A brisk nip in the morning air, trees losing the last of their leaves, flocks of noisy geese flying south---these signs of an approaching winter can stir up a range of emotions for those who have a beloved older horse in the barn. The changing of the seasons is a reminder of the passage of time and the precious few years that may be left for an old horse. Add in unease over the practical challenges that winter may hold and wistfulness gives way to worry. But it doesn’t have to.
Older horses don’t necessarily have more trouble keeping warm than do their younger herdmates during the winter, but if they do get chilled the consequences can be more significant.
Most of the factors that make the winter months difficult for older horses can be mitigated with a bit of forethought and preparation. When you anticipate challenges, you can either work to eliminate them or, if that’s not possible, provide the support your horse needs to overcome them. Of course, problems that you didn’t anticipate can, and will, arise---that’s just the nature of horse ownership. But with some prep work, you can be ready to provide the help your horse needs. Here’s a basic framework for planning ahead, as well guidance on how you can help your horse cope with winter-related challenges.
THE BENEFIT OF FALL WELLNESS EXAMS
One of the best ways to identify and mitigate potential health problems in your older horse this winter is with a full physical exam.
Many veterinarians offer an autumn exam as part of a comprehensive wellness package, but if yours doesn’t, call and ask to set up an appointment. Here’s just a partial list of the topics likely be addressed in the exam and why:
• Dental health, to ensure the horse can effectively and comfortably chew hay and grain. The exam will also detect any loosening teeth or other dental problems that might be easier to address early, before the colder weather sets in.
• Vaccinations, especially if the horse will be traveling or stabled with horses who travel.
• Joint health, to check the mobility and comfort level of the horse. This isn’t a full lameness workup, but a general assessment of the horse’s musculoskeletal health and determination if supplements, medications or even injections may be helpful.
• Bloodwork, to detect any abnormalities in organ or immune function. If the horse has pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) or other known condition, bloodwork can confirm that it is under control.
• Body Condition Score (BCS), to determine if the horse needs to gain or lose weight to be best prepared for the season ahead. The fall exam is also a great time to take pictures of your horse’s body condition for later comparison.
• Parasite control, starting with a fecal egg count to determine if the horse needs deworming and that the products being used on the property are still effective.
• Respiratory health, including listening to the horse’s lungs and looking for a “heaves line” that develops in the muscles of the flank from the strain of exhaling.
A fall wellness exam can also be the appropriate time to have what can be an emotional conversation with your veterinarian: If your elderly horse struggled to make it through last winter and still has some of the same underlying problems, is it fair to ask him to go through another? This difficult decision is very personal and depends on the circumstances of each horse but talking about it with your veterinarian might provide clarity and peace of mind, no matter what you ultimately decide.
Challenge: Older horses don’t necessarily have more trouble keeping warm than do their younger herdmates, but if they do get chilled the consequences can be more significant. A cold horse will burn calories in an attempt to stay warm at the expense of maintaining his body condition. If an older horse has trouble holding his weight to begin with, being cold will just make it more difficult. Cold can also exacerbate pain and stiffness in arthritic joints, making it more difficult for an older horse to get around.
Plan ahead: Check now to ensure the blankets you intend to use on your older horse still fit. Changes in weight and musculature can dramatically alter the fit of a blanket. The body shape and thinner skin of elderly horses in particular can lead to painful pressure sores, especially at the withers, under blankets that otherwise seem to fit. Remove your horse’s blanket daily to check for problems and if you are short, or the horse is tall, stand on a step stool to inspect his back regularly.
Next, consider shelter options. An older horse does not need to be kept indoors---in fact, that can be detrimental to his respiratory health (more about that later)---but he does need shelter from wind and precipitation. A run-in shed provides more than adequate shelter without respiratory risks.
Troubleshooting: As you monitor your old horse this winter to make sure he’s comfortable, keep in mind that horses have individual tolerances for cold just as people do. A content-looking horse with a flat coat is likely coping with the cold just fine. If his coat is “puffed” out---with the hair standing on end---it means his body is making an extra effort to stay warm. He’s not cold yet but could be if the temperatures drop further.
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