Nine Ways to Keep Your Senior Equine Healthy
by Alayne Blickle
Caring for the older horse in winter is quite similar to caring for a younger horse and it’s especially important to monitor them closely. An older individual is more challenged and their immune system is not as strong or as quick to respond. Small changes in their daily program can quickly escalate into a health challenge. Here are some tips for keeping your equine senior comfortable and happy during the dark, wet and cold months.
Provide plenty of forage. In the winter this is most likely hay. Fiber in the horse’s gut is the key to keeping them warm. Forage is metabolized much slower than grain and ultimately produces more heat. As long as your older horse’s teeth can handle chewing hay, provide plenty of good quality, leafy hay that’s free of dust and mold. All horses need, at minimum, twice daily feedings. Alfalfa hay is higher in protein and energy, but a grass hay (such as orchard grass) or a mix of grass/alfalfa is fine, too. Horses should be supplemented with grain only if they cannot maintain weight on hay alone. In that case, one of the senior feed products specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of an older horse can be a good choice. Read and follow the manufacturers’ directions for feeding amounts and make changes gradually, over a period of weeks. A good rule of thumb for feeding hay is 1.5 – 2 lbs. of hay per 100 lbs. of body weight. This would be 15 to 20 lbs. of hay for an average 1,000 lb. horse. For a senior having trouble keeping weight on, it may be more.
Temperatures below freezing, wet snow, freezing rain or strong winds greatly increase a horse’s energy requirements, especially if it is kept outdoors. So, when those winds blow or the temperatures plummet add more hay to the daily regimen. If your senior has dental issues which prevent him from adequately chewing hay, consider soaking either hay pellets or soaking one of the equine senior feeds (choose one with fiber). For individuals with trouble maintaining weight, you may want to add beet pulp to the diet which is a safe, easily digested fiber source. Another calorie booster is vegetable oil which can be added in ¼ cup increments to the horse’s supplements to increase calorie intake. Consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist with specific questions.
Provide a clean, dry place to eat. The preferable location for a horse to be fed is in a clean, well- ventilated stall or shelter. It is most natural for a horse to eat with its head lowered, which will help your senior clear his or her respiratory system. Never feed in mud; feeding on sand or muddy ground leads to ingestion of dirt and serious digestion problems. Good feeding options for hay and grain include flat, open grain pans or boxes, rubber mats, upside down carpet, or firm, dry sod.
Provide clean water. A horse drinks 8 to 12 gallons of water per day. Water should be fresh and available at all times. Be sure your horse’s water container is free of rough edges and rust. It should be scrubbed clean of algae and dirt regularly. Make sure, in cold weather, that your senior’s water is not frozen or too cold as they may not drink an adequate amount.
Freedom from competition. An older horse may be at the bottom of the pecking order so separate horses when feeding. This prevents fights, injuries and weight loss problems and allows you to monitor their daily food and water intakes.
Get a dental exam. A horse’s teeth are continually erupting so yearly dental exams should be done by a veterinarian. Older horses need careful attention to their teeth, especially going into winter. If they have a dental issue such as sharp points, a wave mouth or lost teeth this could result in mouth sores or other problems preventing them from adequately chewing/digesting feed. A proper yearly dental exam will go a long way toward keeping an older horse healthy.
Hoof care. Horses need regular hoof care, even an older horse that isn’t ridden. Have its feet trimmed by a good farrier approximately every 8 weeks. Be sure to regularly clean and inspect your horse’s feet as well and keep in mind that the leg lifting and weight shifting done during hoof care may be more troublesome for a creaky senior. Consult your veterinarian to determine if a dose of no-steroidal anti-inflammatories may be helpful for farrier visits.
Deworming. An older horse may be more susceptible to parasite infestations. Schedule regular fecal tests with your veterinarian and de-worm according to the results. Stalls and confinement areas should have manure removed from them every 1 to 3 days to avoid re-exposing your horse to worm larva.
Waterproof turnout blanket. Most horses will grow an adequate coat during winter months to maintain body heat, but the exception is an older horse. Rain, wind and cold temps can cause the horse to lose the insulating capacity of its hair coat and instead use reserves to maintain core body temperature. This often results in weight loss. When the majority of a horse’s nutrients go toward keeping him warm he has fewer resources left for fighting off illness or repairing tissues, leading to an overall decline in health. There’s not a particular style blanket that is best for older horses, but good fit is critical. Be sure the blanket isn’t uncomfortable on wear points like withers, across the chest and the top of the hips. Also be sure your older horse isn’t going to get tangled up or injured in straps. Check regularly under the blanket to see if his weight is still good and to be sure there are no skin infections.
Regular exercise. This is still important for your senior equine. The old adage “use it or lose it” is a wise one that applies here. One of the best ways to combat stiffness and arthritis is constant movement and adequate exercise. Careful use of anti-inflammatory medications (as per your veterinarian) can help, but setting up a routine where he is ridden, lounged or hand-walked at least three times per week is very helpful.
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Wednesday January 13, 6-7 pm PST: Got Horses? Got Manure?
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