Winter Care and Management of the Geriatric Horse


Winter Care and Management of the Geriatric Horse

Suggestions to help keep your geriatric equine friend happy and healthy through the colder seasons

By Wendy Mollat, DVM, DACVIM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital


This time of year, we equine veterinarians are commonly asked questions about maintaining those trusted geriatric equine companions through the colder months. As horses reach their geriatric years (20+), they do indeed require some special attention to ensure optimal health and disease resistance. The most important factors to consider are nutrition, body weight, dental care, parasite control, vaccinations and arthritis.

Nutrition and body weight: Geriatric horses do not utilize feed as efficiently as they once did due to changes in the digestive tract or dental health. Learning to assess body condition scores is an important tool for successful management. Generally, we like these horses to maintain a body condition score of 5 or 6 (out of 9), which means his ribs can be felt but not seen, and his topline is relatively flat. This is especially important going into the winter season. As horses age, they will often require an increased quality and amount of calories to maintain their body condition. As a general guideline, horses need 1.5% to 2.5% bodyweight in forage to maintain body weight and keep their colon happy. This translates to 15 lbs. to 25 lbs. of forage (fiber from hay or complete feed) per day for a 1,000-lb. horse. The digestion of hay also serves as a good source of internal heat generation. A good ration balancer (e.g., LMF Super Supplement, Purina Enrich 32) is also recommended to round out the inevitable deficiencies in hay. If your horse’s teeth are wearing out, those calories may need to be from a high-quality senior complete feed. These products have enough fiber to safely replace the hay component of the diet entirely and are fortified with the necessary vitamins, minerals and protein for the older horse.

In our climate, many older horses will benefit from at least wearing a waterproof sheet during the rainy months. This extra layer will help prevent them from having to expend extra calories to keep warm. Be sure to take the blanket off regularly, at least weekly, to identify weight loss or other problems before they become a bigger problem.

Dental care: Annual or biannual dental exams are especially important in geriatric horses to optimize their ability to grind food effectively. Cushing’s disease is an endocrine disorder that affects 15% to 30% of horses over age 15. These horses are more susceptible to infections and gastrointestinal parasites, and they commonly develop periodontal disease, which can lead to tooth root abscesses, sinus infections and loose teeth that may be painful.

Parasite control and vaccinations: Some geriatric horses may require more frequent deworming; routine fecal egg count testing twice yearly will help determine the best deworming program for your horse. Vaccination remains an important component of a good health care program, especially as your horse ages and the immune system becomes less robust. At a minimum, annual vaccination against Eastern and Western encephalitis, Tetanus, West Nile virus and Rabies will help ensure your horse is protected.

Arthritis: You may also notice that horses with arthritis become stiffer in the colder months. Regular exercise or turnout can help ease the discomfort. If this is not enough, consult your veterinarian about using anti-inflammatory medications or supplements.


For more specific direction on managing your geriatric horse, call 360.568.3111 to schedule a consultation with one of the equine practitioners at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital. PVH is online at and