Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Winter Care for your Aged Horse

At the age of 51, I can attest that winter seems to be longer and colder than those of my younger years. Our aged horses most likely look at winter this very same way. The cold months of winter are the most difficult for an aged horse, particularly one that may also have underlying chronic health conditions such as holding a healthy weight, arthritis, respiratory issues or dental problems.


It is best to prepare your horse in advance for the upcoming winter season, and it is very important to insure he is coming into the winter months at the best possible health, body condition and weight. It is very difficult for an aged horse to gain weight during winter due to the amount of energy required for him to keep warm; however, with consistent attention and effort you may be able to keep his weight steady.

You must keep your elderly horse warm during winter to prevent him from becoming chilled to the point of shivering. An enormous amount of energy is expended when a horse shivers to keep warm, and he will drop a lot of weight because of this.


The most important tool in combating the chill of winter is nutrition. A horse expends a lot of energy trying to stay warm and this energy must be re-kindled with ample amounts of food. Calorie intake not only provides energy, but also builds fat which puts on a protective layer against cold weather. Hay, which metabolizes more slowly through the digestive process and provides the best heat, is the most important food product for your elderly horse during the winter months. If possible, keep good quality hay in front of him around the clock, particularly at night when temperatures are their coldest. If dental problems prevent your horse from eating hay, you can feed hay cubes. To up the calorie intake, grain can be made into a “gruel” when mixed with warm water. A heated meal will help warm your old guy up a bit.

Placing a heater into the water trough or bucket will also provide some warmth, as well as prevent colic since horses do not find cold water palatable and will drink less, whereby setting the stage for an impaction colic.


Blanketing will keep your horse warm, but it is important that you check under the blanket every day to assess body condition to make sure he is not dropping weight. Blanketing can also be problematic for horses with Cushings disease by allowing fungal growth on the skin. It is very important to regularly inspect your horse to make sure there are no skin problems caused from the blanketing.

Be mindful of the weather and temperature when you turn your horse out. If it is cold, clear and sunny, your blanketed horse would be okay to spend some time outside; however, if it is cold, windy and cloudy with precipitation, it is best to leave him in.


Mobility is an issue for an aged horse with arthritis or other lameness issues, who will find it very difficult to navigate over uneven, frozen ruts that lie in wait near pasture gaits and watering troughs. If you notice your horse having difficulty navigating in the pasture, you may want to stall him during the winter, with regular daily in-hand exercise. Also, if your horse has a respiratory problem such as heaves, it is best that he not be turned out in frigid conditions, because the cold air will worsen his condition. Hay should be moistened with water prior to feeding a “heavey” horse to lower dust levels.

Careful and observant attention to your older horse during the winter will bring him through the winter and into spring and another year to enjoy together.

Happy Trails!

By: Darlene M. Cox (

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