Early autumn is our favorite time of the year — with weather just perfect for spending long hours outside, for trail riding and beautiful scenery — however it is also one of the busiest times of the year for horse keepers to prepare for the long winter ahead. And for those who are fortunate to own “elder horses” the list of “to-dos” might be a bit longer.
Our Morgan mare, Sabrina, has now passed her 32nd birthday, as of April 24. We last rode her in March; she had lost weight this spring and was a bit unsteady on her feet in April. The veterinarian diagnosed EPM, and she was treated successfully. She’s no longer “shaky” but is “achy” from her arthritic knee and is still thin, and so our riding these days consists mainly of having her join us “at liberty” whenever I ride her young stable-mate Morgan around the pastures. She still has the desire to come along, and motion and exercise is the best medicine for her. There are days when I ride Morgan into the arena and Sabrina will stop grazing outside and dutifully follow us around the cones and buckets, sometimes picking up a trot and tossing her head as if to say “I can still keep up!” But especially heading into the cold months of winter, exercise is important in keeping her healthy.
Having an elder horse like Sabrina is special. She has an endearing personality and is quite good at communicating what she does — and does not — want or need. She takes her medicine, when necessary, without complaint, although is pretty fussy when it comes to any ‘new’ feeds or feed supplements I try to mix into her bucket. She’s still spunky and surprisingly strong for her small size — and if I’m not careful, will sometimes push past me in her desire to head out the barn door to graze on the lawn.
Due to her weight loss this spring, I have been supplementing her with a few flakes of hay in the mornings and evenings all summer, which she is happy to eat, in addition to the free-choice grass she enjoys while out to pasture. It’s a long walk up to the summer pasture — about 1/3 mile through the woods, and the horses have a regular routine of going up in the late mornings and returning home by late afternoon. We leave the back door of the barn unlocked so I can look out the kitchen window to see when they return to the barn; we’re always aware of whether they’ve come back on time or if we need to go up to retrieve them, as Sabrina has gotten “stuck” at times and needed help getting up or out.
Winter ground can be difficult to negotiate, depending on the amount of snow and ice — our horses are barefoot, and seem to do well. Our farrier, Jim, is well aware of Sabrina’s arthritis, and is kind to her, often kneeling on one knee in order to trim her front feet. In the past, we have had other horses shod during winter with studs added to the shoes to help their footing.
Whether or not your horse has shoes, check her feet on a daily basis. Before the ground freezes, a small stone or other object can lodge in-between the frog and cause difficulties in walking; check also for cracks in the walls or the sole of the foot. Horses that are confined to muddy or mucky areas that are not well drained can be candidates for thrush, which requires cleaning, disinfection and diligent care.
Your horse’s haircoat will no doubt be steadily growing heavier as the days grow shorter and the colder weather sets in. She may still be shedding out her lighter coat; be sure to groom thoroughly on a daily basis to check for any skin problems that may arise. Your horse’s coat is its main protection against the cold, wet winter weather; a coat that is matted with dried mud, burdock or other dry/adhering vegetation will not hold the air in the spaces between the hair and therefore not be effective in insulation your horse against the cold. In addition, the act of a nice somewhat vigorous currying with a rubber curry followed by the body brush will increase the circulation and help keep your horse’s skin healthy. In addition, you’ll need to be diligent with checking your elder horse’s condition beneath all that hair, to make sure she is not losing weight in the cold weather.
We do not routinely use blankets on our horses in winter; as except for the coldest nights, we leave the stalls and the back of the barn door open, to enable Sabrina to move around more freely so that her joints do not stiffen up by morning. They have been able to grow heavy enough coats to keep them warm, and we feed hay free-choice night and day. However we did have one elder mare, Prissy, who lived to the ripe old age of 40, who needed a blanket during her last winter with us. Blanketing is tricky, and attention needs to be paid to ensure that the horse isn’t overheating under the blanket on sunny days and then getting a chill in a damp blanket at night.
Whether or not your horse is confined to a stall, barn or run-in shed, be sure he is able to get under a roof and out from the elements, and stay dry when it’s raining or snowing, especially if you have more than one horse.
Elder horses need to have their teeth checked by an equine dentist more frequently, ideally twice a year, than younger horses, that can usually get by with annual checkups. Especially heading into the colder months, when the main source of energy will be supplied by hay or other dried forms of roughage, the ability to chew properly is of utmost importance. If your elder horse has a loose tooth or sharp edges where her teeth aren’t ground down evenly, this can cause her to feel pain, and she will not be able to chew her food. As a result, your horse may ‘bolt’ down her food — which may cause colic, or at the very least, prevent the nutrition from that food from entering her digestive system and blood stream, resulting in a loss of weight and condition. For thin or underweight elder horses, you might find, as we have, that adding in some beet pulp shreds and alfalfa pellets, moistened with warm water, can add bulk to your horse’s diet and result in some weight gain. We also add vegetable or coconut oil to Sabrina’s feed in the cold winter months, beginning with just a teaspoonful up to about two tablespoons full. Consult with your dentist and veterinarian about your horse’s teeth and condition and possible changes in feed or supplements prior to the onset of winter.
Your elder horse is special, and will appreciate the time you spend in providing that extra care!