Winter Care of the Older Horse

Tips for Keeping Your Equine Senior Comfortable

Senior horse

Caring for the older horse in winter time is quite similar to caring for a younger horse, with the caveat that you need to stay on top of each aspect. An older individual is more challenged and their immune system is not as strong and quick to respond, so small changes in their daily program can quickly escalate into a health challenge.

Here are some tips for consideration to keep your equine senior comfortable and happy over the coming dark, windy, wet and cold months.

Plenty of forage—hay or pasture

Fiber in the horse’s gut is the key to keeping a horse warm (it’s also what keeps us warm on that cold camping trip evening!) Forage, such as hay, is metabolized much more slowly than grain and ultimately produces more heat. As long as your older equine’s teeth can handle chewing hay, provide plenty of good quality green, leafy hay that’s free of dust and mold. All horses need a minimum twice a day feeding. Alfalfa hay is higher in protein and energy, but a grass hay (such as Orchard grass) or a mix of grass and alfalfa is fine, too. Horses should be supplemented with grain only if a horse cannot maintain its weight on hay alone, in which case one of the senior feed products specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of an older horse, might be a good choice. Read and follow the manufacturers’ directions for amounts to feed and make any changes gradually over a period of weeks. A good rule of thumb for feeding hay is 1.5 to 2 pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight. This would be 15 to 20 pounds of hay for an average 1,000 pound horse. For a senior having trouble keeping weight on, it may be more. Temps below freezing, wet snow, freezing rain or strong windy greatly increase a horse’s energy requirements especially if he is kept outdoors. So when those winds blow or the temperatures plummet, add more hay to your senior’s daily regimen. If your senior has dental issues which prevent him from adequately chewing hay, consider soaking either hay pellets or one of the equine senior feeds. For individuals with trouble maintaining weight, you may want to add beet pulp to the diet, a safe easily-digested fiber source. Another calorie booster is vegetable oil which can be added in 1⁄4 cup increments to a horse’s supplements to increase calorie intake. Consult your veterinarian or equine nutritionist with specific questions.

A clean, dry place to eat

The preferable location for a horse to be fed is in a clean, well-ventilated stall or shelter. It is most natural for a horse to eat with its head lowered which will help your senior clear his or her respiratory system. Never feed in mud; feeding on sand or muddy ground leads to ingestion of dirt and serious digestion problems. Good feeding options for hay and grain include flat, open grain pans or boxes, rubber mats, upside down carpet, or firm, dry sod.


A horse drinks 8 to 12 gallons of water per day. Water should be fresh and available at all times. Be sure your horse’s water container is free of rough edges and rust. It should be scrubbed clean of algae and dirt regularly. Be especially careful in cold weather that your senior’s water is not frozen or too cold or they may not drink an adequate amount.

Freedom from competition

An older horse may be at the bottom of the pecking order so separate horses to feed them. This prevents fights, injuries and weight loss problems and allows you to monitor their daily food and water intakes.

Dental exam

A horse’s teeth are continually erupting so yearly dental exams should be done by a veterinarian. Older horses need careful attention to their teeth, especially going into winter. If they have a dental issue such as sharp points, a wave mouth or lost teeth they may have mouth sores or other problems preventing them from adequately chewing and digesting their feed. A proper yearly dental exam will go a long way in keeping an older horse healthy.

Hoof care

Horses need regular hoof care, even for an older horse that’s not being ridden. A horse should have his feet trimmed by a knowledgeable farrier approximately every 8 weeks. Be sure to regularly clean and inspect your horse’s feet.


An older horse may be more susceptible to parasite infestations. Be sure to do regular fecal tests with your veterinarian and deworm according to results. Stalls and confinement areas should have manure removed from them every 1 to 3 days to avoid re-exposing your horse to worm larva.


Consult your veterinarian for their specific recommendations for the vaccination program they recommend for your horse, but winter is the time for respiratory infections. Basic vaccination requirements include:


once a year

Encephalomyelitis (East/West)

once a year in spring or summer

Influenza and Rhinopneumonitis

once or twice a year

West Nile virus

once a year booster


A horse needs shelter and protection from the driving rain and wind of winter, plus they need to be out of the mud and wet for at least half the day. This can be as simple as a three-sided shed closed on the side of prevailing winds. A run-in shed with a large paddock are excellent and may be the most natural for a horse—good ventilation and allowing them to move around while still managing their own body temperature. Stall size for a horse should be 12’x12′ and 10’x10′ for a small horse or pony. Flooring should be dry and level; rubber mats on top of 6 inches of gravel are excellent and reduce or eliminate the need for shavings. Packed clay will work but will erode and get uneven after a time. Concrete and wood are slick and hard and should not be used as flooring for horse stalls. Walls should be strong, smooth, free of projections and at least 7 feet high. A foot of space between the top of the wall and the ceiling will allow for air movement and good ventilation. Also, walls should extend to the ground so that a horse cannot get its legs caught under them.

Water-proof turnout blanket

As long as a horse has access to a shelter, most horses will grown an adequate fur coat during winter months to maintain body heat. One exception is an older horse. Rain, wind and cold temps can cause the horse to lose the insulating capacity of his hair coat, and he’ll use reserves to maintain core body temperature, often resulting in weight loss. When the majority of a horse’s nutrients go to keeping him warm he has fewer resources leftover for fighting off illness or repairing tissues, leading to a decline in over-all health. There’s not a particular style blanket that is best for older horses, but a good fit is critical. Be sure the blanket isn’t uncomfortable on wear points like withers, across the chest and the top of the hips. Also be sure your older horse isn’t going to get tangled up or injured in straps. Check regularly under the blanket to see if his weight is still good and to be sure there are no skin infections.

Regular exercise

Lastly, regular exercise is still important for your senior equine. The old adage “use it or lose it” is a wise one that applies here. One of the best ways to combat stiffness and arthritis is constant move- ment and adequate exercise. Careful use of anti-inflammatory medications (as per your veterinarian) can help, but one of the best ways to manage a horse’s arthritis in winter is to keep him as active as possible. Set up a routine where he is ridden, lounged or hand-walked at least three times per week and consider keeping him in covered area with a paddock where he is free to move about.

Fall in Place: Preparing Horse Properties for Winter

Fall at Sweet Pepper Ranch

Fall at Sweet Pepper Ranch

You can count our Pacific Northwest winters being cold, wet, dark and windy. During most winters you can add snowy and icy to that description. There often are at least a couple storms that wreak havoc on our normal horse chore routines for days on end, stretching into weeks for the unfortunate. As it is with most everything, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here is a list of preparations that if done in the fall will help ease you through a difficult winter season. Follow up by attending any of Horses for Clean Water’s free educational events to get more ideas and assistance with implementing these techniques.

Bring in footing material for paddocks, confinement areas and other high traffic areas.

Now is the time to think about the hogfuel or gravel you will need for footing in sacrifice areas, paddocks, walkways, and in front of gates. These materials are more available in the fall before demand is high. Plus, it is easier for delivery trucks to back into paddocks and drive through pastures in the dry season rather than once these areas have become a slick and muddy mess during the rainy season.

Begin a manure management program.

If you don’t already pick up manure on a regular basis now is the time to start. A horse creates 50 pounds of manure per day. When mixed with winter rainwater this quickly turns into 50 pounds of muck per day. All manure should be picked up at least every three days in stalls, paddocks, confinement areas and high traffic areas.

Tarp your manure piles.

This will help keep the nutrients you are trying to save IN the compost and not allow them to get washed OUT into the surface waters where they can cause a potential problem. Be sure to store manure as far away as possible from streams, ditches or wetlands to avoid potential environmental problems.

Spread compost.

Early fall is a great time to spread compost. Compost is a rich soil enhancement. It adds micro and macronutrients and replenishes natural microbes all of which improve the health of soil and plants. Spread compost in pastures during the growing season no more than a ½ inch thick and no more than three to four inches per season in the same place. Check with the King Conservation District about borrowing their free manure spreader!

Consider liming your pastures.

Have a soil test done for your pastures. If it indicates your pastures need liming then fall is an excellent time to do this. Fall applications allow the lime to neutralize soil acidity as it reacts with the soil over the winter. Changing the pH allows the grass plants to out compete weeds during the next growing season. Contact the King Conservation District to see how they can help with soil testing.

Check gutters and downspouts.

Now is the time to clean as well as make needed repairs or additions to your roof runoff system. Think “keep clean rainwater clean” by diverting rainwater away from your paddocks to areas where it won’t get contaminated with manure. Good places to divert to include areas on your property such as a grassy ditch, a dry well, rain barrel, stock watering tanks, a fishpond, a well-vegetated woods, or an unused portion of your pasture. Doing this will greatly benefit you by reducing the amount of mud your horse spends the winter standing in and making daily chores easier for you.

Reroute surface water runoff.

Runoff from driveways, parking areas and hillsides adjacent to confinement areas can add significantly to the problem of managing mud. Ditches, grassy swales, dry wells, water diversion bars and culverts are all useful means for diverting water away from confinement areas and barns. It is considerably easier to build these now than during the next downpour.

Review equipment needs for daily chores.

Having the right equipment for chores not only makes things more efficient but also insures that you’ll be more likely to get those chores accomplished when it’s dark and cold. Consider getting a manure cart that’s easy to push and dump into the compost pile. Is your manure fork half broken? The heavy-duty plastic-tined type with a bent edge is made specifically for cleaning horse stalls and paddocks. Wooden handles or ones wrapped with tennis grip tape (or even vet wrap) are easier–and warmer–to grip than metal handles.

It is a good feeling to be prepared as possible even though there is undoubtedly some adventure lurking around the corner. Following this list will help you get ahead of the majority of problems, have you better prepared for the coming winter months and we get you in good position for next summer.

Next stop: join HCW and our FREE educational events open to all horse and small acreage livestock owners to get a head start on winter chore efficiency and horse keeping.

Climate Change and Horse Keeping, Managing the Uncertainty

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Conference: Climate Change & Horse Keeping, Managing the Uncertainty

A little more than a year ago I was invited to travel to Australia to be the keynote speaker at a conference on horses and land management. One of the other speakers at that event presented material that changed some of my thinking on horse care. His presentation was on the link between climate change and infectious disease risk for horses. Dr. Gary Muscatello, a microbiologist and faculty at the University of Sydney Veterinary Science Department, was the presenter. Let me summarize key points from his presentation.

World-wide when there are new disease outbreaks (human or horse) there seems to be a link between climate change and infectious disease risk. General principles of a warmer environment and changing weather patterns influence many factors which encourage disease outbreaks, disease transmission and the emergence of new diseases. Warmer temperatures enable disease-carrying organisms to extend their ranges, have a longer breeding season and generally become more virulent. Animals (both domestic and wild) which are already stressed by changes (less water, hotter temps, less food availability, etc.) are now more susceptible to diseases, particularly to new diseases, moving into the areas. This interaction of stressed animals and new pathogens, along with animals which are immunologically naïve, causes new disease outbreaks in horses.

Connecting the climate change dots with disease

An example in the human world is Lyme disease, which previously did not occur in Canada, but now does. Birds and ticks, the carriers of Lyme disease, never survived in these colder areas but with warmer temperatures they are traveling further North and the pathogens are surviving.

Climate change and equine disease

In Kentucky in 2001 Eastern Tent Caterpillars were found to be the cause of abortions in Thoroughbred mares, called Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS). The caterpillars, when accidentally ingested by pregnant mares, produced abortions. These caterpillars are associated with drought conditions, part of the climate change model. COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, associated with poor air quality and air pollution, also a part of climate change model, seems to be on the rise and is expected to continue to increase. Bacterial pneumonia, which has a big impact on foals, lives in soil and is exacerbated by dry, dusty conditions—again associated with climate change. Australia, in particular, has seen huge increases in this disease in their Thoroughbred racing industry, causing economic havoc.

Examples of other types of diseases expected to become more widespread are Pigeon fever, a bacteria spread by midges and biting flies that live and breed in mud, and rain scald or rain rot which is caused by bacteria that thrive in a wet environment, often spread around water tanks or other muddy areas.

Managing the uncertainty

The trending in climate change points to things being much different in the next 10 or 50 years. World-wide we are experiencing extreme weather events which previously were in 100 year cycles. Expectations are for droughts and water limitations, extreme weather patterns like monsoonal rain events, more wind, frequent flooding, cyclonic extremes like super hurricanes and super tornados and generally warmer/dryer temperatures.

These changes mean disease-carrying insects and pathogens will be flung further along by strong winds and have broader ranges that are more habitable for them. It means great impacts on agriculture in general with less availability of hay and grain and the associated increases in costs due to greater diseases affecting crops, etc.

What can be done?

Management is key! First, understand disease risks and what can be done to break connections. More than ever, pasture management is important to reduce bare spots and overgrazing so there’s less dust in the summer and no mud in winter. Implement mud management techniques to reduce habitat for disease carrying organisms such as using footing in confinement areas and gutters and downspouts on buildings. Clean waterers regularly to reduce mosquito and insect habitat. Learn and implement water conservation methods at home and on the farm or ranch. Future-proofing us and our horses means taking action to plan and prepare for changes in our climate.

Learn more by joining Horses for Clean Water and the King Conservation District on Friday April 25, from 8:30am to 4:00 pm, at the Conference on Climate Change and Horse Management at Emerald Downs Race Track in Auburn, WA. This event, the first ever of its kind in North America, is sponsored in part by Lighthoof Equine, Trinity Ranch and Snohomish Conservation District.

The morning session will feature three keynote speakers. Dr. Nick Bond, State Climatologist from the University of Washington, will speak on weather trends and expectations for the Pacific Northwest. Chad Kruger, head of WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, will speak on how these trends are affecting plant and crop species and production. Then Dr. Gary Muscatello, DVM, from the University of Sydney, Australia, who I originally heard speak in Australia, will discuss how climate change is affecting horse health, both in North America as well as worldwide.

The Conference afternoon session will give attendees tools to “future proof” their land and horses including new twists on pasture management, innovative approaches to water conservation and more. In addition, the Conference will be videotaped, streamed live and available worldwide afterwards.

Cost is $20 for horse owners/general public and $35 for agency participants and includes coffee and fruit at sign-in, sandwich bar lunch, vender display, tram tour of Emerald Downs horse facilities plus a free ticket to the races redeemable any 2014 race day!

Registration and more information is via the King CD web site or contact e-mail or call 425-282-1949. Or contact Alayne at

Horsekeeping Climate Change Poster

Dealing with Winter Drainage Issues: Slow the Flow

It’s that time of the year when it rains and rains and RAINS! Even here at Sweet Pepper Ranch in the dry desert of Southwestern Idaho it is raining. That is a good thing here as we have had very little precipitation over the last six months. Everyone in Treasure Valley had their irrigation water turned off early and all reservoirs ran dry. Without good rains in the valley and snow in the mountains this winter we’ll be in big trouble next summer.

But mud in our horse paddocks is definitely a problem—for any of us, no matter where we live.

Mud creates an unhealthy environment for horses

Mud harbors bacteria, fungal organisms and other pathogens that cause abscesses, scratches, rain scald and thrush. The effects of repeated wet/dry conditions are damaging to hoof structure. Mud is a breeding ground for insects, such as cullicoides (“no-see-ums”), filth flies and mosquitoes. Insects are not only annoying; they can carry diseases and can cause allergic reactions for our horses. When fed on muddy ground, horses can ingest dirt or sand particles with hay, leading to sand colic, a very serious digestive order. Plus mud creates a slick, unsafe footing, increasing the risk of injury (for horses and humans).

Every horse person knows that mud is inconvenient and unpleasant. Mud makes everyday chores difficult. Odors, flies and appearance of mud lowers the desirability of a property for you, your neighbors and your customers—if you run your place as a business.

Muddy waters

Once soil and manure has mixed with water to make mud, it can easily be carried into nearby streams or lakes. Sediment can smother trout and salmon eggs, destroy habitat for insects (a food source for fish) and cover prime spawning areas. Many pollutants, like the nutrients and bacteria from manure, are likely to attach to soil particles and be carried into the water.

What You Can Do – Slow the Flow and Redirect

When tackling drainage think “slow the flow.” The best and easiest way to reduce surface water is to slow it down. Many times just slowing water down will allow it to infiltrate back into the ground—perhaps that will be all that’s needed to solve a drainage issue. This also helps recharge the natural hydrology of your property including ground water. If you already have gutters and downspouts on barns and out-buildings and footing in confinement areas but rain is still flowing into confinement areas you may need to consider installing some type of drainage system to redirect surface water flowing towards your barn.

Each of these techniques can be useful for keeping clean rainwater out of your barn area and reducing mud—at Sweet Pepper Ranch we’ve used several of these:

  • French drain lines (trench filled with drain rock and perforated pipe that redirects surface and groundwater away from an area)
  • Water bars (like a speed bump for water runoff)
  • Grassy swales (gently sloping depressions or grass-lined waterways)
  • Dry wells (deep hole filled with round rock—only works in a dry area)
  • Trees and shrubs (planted to slow down and soak up water)
  • Rain garden (stay tuned for more info on this!)
  • Divert the clean surface water away from your high traffic areas to someplace else on your property where it can soak back into the ground. Places to divert to include an unused corner of your pasture, well-vegetated woods, grassy lawn or other well-vegetated areas.

Never divert to an existing water body as the amount of added water can drastically and unnaturally change water levels. When water levels go up quickly, that increases turbidity and important fish habitat is often ruined or destroyed.

Be sure to check out the Educational Materials section on the HCW website. We have lots of free resource materials available to help you with projects, as well as like DVDs and inexpensive Tip Sheets to give you guidance on things like footing choices, building an arena, pasture improvement, and more! Shopping for Christmas gifts at If so, please consider using this link to go to Amazon. That way Amazon will make a small donation to HCW which helps with running our website.

Good luck and here’s to a mud-free, chore-efficient winter for us all!