Those of you you’ve followed 20-year-old Dorado over the past few years know that he is not a fan of winter. Like, if he had the choice of staying here in Kentucky or enduring an eight-hour trailer ride to Aiken (or even a 12-hour haul to Ocala!), he’d have his haynet packed and be in the trailer before I could finish reading him his options. But since migrating south isn’t in the cards this year, we’ve adjusted our routines into “winter mode.”
Dorado and his babysitter, Romeo
Photo: Erica Larson
Here are the main things I focus on these days, along with some tips from experts on caring for old horses (though, they could be applied to horses of any age!) during the winter:
Water—Though it’s not a winter-exclusive consideration, I always ensure Dorado has access to clean, unfrozen water. He has a heated water bucket in his stall and an insulated automatic waterer in his paddock, which our barn owners monitor regularly to ensure it stays functional. He’s a good drinker, and this winter he’s stayed fairly consistent in the amount of water he ingests.
Winter Survival Tip: Ensuring your senior horses have access to water in the winter is key, as it can help reduce the risk of them developing some health concerns. In a recent article Bob Coleman, PhD, said, "Keep the water source warm to prevent freezing. Researchers have noted that water warmed to 39°F (4°C) resulted in greater water intake. If the horse drinks less, he might eat less, or, more importantly, he's at an increased risk of impaction colic." (Read More)
Forage—Dorado has a love/hate relationship with hay. He wavers between eating nearly everything in his haynet to pulling the majority of its contents out on to the floor and pooping on it. At the moment, he’s eating four to five flakes each night consistently. But in the event Dorado does decide to turn picky overnight on me, I’ve also introduced some hay cubes into his diet with approval from both his nutritionist and veterinarian. He’s a bit picky about which cubes he’ll eat (only the big ones … the small ones and the shards of hay that have fallen off are inedible), but he does seem to like having the option if he’s in the mood for them.
Winter Survival Tip: Older horses often require additional calories during the winter to maintain their body condition. Coleman said that increasing aged horses hay rations during the winter can kill two birds with one stone: "In developing your feeding strategy, consider increasing your horse's hay intake to meet his energy needs. Hay is digested in the gastrointestinal tract by fermentation, which produces heat that the horse can use to maintain core body temperature." In most cases, he said, horses will consume 2.0-2.5% of his body weight per day. (Read More)
Supplemental Feed—In the winter Dorado eats senior feed twice each day to help maintain his body condition, just as he does throughout the rest of the year. In the past we’ve added beet pulp to that grain, but earlier this year he decided he didn’t like it anymore (did I mention he’s a picky eater?), so we’ve eliminated that from the equation in favor of the hay cubes.
Winter Survival Tip: If your senior horse can't get enough calories from hay alone, or maybe he can’t chew long-stem hay anymore, it's advisable to add grain, a fat supplement, or an alternative forage source, such as beet pulp, to his diet. Coleman said, "This is an easily digested fiber source that can help meet the horse's energy needs. For other hard keepers, you might need to supplement the diet with vegetable oil to increase calorie intake." (Read More)
Shelter—Dorado always loves his stall, but he’s especially excited to come inside at night during the winter. It gives him a chance to lie down on soft bedding—he does this every night—and get out of the elements. And while his paddock has plenty of trees surrounding it that can serve as windbreaks or shade throughout the day, it doesn’t have a run-in shed. For that reason, there are typically a few days each year that I opt to let him stay inside for the day and go for hand-walks rather than spending all day outside; if there’s a wintery mix, freezing rain, or very extreme cold, or even if the footing is too hard or icy, I’d rather him stay warm and dry in his stall. He just doesn’t handle being cold and wet as well as he used to.
Winter Survival Tip: Horses are generally well-equipped to handle winter, but some type of shelter is a must in freezing temperatures. In a recent article, Pamela Wilkins, DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, said, "Horses are generally well protected from the cold through the insulating hair coat and other aspects of their physiology. However, they need protection in extreme winter conditions of cold, blizzard, or wind. The insulating hair coat becomes significantly less effective when wet through, and horses should be sheltered from the cold when freezing rain is combined with cold weather." (Read More)
Blankets—Because I try to keep Dorado working during the winter (more on that in a moment), I choose to body clip him to keep him from sweating and, thus, I avoid a prolonged cool-out period and the worry of what to do with a damp horse in freezing temperatures. The trade-off is that he needs to be blanketed all winter, which I don’t have a problem with (plus, it helps him stay clean on those slightly warmer days when mud puddles reappear). I always ensure he’s clean and dry before I get him dressed and try to keep his blankets as clean as possible. The latter, needless to say, is easier said than done, but I do the best I can.
Winter Survival Tip: Not all owners choose to blanket their horses and that’s perfectly fine. There are several horses of all ages at my barn who are quite comfy sans blanket all year-round. But there are some cases in which older horses can benefit from blankets. In a recent article, Nathan Slovis, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, CHT, explained, "Older horses are more prone to skin diseases and bacterial skin infections from excess moisture. Infections can be devastating in winter because you can't give baths, and (the horse) might have to be on antibiotics. The rug doesn't necessarily have to be thick or heavy, but it should be waterproof and breathable." (Read More)
I try to keep Dorado working through the winter, whether we can fit a full session in or simply take a walk around the farm.
Photo: Erica Larson
Exercise—As I mentioned, I try to keep Dorado working throughout the winter. Occasionally that means sneaking a ride in at a nearby indoor at a friend’s invitation, but most of the time it means bundling up, biting the bullet, and riding wherever the best footing at our farm is. Not only are we slowly bringing Dorado back into training, but it’s also good for his body and mind to keep moving—he gets bored very easily. Some days we’re able to fit a full work in, while others we’re confined to slowly walking around wherever the footing allows. But it keeps him in a good spot to head straight back into full work when spring arrives.
Winter Survival Tip: Regular exercise is the best way to maintain relatively sound older horses, but it’s also harder to bring them back into work after they’ve been fairly dormant for a while (such as after a winter break). As such, in a recent special report, Nancy Loving, DVM, recommended keeping them moving, but cautiously. “Since their musculoskeletal system is likely not as robust as when the horse was younger, it will take longer to bring fitness to an even lower level than previously expected. Also, it is harder to bring an older horse back from an extended layoff so it is better to keep the horse in some kind of working condition throughout the winter, even if it’s several days per week of riding at a walk coupled with daily turnout.” (Read More)
Hoof Care—An added concern this year is Dorado’s feet. Although they’re in pretty good shape following his laminitic episode last summer, we’re in the midst of some shoeing conundrums that’s making turning him out a bit of a production. Our veterinarian wants nothing more than for him to be barefoot for a while, and we’re slowly working our way there. It’s just taking some time. At the moment, he’s shod with no pads (but with the farrier coming next week, who knows what he’ll look like after that!), meaning his soles and frog are susceptible to bruising when the ground is hard and his paddock is full of tiny frozen mud peaks. To keep his feet comfy Dorado’s been going out in his “slippers” on his front hooves whenever the ground’s frozen, which has proven very successful so far.
Winter Survival Tip: Many senior horses—especially those retired pasture pets—are barefoot, which can put them at risk for hoof concussion. In a recent article, Scott Fleming, DVM, CF, noted, “In areas where it gets really cold and the ground frozen, horses that are fine during summer may get sole bruising. Keep that in mind, whether you need to put them in soft-ride boots or, if you’re doing conventional shoeing, putting pads in.” (Read More)
Combine those steps with some warm clothing and more cups of coffee, tea, and hot cocoa than I can count and you’ve got a good look at how Dorado and I are making it though winter. How do you keep your senior horses healthy and happy when the cold and snow arrives?