Win­ter care for

Rowan Dixon Peo­ple tend to un­der­es­ti­mate the amount of food that older horses need in win­ter’

NZ Horse & Pony - - Our Month -

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.

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