Wake up and enjoy your senior equine!
Turning your old timer out to pasture is NOT the kindest form of retirement. Although time takes its toll on the horse's bodily systems, much can be done to keep your older horse healthy, spry, and capable of great companionship both with you and other horses.
As a horse ages, the digestive tract becomes less efficient. Bones and joints are less resilient and an older horse may feel the aches and pains of arthritis. The immune system becomes less reliable, making older horses more susceptible to illness and less able to recuperate from disease or injury.
Parasites take a heavier toll and older horses are less able to cope with environmental stresses such as cold, wind, and damp conditions. Hormonal changes may affect the overall body condition, hair growth, energy level and appetite.
Aging horses are also more susceptible to respiratory, eye, and dental problems making it necessary to check on them more often than healthy, younger horses.
Some of these signs of decline may be directly related to the aging process, but they may also be an indication of an underlying medical problem. Having the horse checked regularly by a veterinarian and at the earliest signs of any problem is important for the maintenance of good health.
A good best-practices management plan including proper nutrition, hoof care, vaccines, deworming and exercise will help your older horse thrive.
Guidelines for your older horse
Physical environment considerations
- Provide a safe, comfortable environment free of hazards and with protective shelter depending on the weather in your area
- Provide adequate ventilation in barns. Keep pastures mowed and weed-free to reduce allergins and reduce dust in stalls and paddocks to prevent respiratory distress
- Manage pastures and facilities to reduce infestations of pests and be vigilant in controlling pests and parasites
General physical care considerations
- Observe your horse on a regular basis. Be aware of changes in body condition, behavior and attitude.
- Groom your horse frequently to promote circulation and skin health. Look for unusual lumps or growths from head to tail and beneath the tail since older horses are prone to tumors.
- Provide adequate exercise adjusted for the horse's needs to maintain muscle tone, flexibility and mobility.
- Arrange for routine dental care at least twice a year or more often to keep the teeth and mouth in good order. If problems are found, treat promptly and thoroughly.
- Provide regular hoof care whether the horse is being ridden or not. Your farrier should trim or shoe the horse to maintain proper hoof shape and movement and to prevent lameness and injury.
- Schedule routine checkups with your veterinarian and call immediately if you suspect a problem. A quick response to illness, injury or a decline in fitness can keep your older horse from having a serious or prolonged setback.
Nutrition and feeding considerations
- Adjust and balance rations to maintain proper body conditions. A diet that provides 12 to 16 percent protein, high quality fiber and essential minerals and vitamins is important. Adequate fat from a vegetable source will promote healthy skin, hair, and aid digestion as it boosts energy. A good rule of thumb is to be able to feel the ribs, but not see them.
- Avoid dusty or moldy feeds. Feed should be highly palatable and easy to chew and swallow.
- Feed your older horse away from younger or more aggressive horses so it doesn't have to compete for feed.
- Feed at more frequent intervals so as not to upset the digestive system; 2 to 3 times a day appears to work best.
- For horses that have trouble chewing, wet the feed or add enough water to make a thick soup-like ration that the horse can drink. Adding a bran mash may assist in digesting the forage in the diet.
- Provide plenty of clean, fresh tepid water. Water that is too cold reduces consuption and may lead to colic and other problems.
Problems common in older horses
Years of wear and tear plus any number of situations including inappropriate diet, poor riding, poor foot care, and inappropriate exercise can cause a horse to become lame at any age. Combine these situations with degenerative joint disease or arthritis and it's no wonder that senior equines often become lame. Cold, damp conditions will make the pain worse.
Treatment for lameness should always be under the advice of a veterinarian. Various non-steroidal medications such as phenylbutazone may be used, but may have serious side effects when given at high doses over a long period of time. Acupuncture, according to anecdotal reports, is sometimes successful in treating lameness.
Older horses with altered immune functions appear to be prone to laminitis and foot abscesses. Working with your veterinarian and using the skills and expertise of a farrier can help keep your horse comfortable and reduce lameness.
Weight loss in older horses can have many causes. Inadequate nutrition, poor teeth, and disease or illness account for most weight loss. The digestive systems of older horses make good use of a diet that is calorie-rich, easily chewed and digested and contains additional vitamins. Mineral intake should be balanced and good sources of protein included in the diet.
The teeth of most horses that are 15 years or more of age should be checked every six months or whenever any problems are noted. Teeth that are loose or infected not only make chewing difficult, but can lead to tooth root abscesses which in turn can lead to sinus and other infections.
Infestations of parasites can cause weight loss in a horse of any age, and older horses may be more prone to negative effects from these infestations. A well-rounded de-worming program should be consistently followed to keep the senior horse healthy.
The most common endocrine disorder affecting senior horses is hyperplasia (increased cell growth) of the pituitary gland often referred to as "Cushing's Disease."
Classic symptoms include:
- Failure to shed the winter hair coat and excessive long, curly hair on the body
- Muscle wasting
- Increased susceptibility to infections
Various blood tests may be used to identify this disease.
Miscellaneous conditions affecting older horses
Older horses become more susceptible to various kinds of cancer. Clinical signs, diagnosis and treatment depend upon the organ affected. Lipomas (benign tumors) are also more prevalent.
Senior horses are also more prone to colic than younger horses and strangulated intestines requiring surgery appear to occur more often.
As horses age, cataracts and floating material in the fluid of the eye can result in impaired vision. Fortunately, most older horses seem to adjust quite well to impaired vision, but it is important that a veterinarian evaluate any eye problems and prescribe treatment when necessary.
Geriatric horses can live comfortably for years. Having a good health management plan for your older horse can mean less worry for you and a better quality life for your senior equine.
Revised and updated General Care article