Care of the Older Horse & Pony

Horses, like people, tend to have more trouble handling cold weather as they grow older so practicing proper winter horse care is important. It’s not uncommon for horses in their 20s or beyond to have difficulty holding their weight, staying warm and/or moving around during the winter.

The two areas of winter horse care that can have the biggest influence on the health of older horses are feeding and rugging.

Warmth from the feed tub: winter horse feeding

In cold weather, horses utilize feed to stay warm. Within minutes of eating a meal, the horse’s digestive processes start to generate body heat. And over the long term, the calories not immediately converted to energy that supports bodily processes are stored as fat, which helps to insulate against the cold. Hay is metabolized more slowly than grain & be­cause hay has a longer “burn time,” it ultimately produces more heat. Giving a horse access to a large amount of hay will help to keep him warm.

It’s a good idea to increase your aging horse’s feed ration during the winter. Remember that grasses have very low or little nutrient value in winter so supplementary feeding is important for good health.

Horse not receiving enough feed will tend to go in a downward spiral. They will start to lose weight & then will feel the cold more so the feed being provided will be used to keep them warm with none for fat reserves. They become colder and thinner!

Additionally, when the majority of a horse’s nutrients go to keeping him warm, he has fewer resources left for fighting off illness or repairing tissues, leading to a decline in over-all health.

Compounding the problem is the fact that older horses don’t digest food nearly as efficiently as younger horses do. Their ability to digest fiber is 5 % lower and their ability to utilize protein is about 15 % lower. So even if they are being fed the same amount of feed as the younger horses, older horses will not utilize it all and can lose condition quickly:


Although a full winter coat will protect most horses well enough rugging can be very beneficial. A decision to rug or not depends on many factors including:

  • Body condition prior to winter
  • Current health status – ability to move to keep warm, medical or dental conditions that effect the utilization of feed
  • Owners ability to check frequently under rugs & change rugs according to weather conditions.

It is very important to take your horse’s blanket off regularly as a lot of problems can go unseen under a winter blanket, especially weight loss. Older horses may not have a cushioning layer of fat over points like the withers, shoulders or hips and can develop pres­sure sores. Older horses with Cushing’s can also be prone to bacterial and fun­gal skin infections.

Preseason tune-up

Ideally, winter care for older horses begins in autumn - we like to see an older horse before the weather gets cold to ensure he has enough weight on him and is in good physical condition. If an older horse goes into the winter with problems that aren’t identified or addressed, the situation is only going to get worse.

Winter Woes

Several health conditions common in older horses are aggravated by winter weather.

  • Respiratory disease: Extremely cold air, inhaled deeply, can irritate lung tissue.
  • Poor mobility: Horses with arthritis, chronic laminitis or neurological disease may find it difficult to negotiate mud. Pay close attention to what is underfoot each day and keep older horses in areas with the best traction.
  • Arthritis: If you’ve got arthritis yourself, you’ve probably noticed your bad joints hurt a bit more in the cold. While research has yet to explain this phenomenon, it’s safe to assume something similar occurs in horses. Judicious use of anti-inflammatory medications can help, but one of the best ways to manage a horse’s arthritis in winter is to keep him as active as possible.

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. For other hard keepers, you might need to supplement the diet with vegetable oil to increase calorie intake.





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