Winter Challenges and Caring for Senior Horses

Senior Horses Present Unique Needs in Winter Weather

by Karen E. Davison, Ph.D. and Katie Young, Ph.D.


December 2017 Winter Challenges and Caring for Senior Horses
Photo courtesy Purina Equine Nutrition

Every season brings horse care challenges and winter is certainly no exception. Weather changes and forage availability are usually major issues of concern for horse owners during winter months. These challenges are amplified when caring for senior horses, due to compromised ability to chew and digest hay, reduced ability to handle inclement weather and metabolic changes that occur with advancing age.

Respond to Temperature Changes

As the ambient temperatures get colder or when strong weather systems move through, horse owners take measures to keep horses warm and dry with proper shelter and blanketing when necessary. All warm-blooded animals have a critical temperature, which is the temperature below which an animal must produce additional heat to maintain normal body temperature.

Mature horses in good flesh, where ribs cannot be seen, have a critical temperature around 30° F during early winter. After developing a winter coat and gaining 100 pounds, the critical temperature may be reduced to around 15° F. Young horses, old horses, horses in thinner condition and those that have been stabled and not developed a winter coat, may have a higher critical temperature around 40° F.

When wind or wet conditions are present, the critical temperatures will be higher as well. Horses require an estimated 15 to 20 percent more calories for each 10° F the ambient temperature falls below critical temperature. However, senior horses may need even greater increases in dietary intake to maintain normal body temperature.

Monitor Hay Quality and Ingestion

Providing additional hay is a common way to increase calorie intake, helping horses stay warm and content. Access to more hay gives horses something to do while they are confined during bad weather. Also, digestion of fiber releases more internal heat than digestion of starch, sugars or fats, so hay serves as an internal furnace for the horse.

Hay quality and availability during winter months can be a problem for horse owners. When hay is of lower quality, horses will voluntarily eat less of it, so they may not eat enough to meet increased energy demands during a long, cold winter. This is especially critical for aging horses with dental issues. Even when they can chew and eat hay, older horses often don’t digest hay as effectively as younger horses. In these situations, horses may have free-choice access to hay but still lose body condition.

Thick winter hair coats and blankets cover up horses’ ribs and topline so horse owners may not notice weight loss. It is important to routinely feel over the crest, withers, ribs, back and around the tail head to make sure horses aren’t losing body fat. When horses are eating all the hay they can eat and still losing weight, feeding a calorie-dense concentrate feed is necessary.

December 2017 Winter Challenges and Caring for Senior Horses
Photo courtesy Purina Equine Nutrition

Hydration is Not Just a Summer Issue

When horses eat more hay, they should drink more water. Water consumption should be a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons per day for a 1000-pound horse. During weather changes and especially during extreme cold weather, horses often drink less water. When they eat more hay but drink less water they become at greater risk for impaction colic due to dehydration.

To help encourage water intake, keep water sources clean, fresh and free from ice. A minimum water temperature of 45°F is a good goal for horses during cold weather. Encourage water consumption by adding warm water to the horse’s normal feed ration along with a couple ounces of loose salt.

Hay Shortages Mean New Feed Considerations

The demand for hay is greatest during the winter months. Often, quality hay becomes scarce or very expensive and lower quality hay may be more common. Even the best quality hay is very different forage from green pasture, being lower in protein, calories and vitamins. Be sure to take this into consideration when feeding horses through the winter.

Horses who maintained good body condition through spring, summer and fall by eating good pasture and a mineral supplement may need additional feed supplementation during the winter. This is often most obvious with aging horses who may maintain good condition when grazing green pasture but then lose significant condition through the winter. Not only is this related to the quality of the forage and their ability to consume and digest hay, but research has shown that the systemic inflammation that occurs with aging increases through the winter.

Feeding a high quality complete feed, such as Purina® Equine Senior® can provide horses with high-quality fiber that is easy to chew. These feeds are also specifically formulated to replace some or all of the hay for older horses with compromised dentition or digestion.

Winter certainly can be a challenging time for horse owners and horses, especially aging horses. Careful monitoring of hay quality and intake, water intake and providing proper supplemental feed will insure everyone gets through winter in great shape and ready for warmer weather.

Karen Davison, Ph.D., holds a master’s and doctoral degree from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the use of higher fat diets for horses. Davison grew up competing in American Quarter Horse Association shows and high school rodeos, and has shown in National Reined Cow Horse and National Reining Horse Association shows. She occasionally competes in barrel racing. Her husband trains cutting horses and western performance horses, and her children are accomplished competitors as well. 

Katie Young, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in equine nutrition and exercise physiology from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on mineral requirements of resting and exercising horses. She currently owns five horses, provides riding instruction, and trains and competes in hunter/jumper and eventing.


Published December 2016 Issue


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