As we are in the thick of winter with snow, ice, winds and freezing temperatures, it seemed like a good time to write about cold weather care for horses. Especially for older horses, being pro-active and thinking ahead is often the key to getting your charges though the winter in good fashion.

Despite what many non-horse keeps believe, keeping your horse warm in winter doesn’t mean increasing the amount of grain he or she is being fed. Grain or concentrated feeds provide more energy rather than heat. It’s the amount of hay and roughage that your horses process that keeps them warm, by providing heat during the combustion process.

If you have “elder” horses, they will need to burn extra calories in order to stay warm in the cold weather. That said, you’ll need to monitor their weight to make sure they have sufficient fat reserves. The optimum body condition heading into winter is a 5 or a 6.

Wondering what body condition is? Fortunately, there is a widely-used body condition scoring system available to horse owners, created by Don Henneke, PhD, who developed the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System during his studies at Texas A&M University. The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System is based on both a visual as well as a palpable “hands-on” appraisal of your horse. This system provides a chart, called the Henneke Chart, which is a standardized scientific scoring system that is used to evaluate all horses regardless of age, sex or breed. The chart is even accepted in law courts and is used by law enforcement agencies in cases involving neglect of horses or for any other reason a horse needs an objective method to assess body condition.

The Henneke chart has you check (by hand) the horse’s neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin, and head of tail. Using those six body parts of the horse, apply a bit of pressure in each area to determine how much fat is present under the skin. For example, when examining the withers, squeeze the whole area where the neck ends and the back begins almost as if you were squeezing clay, firmly but gently. Talk to your horse to calm her so she won’t be surprised when you are doing any ‘hands-on’ work.

The Body Condition Scoring System is rated from the numbers 1-9, with 1 being “Poor” and 9 being “Extremely Fat”. Let’s take a look at the different scores that are used:

  1. Poor – The bone structure in the neck, withers and shoulder is easily noticeable; the ribs are protruding prominently, as are the bones of the spine along the loin, the bones of the tailhead, pinbones and hook bones.
  2. Very Thin – The bone structure in the neck, withers and shoulder are faintly discernible; the ribs are prominent, and there is a slight amount of fat covering over the base of the spinal column bones (called spinous processes) but the spinal bones are prominent, as is the tailhead.
  3. Thin – This horse has an accentuated neck, withers and shoulder. There is a slight amount of fat over the ribs, but the ribs are easily discernible, as is the spinal column along the loin, but the side bones of the spine (traverse processes) cannot be felt. The tailhead is prominent, but the individual vertebrae can’t be visually identified. The pin bones are not distinguishable, and the hook bones are rounded but are still easily discernible.
  4. Moderately Thin – The neck, withers and shoulder are not noticeably thin, and only a faint outline of the ribs is discernible. There is a “peaked” appearance along the back, and the tailhead may be prominent depending on the horse’s conformation. Fat can be felt on the tailhead, and the hook bones are not discernible.
  5. Moderate (Ideal Weight) – A score of 5 is considered “Moderate (Ideal Weight). The neck blends smoothly into the body, the withers are rounded over the spinal bones, the shoulders blend smoothly into the body, the ribs cannot be visually distinguished but can be easily felt, the back is level and the fat around the tailhead is beginning to feel soft.
  6. Moderately Fleshy – A score of 6 is considered “Moderately Fleshy”, and you should be able to detect fat beginning to be deposited on the neck, withers and shoulder. The fat over the ribs will feel spongy, the back may have a slight groove or crease down the back and the fat around the tailhead will feel soft. (again, for the purposes of doing well in winter, both scores of 5 and 6 are considered ideal, especially in older horses.)
  7. Fleshy – A fleshy horse will have fat deposited along the neck and withers and behind the shoulder. Individual ribs can be felt with pressure, but there is fat noticeably filling in-between the ribs. There may be a crease down the back, and the fat around the tailhead is soft.
  8. Fat – In the Henneke Chart a “Fat” horse will have a noticeable thickening of the neck with the area along the withers filled with fat, the area behind the shoulder filled in flush with the body, ribs that are difficult to feel, a crease down the back and fat around the tailhead being very soft.
  9. Extremely Fat – a horse that is extremely fat will have bulging fat on the neck, withers and shoulder, with patchy fat appearing over the ribs, and obvious crease down the back and bulging fat around the tailhead. (Let’s hope none of our horses score a 9!)

So once you’ve determined your horse’s body condition, you’ll know whether you need to increase the number of calories she’s getting to stay healthy in the winter, as just staying warm during winter cold will burn many extra calories and can deplete any extra fat reserves your horse may be carrying. For our older horses, we started adding oil to the feed — just a teaspoon at a time —either corn, vegetable or coconut oil, which our elder mare really likes. You can gradually add a bit more oil over several days, up to a couple of tablespoons. I found that the oil also helped with her itchy problems during winter when her coat is long and shaggy and starting to shed.

If you haven’t already had your horse’s teeth checked in the fall, be sure to make an appointment with an equine dentist. Elder horses need to have their teeth checked more frequently, ideally twice a year, than younger horses, who can usually get by with annual checkups. Especially during the colder months, when their main source of energy will be supplied by hay or other dried forms of roughage, such as hay extenders and alfalfa pellets, 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 horses, you might find 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. You might also consider wetting or feeding chopped hay.

It can’t be stressed enough that horses need plenty of fresh, unfrozen water during the winter. Horses cannot fulfill their water needs by eating snow nor will they consume enough if they have to break through the ice. Horses prefers a water temperature of between 45-65°F, and an adult horse should consume at least 10 gallons of fresh water a day to facilitate the digestion of food and to keep the body properly hydrated. Providing your horse adequate unfrozen water is essential, especially in cold weather; when horses are not able to drink enough water, they are at an increased risk for impaction colic, and they will cease to continue eating hay or roughage — which is what keeps them warm in the cold winter months.

Monitor your horse’s turnout area to be sure that the footing is safe. Slippery and steep slopes will be difficult for your horses to maneuver, especially elder horses. Check watering areas for icy spots each day, adding cold ashes or other material to increase traction. Shelter areas should be easily accessible for your horse to get out of the wind, rain and snow. Keep shelters and heavily used areas clear of manure so that your horse isn’t standing in muck.

Monitoring your horse, checking his feed/water intake and keeping his turnout area clean and accessible on a daily basis will help to ensure that he’ll stay healthy and in good shape heading into the spring.