While people may worry about putting on a few extra pounds during the winter thanks to inactivity and hearty meals, cold weather tends to have the opposite effect on horses. In fact, winter weight loss can be such a significant health issue—particularly for old-timers–that you’ll want to watch for it as the temperatures drop.
A horse may lose weight when his metabolism ramps up to keep him warm—especially if he is already thin and has less fatty insulation from the cold. But the weight loss may go unnoticed, hidden under blankets that aren’t removed daily, and by the time it is detected it can be difficult to reverse. Instead, it’s far better to prevent winter weight loss. Here are the steps to take:
• Ensure your horse enters the season with a body condition score between 4 and 6. If your horse has a history of dropping weight in winter, err on keeping him a little heavier. Ideally, you’d begin “watching his weight” in early fall to allow ample time to adjust his diet if needed.
• Remove blankets daily. If you don’t take the blanket off entirely, at least pull it back to get a good view of your horse’s flanks and topline. Not only are you looking for weight loss, but also for blanket rubs and skin diseases.
• Use your hands to gauge your horse’s condition. As you groom, run your hand over your horse’s body, feeling for changes in his condition. Ribs, hips and the tailhead can be particularly telling locations when it comes to weight loss. If it becomes easier to feel the bones underneath, suspect your horse has dropped at least a few pounds.
• Provide free-choice hay. Roughage like hay is a “slow-burn” feed, meaning it releases a metabolic heat over a long time, helping your horse stay warm. This can keep him from having to burn excessive calories to ward off the cold.
• Blanket wisely. If you ever find your horse shivering, he is cold and needs more protection. If he’s not blanketed, put one on him. If he is wearing a blanket, find a heavier one or add another layer. Over-blanketing can be just as problematic, though, so check him again in a few hours to make sure he’s not sweating underneath his new gear.
• Provide more feed. Although this may seem like the very first step to take, it’s actually one to do once you’ve taken care of the other measures. Increased calories from additional feed will help a horse maintain or gain weight, but only when he’s properly protected from the elements and otherwise healthy. Talk to your veterinarian about making any significant increase in grain ration to make sure you avoid a carbohydrate overload that could trigger laminitis.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #471, December 2016.