Winter Care for your Senior Horse

As those who live in true winter geographies know, the cold weather can be brutal for any horse, let alone our aging companions. That is why it’s incredibly important to consider the special needs of your senior horse, as the temperatures drop.  

  • Blanketing – Depending on the extremeness of your temperatures, blanketing your senior horse can be an important consideration of winter care. Try to remember to spread out and look over your blankets before the weather turns bitter cold, to ensure they are in good condition. 
  • Body Condition Score (BCS) – It’s important to understand and evaluate your senior horse’s Body Condition Score before the winter months hit. But if you find yourself in the thick of winter with a senior horse that is rapidly losing weight, then speak to your veterinarian about the best options to add on pounds during the frigid months. 
  • Hydration is Key – The role water plays in the health of your horse is just as important during the cold of winter, as it is the heat of summer. Make sure there is adequate access to fresh water for your senior horse throughout the day. Not only can dehydration lead to impaction colic, but it can decrease feed intake, which is vital for your senior horse during the winter months.  
  • Stay Well-Supplied – Make sure you are prepared for the conditions, which includes sufficient amounts of feed and hay, medications, anti-ice materials, flashlights, light bulbs and other items you may need if a storm hits.  

Winter isn’t an easy season to endure with senior horses, but with planning and preparedness, you and your aging friend will weather the storm.  

Lighting & Nutrition for Breeding Late Winter/Early Spring

Mares that are not pregnant at the end of the year should be getting careful attention in December and January to make certain that they are ready for the start of the breeding season. Horses in North America have a universal birthday January 1, so it may be desired in some cases to be breeding as early as possible while making certain that foals do not arrive in December.

The use of artificial lighting to help prepare mares for breeding is a fairly standard management tool. A common practice is to put mares under lights in early December to help get mares cycling by mid to late February.  Breeding earlier than mid-February is not recommended as a short gestation period might result in a December foal and a very young yearling!  There are multiple lighting systems, but all deliver 16 hours of combined artificial and natural light.  While you can use a light meter to measure illumination, a common rule of thumb is that you should be able to comfortably read a newspaper in any of the stall or paddock area when the lights are on.  (Reading your backlit smartphone does not count!) One caveat is that if you have mares that are due to foal very early, you may want to avoid putting them under lights as this has been reported to shorten gestation a few days.  Again, you do not want yearlings that are only a few days old!

Body condition is also very important at this time of the year. If you have open mares that are below Body Condition Score 5, now is a good time to increase the plane of nutrition so that they are maintaining or gaining a slight bit of weight.  If they are over BCS 6, do NOT put them on a diet as a negative energy balance (losing weight) may interfere with normal estrus cycle.

Much of the country is having some unusually cold weather in late December 2017 and early January 2018. Mares that are experiencing cold weather need to have access to unfrozen water, loose salt and adequate quality forage, supplemented with a balancer or grain product to maintain body condition.

Proper veterinarian examination, artificial lighting and good nutrition can set the stage for a successful early breeding season

Artificial Lighting: Preparing for Early Breeding, Bradford W. Daigneault, M.S. University of Illinois/U.S. Department of Agriculture/Local Extension Councils Cooperating, November 2012 is a good article on lighting for reference.

Beware of Loss of Body Condition in Cold Weather

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight thru the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs.  Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss.  This is particularly important for older horses.  The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming.  It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times.  If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day.  Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply.  A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather.  Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic.  A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition.  Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind.  Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind.  Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat. State regulations may dictate shelter requirements.

Fourth, feed more!  A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone.  Wind chill increases the energy requirement also.  Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option.  Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance. Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)  Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.  This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.  If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.  If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.  Shorter periods of extreme cold may cause more rapid loss of weight.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for spring!

Ask the Expert: When to Blanket a Horse

Question: I’m confused about blanketing my horse during the winter. I grew up with horses happily housed outside and un-blanketed during the winter months. The horses had access to shelter. I’m now boarding my horse and everyone at the barn blankets their horse and thinks I’m crazy not to! The horse does have access to shelter while outside. Can you please give me some advise on blanketing during the winter?

Answer: Most horses are blanketed for various reasons (i.e. show schedules) or due to personal preference of the owner. However, blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when:

  • There is no shelter available during turnout periods and the temperatures drop below 5°F, or the wind chill is below 5°F
  • There is a chance the horse will become wet (not usually a problem with snow, but a problem with rain, ice, and/or freezing rain during cold weather)
  • The horse has had its winter coat clipped
  • The horse is very young or very old
  • The horse has not been acclimated to the cold (i.e. recently relocated from a southern climate)
  • The horse has a body condition score of 3 or less

A horse will continue to develop a natural winter coat until December 22 (Winter Solstice), as days are becoming shorter. Horses begin to lose their winter coat, and start forming their summer coat, as the days begin to get longer. Blanketing before December 22 will decrease a horse’s natural winter coat.

Author: Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at

Winter Is Coming – Are You Ready?

As many regions of the US are still experiencing fairly mild conditions, the inevitable is coming…winter. But with proper preparation and foresight, the extreme conditions can be slightly more bearable. Read on for some handy tips to keep you and your horse warm and cozy.

  • Blanketing:  In general, horses adapt well to decreasing temperatures by growing an insulating hair coat.  As long as they have shelter to get out of wind and precipitation, and are able to meet their increased energy (calorie) requirement, they do quite well and can tolerate sub-zero temperatures.
    • Keep in mind, the insulating value of the hair coat is compromised if it gets wet.  As temperatures drop below the critical temperature which is around 50°F on average, horses require more energy to stay warm, which is best provided by increasing the forage in their diet, not grain.
    • Blanketing may be a good option if:
      • There is no shelter during turn out
      • The horse’s hair coat is clipped
      • You have a very young or very old horse that might not be efficient at maintaining body temperature
      • The horse is under-conditioned or under weight
    • Finding a blanket that fits well, is waterproof, breathable, and the proper weight (light, medium, heavy fill) based on the conditions are important considerations.
    • If you already own blankets, dig them out before you need them and check to ensure they are clean, in good repair, and still fit your horse properly.
    • Never blanket a wet horse, or put a wet or damp blanket on a horse.
  • Don’t forget to periodically remove the blanket and assess body condition, and check for any rub marks that the blanket may be causing.
  • Winterizing the barn and trailer: Fall is a good time to prepare your barn and trailer for colder weather.  Cleaning, installing or checking insulation, replacing screens with windows, ensuring ventilation is adequate, insulating water sources, cleaning and safety-checking heaters and electrical systems, are recommended.
    • In the barn:
      • Check the roof for structural integrity and leaks
      • Clean gutters and install snow slides if needed
      • Plan for snow removal and de-icing walkways, if applicable.
    • In the trailer:
      • Check the floor, lights, brakes, and tires and replace or provide maintenance as needed.
      • Put together an emergency kit for you and your horse in the event of a break-down in winter weather.
      • If you are on the road frequently, consider road-side-service for equestrians in the event of an emergency.

Good luck, stay safe, and take a moment to enjoy the site of your horse playing in the snow if you are lucky enough to see some!

Ask the Expert: Grazing Muzzle Use

Question: I put a grazing muzzle on my fat gelding. He is ridden multiple times a week, but is an easy keeper. He shares 8 acres of pasture with one other horse. Should I leave the grazing muzzle on all the time or give him an hour of freedom without the grazing muzzle each day?

Answer: We know from past research that a grazing muzzle reduces intake by 30% and that some horses can become very adept at grazing through a muzzle. As long as the horse can easily access water and can tolerate wearing the muzzle, we recommend leaving the muzzle on all day for an overweight horse with access to pasture. A 30% reduction is calories (or pasture) should result in weight loss. Research has also shown that horses with access to as little as 3 hours of pasture each day can consume a majority of their daily calories and can anticipate and adjust to the restricted grazing schedule.

Owners should track their horse’s bodyweight and body condition score each month. Reduce the amount of time the horse is muzzled if excessive bodyweight and body condition is lost. Conversely, if the horse starts to gain bodyweight (or is not losing bodyweight), it might be best to house the horse in a drylot and feed a reduced calorie hay diet (i.e. mature grass hay). The goal should be for the horse to lose weight slowly but steadily. If excessive bodyweight continues to plague the horse, we recommend working with an equine nutritionist and your veterinarian to identify additional solutions for weight loss.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at

Equine First Aid Kit

An equine first aid kit is an essential item to have when traveling with your horse. In this video, you will learn about what items to include in your kit, how best to use first aid items and tips to keep your equine first aid kit updated.

This video was shared with permission from University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program. Make sure to follow them on Facebook and YouTube for even more equine information & education!

Feeding the Neglected Horse – a Challenging but Rewarding Task

Changes and challenges in the horse industry may have resulted in an increased number of horses that have experienced prolonged periods of inadequate nutrient intakes, resulting in loss of weight and, in some cases, actual starvation. In order for these horses to be brought back to a healthy condition, it is important to assess the current condition to determine an appropriate feeding and health care program in conjunction with an equine veterinarian.

A useful first step in the in rehabbing the neglected horse is to estimate the body condition using the Body Condition Scoring System developed by Henneke et al (1983). Horses that are at or above a body condition score 3 (thin) can generally be brought back to a body condition score of 5 (moderate) in 6-8 weeks with the introduction of a balanced diet (50% good quality hay, 50% formulated feed) fed initially at 1.5% of bodyweight in 4-5 feedings per day. The amount can be gradually increased to 2.5-2.8% of bodyweight (hay offered free choice, grain fed 2-3 x per day, to a maximum 0.5% BW per feeding) as discussed by Heusner (1993). Complete feeds, particularly Senior Feeds, also work very well in this situation with controlled starch and sugar levels, amino acid profile, high digestibility, and easy to chew attributes. These horses are also frequently salt starved, so salt should also be introduced gradually at 1-2 oz per day and increased until it can be offered free choice. The horses should also have their teeth checked and be de-wormed.  If the horses have a heavy parasite load as determined by fecal egg count, they may have to be treated with a half dose the first time to reduce the risk of problems from the de-worming.

Horses that have been truly starved may be in body condition score 1 (poor) or 2 (very thin). If a horse has lost 40% of optimal body weight, it will generally become recumbent (survival rate is low if a horse has lost 45-50% of optimum body weight).  This type of body weight loss normally takes 60-90 days without any feed and more commonly will take 3-4 months with very poor forage and water (Lewis, 1995).  Horses in this condition may be hypoglycemic and hyperkalemic due to body tissue breakdown. These horses require careful attention from an equine veterinarian as IV fluid administration and blood work are essential and support with a sling will probably be required.

Horses that are not recumbent, but are body condition score 1 or 2 will need a very gradual reintroduction of feed. These horses have lost substantial muscle mass as well as essentially all fat and may also be hypoglycemic and hyperkalemic.  One method to recover these horses is by using high quality alfalfa hay as a base high protein, low starch diet, introduced gradually and increased to ad libidum feeding in about 2 weeks (Stull, 2003).  Senior Horse Feeds which have a controlled starch level, added amino acids, direct fed microbials and balanced trace minerals and vitamins have also been used with severely neglected horses.  This type of product can be introduced at 0.5% BW, split into several small feedings per day, and gradually increased over a 10-14 day period to normal feeding rate per feeding directions. Horses with poor dentition may benefit from having the feed dampened to form a mash.

Fresh clean water needs to be available at all times and special care must always be taken to avoid excessive initial feed intake to reduce the risk of colic, laminitis, diarrhea and other metabolic disturbances. Close observation and blood chemistry monitoring may be useful to prevent complications as there are potential risks with any re-feeding effort. De-worming should be done in consultation with an equine veterinarian as the horse recovers.

The best treatment for neglect is prevention. The sooner proper nutrition can be made available to the horse, the less chance there is of permanent damage or untimely death.


 Henneke, D.R., G.D. Potter and T.L. Kreider, Body condition during pregnancy and lactation and reproductive efficiency of the mares.  Theriogenology 21:897, 1984

Heusner, GL, Ad Libitum feeding of mature horses to achieve rapid weight gain. Proc. ENPS pp 86-87, 1993.

Lewis, Lon D. DVM, PhD, Equine Clinical Nutrition: Feeding and Care, Williams & Watkins, pp 416-418, 1995.

Stull, Carolyn, PhD, The Horse Report, UC Davis, Volume 21, Number 3, “Nutrition for Rehabilitation of the Starved Horse” pp 456-457, July 2003.

Managing Over-Weight Horses

Managing your horse’s weight is key to healthy joints and bones, hooves and can play into body physiology including hormone balance. In this video you will learn how to manage weight, while still supplementing a healthy diet. It can be as easy as swapping grains and treats with a ration balancer like Empower Topline Balance.

This video was shared with permission from University of Minnesota Equine Extension Program. Make sure to follow them on Facebook and YouTube for even more equine information & education!

Biosecurity Tips for Show Season

As we enter into horse show season and County Fairs, it is critical to practice biosecurity measures, including:

  1. Work with your veterinarian to ensure horses are current with recommended vaccines.
  2. Keep sick horses at home. Watch for signs of fever, nasal discharge and diarrhea.
  3. Wash your hands frequently!  Bring water, soap, hand sanitizer, and paper towels with you.
  4. Clean and disinfect stalls, especially built-in feeders, at show facilities. Spray-on commercial disinfectants are readily available. Diluted bleach (8 ounces bleach to 1 gallon of water) is an inexpensive disinfectant; it works best on a surface that has been thoroughly cleaned.
  5. Do not share feed and water buckets, hay bags, grooming tools, tack, or manure forks.
  6. Limit exposure. Do not allow horses to have nose to nose contact. Limit the general public’s contact with your horses.
  7. Upon returning home from a show, wash your hands, shower, and change clothing and shoes before working with horses kept at home.
  8. Isolate returning horses from resident horses for 14 days. Monitor horses daily for signs of fever, nasal discharge, and diarrhea.

Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at

Photo credit: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota