Winter care for
Rowan Dixon People tend to underestimate the amount of food that older horses need in winter’
Just like us, as horses age they find cold weather more difficult to cope with. Horses in their early 20s and older can have trouble holding on to their weight, find it hard getting down on the ground to sleep or roll and then getting up again, and even struggle moving around well over winter. Snow, subfreezing temperatures and icy conditions underfoot may keep an older horse from doing even basic daily activities, such as grazing and walking to the water trough.
There are two areas of winter management that have the biggest impact on the health of your four-legged geriatric, feeding and rugging.
As Vets North director, Dr Dave van Zwanenberg, explains: in cold weather, horses use their digestive system to stay warm. This happens in two ways; within a few minutes of eating, the horse’s digestive processes start to generate body heat. And longer term, any calories that are not immediately converted to energy and used to support body function can then be stored as fat, which helps to insulate against the cold.
Forage feeds, especially hay, are metabolised more slowly than grain-based hard feeds and because hay has a longer burn time, it produces more heat in the gut. “Basically, heat is a by-product of the digestion of hay in the large intestine, and along with the actual energy provided by the hay, this helps horses maintain a normal body temperature,” says Dave.
Feeding hay, and lots of it, will go a long way to keeping a horse of any age warm.
“This kind of long-fibre forage generates lots of internal heat due to hind gut fermentation,” explains equine nutritionist, Dr Lucy Waldron.
So it makes sense that a horse who has access to hay all night long is going to be much more comfortable than one who only gets a slice which is gobbled up by dark.
As a result, it’s sensible to increase your older horse’s feed ration during the winter – and make sure there are always enough piles of hay in the paddock that horses who are low down in the herd’s pecking order can get their share.
“People tend to underestimate the amount of food that older horses need in winter,” says Dave. “They won’t appreciate how much nutrition their horse gets from the grass from the pasture in the warmer months, and don’t give them enough hay to make up the difference.”
If older horses don’t get enough to eat, they can easily spiral into a weight-loss cycle – they use all the energy from their feed to stay warm, which makes them even thinner, so they have to use even more energy to stay warm.
As Dave says, older horses are prone to losing muscle mass through a lack of use, from Cushing’s disease, and also from being forced to use their own body tissues as an energy source if they are not given enough to eat.
“Fat is an energy store – if there is a net gain then fat is deposited, if there is a deficit it is used as an energy source. An older horse losing muscle and fat as a result of these tissues being used as an energy source has a net deficit of energy entering the body, this is an early sign that the horse’s daily feed requirements are not being met,” he says.
Additionally, when the majority of a horse’s nutrients go to keeping him warm, he has fewer resources left for fighting off illness or repairing tissues, leading to a decline in overall health.
Compounding the problem is the fact that older horses lose the ability to digest food as efficiently as young horses. “Poor teeth and reduced enzyme secretion are both a characteristic of ageing,” says Lucy. “Both of these issues reduce the ability to digest feed – as chewing is the first point of digestion, and enzymes are needed to complete the process.”
“Older horses’ teeth are typically less efficient at grinding up roughage into small particles,” Dave explains. “This gives the gut bacteria less surface area to work on, so less of the material is digested on its way through the large intestine.”
So, even if they are being fed the same amount of feed as the younger horses, they will not utilise it all.
as much of a welfare issue because it can cause dehydration, electrolyte mineral loss and nasty skin conditions. It also makes horses plain miserable – there is no escape or relief from overheating.
If you can’t be there to take a heavy rug off for a few hours on a warm day, then leave your horse during the day in a waterproof but lighter-weight rug, such as a no-fill synthetic or a canvas rug, and put the heavy one back on at night.
Also have a think about your horse’s breed and type. A thin-skinned, finecoated thoroughbred, or an Arabian (whose ancestors evolved in desert climates which can get cold but are never wet) will need a warmer rug than a sturdy cob or stationbred. Many ponies, such as Shetlands, are best completely unrugged as long as they are also unclipped.
Over-rugging, especially in a pony prone to laminitis, leads to a negative cycle of ill-health. Without a rug, the pony will utilise any excess body tissue to stay warm, and will also keep moving and therefore exercising – both of these are good ways of reducing the incidence of laminitis.
The air temperature is less of an issue for horses than the wind and rain. Horses are quite comfortable unrugged even right down to sub-zero temperatures on a dry, still day – sleet and hail, or a biting sou’wester, is another matter altogether.
If you’re not sure about rugging, watch your horse for signs that he is cold. The most obvious is shivering, which revs the horse’s metabolism and burns calories – but not for long and at an extremely high cost.
If your horse is shivering, he needs drying off and warming up with an extra layer.
No particular brand or style of rug is best for older horses, but a good fit is crucial. If a younger horse gets tangled up in too-long straps, for example, he can usually shred the rug to bits and get himself free; an older horse might not have the strength or the energy to fight his way out. Be very particular when fitting and doing up your older horse’s rug.
And finally, take off your horse’s rug regularly. Every day is ideal, but a few times a week will suffice.
A lot of problems can go on unseen under a winter rug, including weight loss and bacterial and fungal skin infections. Thinner horses are also prone to cover rubs, as they lack the cushion of fat over their withers, hips and shoulders – unchecked, these can develop into pressure sores. This time of year is the harshest for the older members of the herd. With attentive feeding and appropriate rugging, you can lessen the worst of the winter burden and help your golden oldies greet the warmer weather ahead with a spring in their step.