Winter care for older horses

15 July 2021 | Horse Stables

As horses get older they might find cold weather more difficult to cope with. Horses in their 20s and older can have trouble maintaining their weight, find it hard to get down on the ground to sleep, and even struggle moving around during winter. Frost, snow and freezing temperatures can make an older horse quite uncomfortable.

There are three areas of winter care that have the biggest impact on the health of your horse and they are: feeding, rugging and paddock shelter. 

Feeding horses for winter

In cold weather, horses use their digestive system to stay warm. This happens in two ways;

  1. When a horse is eating, it’s digestive processes start to generate body heat.
  2. Any calories that are not immediately converted to energy and used to support body function can then be stored as fat, which helps to insulate against the cold.

Forage feeds, especially hay, are metabolised more slowly than grain-based hard feeds and because hay has a longer burn time, it produces more heat in the gut. Basically, heat is a by-product of the digestion of hay. Along with the actual energy provided by the hay, this helps horses maintain a normal body temperature.

Feeding hay and lots of it, will go a long way to keeping a horse of any age warm. So if your horse has access to hay all night long it is going to be much more comfortable than one who only gets a slice during the day.

So for an older horse, it’s sensible to increase its’ feed ration during the winter – and make sure there is always hay in the paddock that horses can munch on during the cold winter nights.

If older horses don’t get enough to eat, they can easily loose weight – they use all the energy from their feed to stay warm. 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 overall health.

Rugging up

Appropriate use of rugs is an important part of taking care of an older horse during the winter, especially if he is suffering from arthritis.

A cold horse not only will lose weight, but he will also become stressed and weak as his body struggles to maintain its temperature. This can lead to a compromised immune system, less able to fight off illness and infection.

The air temperature is less of an issue for horses than the wind and rain. Horses are usually quite comfortable unrugged right down to sub zero temperatures on a dry, still day but when it comes to sleet and hail, or a freezing southerly wind, they will appreciate a rug to keep them warm and dry.

It is important that you don’t just leave your horse in a heavy rug all winter long. Sunny afternoon temperatures can get up around 20 degrees and sweating under a heavy cover is just as uncomfortable for your horse as being too cold. Overheating can cause dehydration, electrolyte mineral loss, and nasty skin conditions. It also makes horses plain miserable – there is no escape or relief from overheating.

If you can’t be there to take a heavy rug off for a few hours on a warm day, then leave your horse during the day in a waterproof but lighter weight rug, such as a no-fill synthetic or a canvas rug, and put the heavy one back on at night. 

Also have a think about your horse’s breed and type. A thin-skinned, fine-coated thoroughbred (who, like Arabians, evolved in desert climates which can get cold but are never wet) will need a warmer rug than a sturdy cob or stationbred. Many ponies, such as Shetlands, are best completely unrugged as long as they are also unclipped. 

If you’re not sure about rugging, watch your horse for signs that he is cold. If your horse is shivering, he needs drying off and warming up with an extra layer. 

Horse Paddock Shelter

Paddock Shelter for horses

For the best horse health care, horse owners should consider what paddock shelter your horses have. Protecting horses from the elements such as snow, rain, extreme heat and hail will benefit not only your horse's health, but ultimately your ability to train, ride, compete on and enjoy your horse.

Shelter trees can be sufficient for young horses especially if they are rugged appropriately. A mature line of trees can provide great shelter from cold southerly winds.

If you don’t have shelter belts in your paddocks, then building a horse shelter could be a good solution to keeping your horses protected from the cold winter elements. Outpost Horse Sheltersare a great option as they are designed to be relocatable. This means you can reposition your horse shelter according to the wind direction during those cold winter months.

Horse shelter with centre tackshed in snow

Consider carefully the size of your shelter- how many horses do you need to house and how much space do you want for each of them? If they’re spending more time inside at this time of year then you’ll want to allow plenty of space for them to move around and a dry area to lie down.

Find out more about what size horse shelter you need here >

Remember, you are going to be out there tending to your horses too so consider allowing enough room to keep yourself warm and dry and to safely move around in the stall with your horse.

Having everything in one place will make life easier for you so your shelter could also include a wide range of spaces designed for uses such as overnight stabling, storage for all of your gear and feed, areas to wash them down, space for parking your horse float, foaling stalls and grooming.

Be sure to keep your shelter clean and tidy to avoid illness and help promote general health and well being of your horses.


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