Here in the Bluegrass we've yet to see snow this autumn; since both Dorado and I are fans of warmer weather, you surely won't hear us complaining about that! But the temperatures are indeed dropping, friends and relatives in the northern part of the country have already dealt with snowfall, and my parents and I are in the process of preparing our older horses for winter.
Over the years, we've learned a lot about our horses and how to best get them through the winter. Even though several are at similar ages, they're all individuals, so they each get individualized winter care. The one thing that's consistent between all the horses is that they eat more during the winter; their hay intake increases most, followed by a small increase in concentrates and grains.
Nearly everyone who knows him will tell you that 16-year-old Dorado has always been--by all definitions of the word--a wimp when it comes to cold and/or wet weather. He'd much prefer to be bundled in his stall with a few flakes of hay than brave the cold and wind in his paddock. Unfortunately, because he grows such a nice, thick winter coat, it's nearly impossible to cool him out properly after work without clipping him. This leaves me with an essentially naked horse who needs several blankets throughout the winter to stay comfortable.
Brandy has no trouble weathering winter with her thick coat and her massive mane and forelock!
Photo by Erica Larson
Not unlike Dorado, my 26-year-old Appaloosa Taz would much rather be snug in his rug than brave the cold with no outside help. Of course, my parents have no problem with letting him wear his warm winter blanket most of the time, especially since he doesn't grow the best winter coat. Interestingly, my father has noticed that in his old age, Taz has been spending much more time outside in the wind, rain, and snow than he did when he was younger; in the past it was an uncommon to see him grazing, playing, or even walking around outside the run-in when the weather was less than perfect. Can age make skin thicker? Who knows!
On the other hand, my 25-year-old Appaloosa mare is much hardier than Dorado and Taz when it comes to winter, which is a plus since she lives at my parents' farm in mid-Michigan. Jessie grows a wonderful winter coat, and really only wears a blanket during the coldest and wettest times of the year. She never seems cold and she wanders around outside the run-in in all weather conditions, so we have no reason try to bundle her up much more.
And then there's Brandy. At 24, Brandy is still the hardiest--albeit the smallest--of all our horses when it comes to winter weather. Like the vast majority of Miniature Horses I've dealt with over the years, Brandy grows an incredible winter coat. Coupled with her mane and forelock that could easily provide a hair transplant for a Belgian Draft horse in need, Brandy is essentially built to weather winter with no outside assistance. There are mornings after an unexpected snowfall that she'll literally have an inch or two of snow piled on her back and rump, but the under-layer of hair remains warm and dry under the soggy outer layer. Horses' coats are amazing things! The point here is that Brandy doesn't need a blanket during the winter, but she typically wears one if she's outside at night and a snowfall or rain is expected, or if temperatures dip to extreme lows.
Our two other non-senior horses, 15-year-old Sadie and 12-year-old Lance, are somewhere in the middle: not overly sensitive to the cold, but always appreciative of a blanket to keep them warm.
At the farm I used to work at, our herd of mainly senior horses lived outside all winter without blankets. They had access to run-in sheds and several large patches of trees to protect them from the wind, snow, and cold, and the amount of hay we provided for them each day increased dramatically. We increased several horses' grain rations each winter, but the rest of the routine stayed very much the same. I was always amazed at how even the horses we were most concerned about going into winter never came in cold or shivering. All of our horses made it through to spring looking just as good as they'd gone into winter.
How do you manage your senior horses during the winter? Share your management practices below!
Also, before I close, I just want to remind you of our Ask the Vet LIVE on winter horse care coming up this Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EST. We've gotten hundreds of great questions in so far, and I'm sure our panelists will have lots of great advice. I'll be there, for sure--register and submit your questions now if you'd like to join us!