Change of feed, change of coat, drop in temperature: The cold season is a challenge for horses and makes them more susceptible to diseases. However, the immune system can be strengthened in a targeted manner so that your four-legged friend gets through the winter healthy and lively.
Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites: a large number of pathogens lurk in the horse’s environment. However, it is not completely at the mercy of these pests. This is ensured by a complex defense system. The outermost protective barrier is the skin, which, when healthy, prevents the ingress of pests and, with its pH value, sebum and sweat secretions, prevents microorganisms from growing. The path into the body is also made more difficult for attackers by tears, nostrils, or aggressive stomach acid, which renders germs ingested with food harmless.
The gut is something like the headquarters of the immune system: it houses over 70 percent of all immune cells and 80 percent of all defense reactions take place here. A precise distinction is made between vital nutrients, “good” intestinal bacteria, and pathogenic pathogens. This is why nutrition plays such an important role in strengthening the immune system.
Should pathogens nevertheless manage to bypass these protective mechanisms, there are still the leukocytes. The white blood cells that mature in the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus gland act as the body’s “health police”. They identify and eat or expel pathogens.
Not just innate defenses
The defenses described are unspecific and therefore innate: They work without the body ever having had to contact with the pathogens. However, foals are born with a poorly developed immune system. They depend on absorbing the most important antibodies with the first milk, the colostrum. These protect the newborn in the first few weeks until it has been able to build its own protective shield against infections. Another part of the specific, i.e. the acquired immune system, is built up by vaccinations, for example against tetanus and horse flu.
If the horse’s immune system has weak points, whether due to poor feeding, the stress caused by changing the coat, or a previous illness, these are mercilessly exposed in the wet and cold season. The animal is then less willing to perform, weakens, or becomes seriously ill. Existing respiratory problems can be aggravated by the winter switch to stable housing and hay feeding; sensitive or stressed skin is more susceptible to fungal infections or mud fever; Horses with osteoarthritis experience more pain in the cold.
Optimizing husbandry conditions
Like humans, horses catch cold, especially in autumn and winter. Viruses survive more easily in cold and wet conditions. In closed stables, through which there is hardly any draft, viruses, but also fungal spores or ammonia gases stay in the air longer and increase the risk of infection or irritate the respiratory tract. A cold in the horse can quickly develop into a chronic respiratory disease, which leads to major impairment in performance.
In order to strengthen the immune system and prevent diseases, housing conditions should be optimized. The four-legged friend needs enough light, fresh air, and space for free movement and contact with his conspecifics every day. If the horse cannot fulfill these natural needs, this causes stress, which has a negative effect on the immune system. This also applies to frequent stable changes, long transports to exhausting tournaments, ill-fitting equipment, pain, or permanent physical overload.
Training, rides, and walks in nature adapted to the level of training and fitness of the horse, on the other hand, stimulate the immune system. Even with moderate physical exertion, hormones are released that cause the immune cells to multiply faster.
Exercise in the fresh air is good for horses, but it costs more energy in the cold. In the case of open stable horses or horses that are out in the fields all day, an additional requirement of around 20 percent is therefore expected in the cold season. The horse’s forage is at its best when you can feel its ribs through the coat but not see them. Balanced energy and nutrient balance are the best basis for an intact immune system.
Since the sparsely leftover grass contains hardly any nutrients during the cold season, the horse has to take in sufficient amounts of high-quality hay in winter. The roughage provides energy, protein, and raw fibers essential for digestion. For horses that stay in training over the winter and are ridden intensively, it can make sense to add the concentrated feed.
Also with regard to micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, trace elements, amino acids, and fatty acids, a horse’s requirements depend on its age, breed, state of health, and intensity of use. Since it is difficult to determine the need, it is worth having feed analyses carried out and getting advice from an expert. Because if the wrong or too much mineral feed is given, an excess of certain elements can hinder the absorption of others and cause deficiencies.
Zinc is very important
It is important for the horse to have an adequate supply of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron, copper, zinc, selenium, and vitamins A, B, D, and E. Zinc is a trace element for the immune system great importance. A sufficient supply (400 to 600 milligrams per day) strengthens the skin, coats formation, and supports the formation of white blood cells. There is also evidence that zinc helps infections such as colds or herpes to subside more quickly. Beta-carotene, which is contained in carrots, and manganese are also beneficial. Both are involved in the structure of the mucous membranes.
The horse can produce vitamin C itself, but with weakened defenses, and in the event of illness, this is often not enough. Dried rose hips help here. They contain almost ten times as much vitamin C as lemons and a whole range of other vital substances and are eaten by horses.
Herbs and plants that are dried and mixed with the feed or given as tea also directly or indirectly support the immune system. These include coneflowers ( Echinacea ) and nettles. It is a natural mineral concentrate that stimulates metabolism and urination. Aniseed, fennel, thyme, marshmallow and licorice root nourish and protect the mucous membranes and calm coughs and bronchial infections. Chamomile and lemon balm have antibacterial properties and have a calming effect on cramps and flatulence or can be used to prevent colic.