Here in the Bluegrass, winter hasn't quite arrived yet. Last week, temperatures exceeded 60°F and this week we're sitting pretty in the mid- to upper 50s, albeit dealing with seemingly endless rain that has turned Dorado's pasture into a mud pit (which he seems to be quite enjoying, judging from the ratio of clean coat to muddy coat that's been waiting for me each day). But in other parts of the country, cold, snow, and ice have settled in.

Some senior horses require forage alternatives in winter to help maintain their weight. Others, well, not so much.

Photo: Photos.com

When I worked at the farm in Michigan, one of our challenges during the cold, winter months was ensuring that our senior horses stayed warm while living outside the vast majority of the time. Although only a few particular horses were blanketed for a variety of reasons, all of them had access to run-in sheds and lots of wooded areas to provide shelter from the weather.

Each horse got at least one concentrate meal each day, and those who needed the extra calories ate pelleted grain or "senior soup" twice daily. But as you might have guessed, we relied quite heavily on forage to fuel our senior horses' internal furnaces. In the depths of winter, it was common place to throw 30+ bales of hay out each day to our aging horses. (In the depths of winter, it was also comical to watch several young women try to get the old, beat-up farm truck carrying that hay unstuck from the snow and ice, but that's another story.)

Fortunately, this regimen proved very successful in keeping our golden oldies happy and healthy through the winter. Rarely a horse would drop a few pounds, and if that occurred we simply swapped him from eating once daily to eating twice. None of our twice-daily eaters were underweight when spring rolled around.

But not all senior horses--or their owners--are so lucky to be able to rely on hay during the winter. Damage and/or wear and tear to some older horses' teeth makes consuming long-stemmed forage difficult or even impossible. I'm no veterinarian or nutritionist, so I took a few minutes to peruse TheHorse.com for some quick suggestions for horse owners dealing with aging horses unable to consume hay:

  • One overwhelming point that I found in many articles on the topic is to ask a veterinarian or equine nutritionist for advice on individual cases. Winter weight loss (or any weight loss, for that matter) might be caused by issues totally separate from dental issues--pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing's disease), for instance--and might require additional veterinary care.
  • Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, suggests in one article on older horse nutrition, "Choose softer grasses such as orchard grass, brome, or timothy.
  • In one article on winter care for seniors, Bob Coleman, PhD, from the University of Kentucky suggests, "For horses unable to consume enough long-stem hay, consider adding beet pulp to the diet. This is an easily digested fiber source that can help meet the horse's energy needs."
  • In another article on feeding senior horses, Kathleen Crandell, PhD, suggested forage alternatives including haylage, chopped forage, hay cubes, hay pellets, beet pulp, cereal grains, and commercially prepared concentrates (some of which include roughage for horses that have a challenge chewing other types of forage). She did have some cautionary points about each type of forage, so take a read of the article for more information.

During the winter, it can be a challenge managing horses who have trouble eating hay, but it's also very doable. Have you ever managed a senior horse who had trouble eating hay? What tips would you share with other horse owners? Share your experiences below!