Retired seniors that are holding weight and getting around comfortably in the warmer months can experience greatly reduced strength and mobility in the cold, to the point they may have difficulty getting up. The explanation for this is multifactorial.
Reduced exercise: Use it or lose it is very true. Horses may be stalled more in winter and if outside seek shelter and stay there. Very hard frozen ground or slippery conditions also restrict movement and play.
Reduced strength: It’s well known that even healthy racehorses run slower in the cold. Blood flow to muscles is reduced. The body also makes energy generation less efficient so that more of the calories burned are going to heat, a process known as nonshivering thermogenesis. Human studies have shown even dexterity is affected by cold, although it is unclear whether this is a muscular or neurological issue (or both). Shivering is also a drain on muscular energy so shivering horses have even less strength.
Tissue Stiffness: The flexibility and elasticity of connective tissue, tendon and ligament decrease with age. Cold doesn’t help. Studies have shown greatly increased muscular and tendon stiffness with cold exposure.
Arthritis and Bone Health: Not every older horse is arthritic although the majority probably have at least one easily identified arthritic joint that gives them problems from time to time. As the condition progresses, pain, soft tissue scarring, loss of cartilage and bone changes restrict the movement of the joint. Although the mechanism is still unexplained, weather conditions have been confirmed to influence arthritic pain. Musculotendinous stiffness in cold also restricts the mobility of joints, “locking” them into smaller ranges of motion.
Finally, the hormonal changes of aging and of PPID lead to weakening of bones. This predisposes the horse to fractures in the event of a fall. Fractures in areas such as the pelvis or hip can be difficult to identify but significantly influence the horse’s mobility.
General Health: Cold is a significant stressor and cold exposure can lead to all the consequences of severe stress including immune system compromise, hormonal imbalance, poor appetite and depression to name a few. Young animals can deal with this much better through homeostatic mechanisms that keep them in a balanced state but seniors typically do not have those reserves.
How to help:
- Relocating to Florida would be nice but barring this keep the horse as warm as possible. This means shelter from wind and precipitation, blanketing, wrap the lower legs or use lined shipping boots, neoprene wraps for knees and hocks overnight
- Make sure the horse has an area to lie down that has ground insulation, good footing, and is easy accessible to a small tractor or front end loader in the worst case scenario of the horse needing help to get up
- Expand your joint regimen from the usual glucosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronate to supplements which include proven antioxidant activity and herbals which can interact with gene activity to enhance normal homeostatic repair and balancing functions in joints. These useful substances include Yucca, Devil’s Claw, Turmeric, Boswellia, Golden Rod, Astragalus, White Willow, Perna Mussel, Cat’s Claw, Golden Rod, Phellodendron, Fever Few, Egg Shell Membrane, Hydrolyzed Collagen, fatty acids, Silica, Boron, Vitamin C, essential amino acids, B vitamins, copper, zinc, Bioactive Whey, MSM, Resveratrol and other flavonoids abundant in brightly colored fruits.
- The above nutrients also support bone health in the older horse
- Consider a mild adaptogen to support the horse’s hormonal system in dealing with the stress of cold weather. Jiaogulan is an excellent choice.
My personal favorite cold weather comforting measure is to pack the feet with a warmed poultice or pine tar packing, wrap in a few layers of heavy plastic wrap and boot them. Ahh.
The benefits go beyond pampering. The goal here is to minimize the effects of normal aging and cold weather on your senior so he or she can enjoy yet another Spring.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD