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, particularly dry forage, combined with an increase in the calories needed to stay warm as temperatures drop. Add in the fact that weight loss can go undetected for weeks 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, which means his ribs may be visible from some angles but cannot be felt without pressure, his withers are rounded, and there are 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 this winter. In addition to making sure your horse is properly blanketed and has shelter from the elements, do the following to keep him healthy and in good condition:
• Assess your horse’s body condition before the winter, asking for the opinion of a trusted, knowledgeable friend or your veterinarian if you’re not sure. 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 his 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 any underlying health conditions, such as kidney disease, that 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 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—its slow metabolic “burn” helps keep a horse warm.
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