With winter just around the corner, now’s the time to make sure your older horses are ready for the season ahead. Here’s a quick checklist for any horse older than 15:
Establish a healthy body weight. Your horse will need to burn extra calories to stay warm when the temperatures drop, so you’ll want to make sure he has sufficient fat reserves. Of course, being overweight isn’t healthy for an older horse, either. The target body condition score going into winter is a 5 or a 6. If your horse is slightly underweight, explore ways to safely add calories to his diet.
Have his teeth checked. A horse needs to be able to chew properly to benefit from all the nutrients his feed can supply. The ability to chew hay is particularly important in winter because fiber provides a metabolic “slow burn,” which will help keep him warm. If your older horse’s teeth haven’t been examined within the past six months, call your veterinarian and set the appointment now. Even if a dental issue can’t be “fixed,” you can make accommodations for it, perhaps by soaking his feed to soften it or switching to chopped hay.
Address his arthritis. An aging horse with even a touch of arthritis is likely to feel more “creaky” and sore as the temperatures drop. Even if your horse is retired, arthritis can make it difficult for him to access hay and water in a herd setting or even to rise after lying down. If your slightly arthritic horse isn’t currently on a daily joint supplement, now may be a good time to start. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) might be necessary to keep a horse with more advanced arthritis comfortable---a decision your veterinarian can help you make. Also speak to your veterinarian now if you think your horse may need a joint injection in the coming months. Such injections can be more challenging to administer in extremely cold weather, so having them done sooner might be a better option.
Ensure his vaccinations are up to date. Don’t assume that your older horse has developed a sufficient immunity to disease through the sheer passage of time. In fact, research suggests the opposite---that the immune system needs extra support as a horse ages. Horses typically live in closer quarters during the winter, which increases the risk of spreading influenza or other contagious illnesses.
This risk is even greater if your older horse lives at a busy barn where other horses frequently come and go. And remember that diseases such as eastern0 equine encephalitis remain a threat in milder climates where mosquitoes are active during the winter months. Check with your veterinarian to make sure your horse is current on all relevant vaccines.
Keep an eye on his turnout area. Make sure that the footing is going to be OK even when the weather is bad. Deep, slick or extremely sloping footing may be too hard on some older horses, particularly when you add some rain, ice or snow. Also make sure to provide enough shelter---it’s vital that geriatric horses have enough room to rest out of the wind and precipitation.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #458, November 2015.