. Such conditions could make it difficult for your horse to maintain his weight.

If your horse is losing weight midwinter, address it as you would at any other time of year but with more urgency. Don’t make dietary changes suddenly, which can increase the risk of colic. But also avoid taking a “wait and see” approach, which in this situation can have devastating results. Make a weight-gain plan and implement it immediately. Feeding more grain may be your first inclination, but don’t overlook the importance of forage in maintaining weight during the winter. Forage has a slow metabolic “burn” that helps keep a horse warm.

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