As we head into winter, we always worry about our older horses weathering the storm. Winter time is very hard on the geriatrics, who often don’t have the reserves necessary to make it through the winter without losing body condition. Here are a few things to keep in mind when maintaining the older horse.
Chewing is the first step in digestion, and older horses are often desperately in need of dental care. From broken teeth to misalignments, these guys need a good, sedated oral exam with dental care yearly. Broken or diseased teeth should be removed and any waves, ramps, or hooks should be corrected to allow for more comfortable chewing. Some of these older horses need bite alignments, where the front teeth are filed down to allow the back teeth to grind more efficiently. By keeping the teeth as normal as possible, it helps to prolong the lifespan of the tooth, therefore prolonging the life of the horse.
Proper nutrition is key for these aged horses. Because most older horses have dental issues, it’s important to feed them a diet that they can chew easily. Consider feeding geriatric horses an equine senior feed as it’s higher in calories and fat, and is made to dissolve quickly and easily. The thing to remember when choosing one is that a diet needs to have at least 5% fat in order to cause weight gain. For thinner horses, choose a senior feed that’s higher in fat. It’s also important to check the feed for whole flakes of beet pulp. Beet pulp is a common additive to feeds to get horses to gain weight. However, the trouble comes when the horse chokes on the beet pulp. While a grain choke takes about 20 minutes to get undone, beet pulp chokes can take an hour or two because it expands as it gets wet, and it starts to solidify into a giant mass that makes it really difficult to get out.
It’s also important to be discerning about the type of forage you’re offering your older horses. For horses without many teeth left, they may not be able to chew hay or grass very well. During your horse’s oral exam, be sure to ask about what the best type of forage is for your older horse. Some horses may need to be switched to a cubed or pelleted hay that has been soaked in order for them to avoid choking and to make sure they are getting the proper amount of nutrition from their forage.
As the horse ages, their gut flora changes. And since many older horses are being fed high-grain diets in order to keep the weight on them, it’s important to keep gut health in mind. Consider adding probiotics to the diet to help maintain healthy gut bacteria. Ask your veterinarian what s/he recommends for a probiotic supplement.
We are all familiar with the arthritic changes that age brings on. Your horse is no exception to the rule. Especially on those cold, damp days, some older horses may need some help to stay comfortable. Painful joints may keep horses from walking to the water tank, or make them prone to stocking up. Talk to your veterinarian about keeping some NSAIDs like Bute, Banamine, or Equioxx on hand for those stiff days.
Most horses don’t require blanketing, even on the coldest of days as long as they have shelter. However, older horses need some special considerations. Especially thin older horses. Elderly horses with little to no fat may need a blanket since they have no fat stores to burn to stay warm. And as always, never put a blanket on a wet horse. Always dry the horse off before you put a blanket on them. And one thing to remember is that if you have a shivering horse, they may not need a blanket. Putting some hay or forage in front of the horse will actually generate more heat through digestion than a blanket will. Going into winter, try to get those horses in a good body condition so they at least have some stores of body fat to live on if it’s needed. By maintaining good dental health and proper nutrition, your horse will be more likely to weather the winter in good health. Ask your veterinarian what else you might do to keep your older guys happy and healthy as long as