As much as I want to believe that the days aren't getting shorter and the first few night rides under the arena lights (complete with epic spooks at [every] jump standards' shadows) aren't just a few weeks away, I'm finally resigned to the fact that summer is over. Fall is here in full force, so it's time for me—and every other horse owner—to start preparing for winter.
Over the years I've prepared many a senior horse for the deep freeze, so I've got my routine down pat. Here's what's on my fall to-do list when I'm getting senior horses, like Dorado, ready for winter:
What's my favorite fall fundamental? Enjoying some great rides before the temperatures drop.
Photo: Erica Larson
I always like to make sure Dorado's teeth—and all my senior horses' teeth, for that matter—are in good shape going into the winter. Dorado is a notoriously hard keeper in the winter and, even though he's in better physical shape and at a better weight than he has been in several years, I don't want dental problems to prevent him from maintaining his weight. This year I'm ahead of the game: Dorado got his teeth done in September and our veterinarian says he's got no signs of dental disease. But if your senior has had some changes in dentition over the year, now might be a good time to chat with your veterinarian or equine nutritionist to determine the best diet to help your horse maintain his weight.
- This is also the time of year when I consult Dorado's nutritionist to see if we need to make any feed changes before the temperatures plummet; in fact, I just had this conversation with our nutritionist last night. More often than not in the past, I've had to increase the amount of forage my senior horses consume during the winter, and most of the time their concentrates increased a bit as well. For the first few years I had him, we always increased his forage rations substantially, increased concentrates slightly, and added a fat supplement during the winter to help him maintain his weight. Last winter, we were able to forego the fat supplement because he was in better condition coming into the colder months. I'm hopeful we'll do the same this year. A side note: If your senior horse could stand to lose a few pounds, increasing his feed might not be the best idea. But it's always a good idea to check with your veterinarian or nutritionist before changing—or not changing, as the case may be—your horse's feeding regimen.
- Something else I've already done is to ensure all of Dorado's sheets and winter blankets are clean and readily accessible for when the temperatures drop. Kentucky's weather is notoriously wild—it can change from 80° and sunny to tornadoes to snowstorms in days—so I never know exactly when winter is going to hit, but I've got everything Dorado will need to stay warm ready to go when the warm weather is finally over. Not every senior horse will really need a blanket. Our Miniature Horse, Brandy, for instance, is extremely hearty and grows a massive winter coat each year; she could very easily do without a blanket on even the coldest days of the year. Our recently departed Appaloosa, Taz, on the other hand, didn't grow a very think winter coat and got cold easily, so he wore blankets frequently throughout the winter. If you're not sure if your senior needs a coat, ask a horsey friend or your veterinarian for advice.
- I'll also be watching for a good time in the coming month or so to body clip Dorado. He's starting to get fuzzy already, which means he's starting to get pretty sweaty during work. While it's still warm enough to hose him off after exercise, I'm starting to watch for that last day that'll be warm enough for a pre-clipping bath. A quick side note: Dorado gets body clipped because he stays in full work during the winter months and to make up for his lack of hair he's well-blanketed—usually well into spring. If your senior horse is more sedentary during the colder months, it's probably wise to leave his coat as is. Researchers know that senior horses generally have a harder time staying warm in cold temperatures, and taking his hair away doesn't help him maintain his body heat. So carefully consider whether you really want to body clip your senior before doing so.
- Fall vaccinations and deworming are also on my to-do list. Our veterinarian prefers to do fall shots in October, so we'll be making out appointment for those soon. And once the first frost hits, it'll be time to deworm. We likely won't hit our first frost for a while yet, but when the time comes, I'll be prepared.
- The last big thing I'm preparing to do—not really for Dorado's sake, as it were—is clean out my first aid kit of all its expired contents (I usually do this while I'm waiting for Dorado to dry after his pre-clipping bath) bring all of my liquids, pastes, gels, and anything else that could freeze indoors for the winter. This means packing everything into a container and bringing it back to the apartment until it's no longer in danger of freezing (and hoping my husband doesn't mind too much!). I keep a first-aid kit with the essentials in my tack locker for emergencies, but fortunately I live close enough to the barn that I can get home and back within 15 minutes should I need something like DMSO, medicated shampoo, or poultice. Once the temperatures warm up, everything can return to the barn.
- And of course, one last very important thing do during the fall is enjoying your rides! Winter's almost here, and that can make for some challenging riding circumstances—especially when old bones take a while to warm up. So have a ton of fun while the ground is still soft enough; This is Dorado's (and my!) favorite fall fundamental.
Once winter actually hits, there's another whole list of things to do. But for now, I'll stick with my fall fundamentals to get Dorado ready to weather another winter in the Bluegrass. How do you prepare your senior horses for winter?