Help Your Horse Age Gracefully

Thanks to advances in management and veterinary care, our horses are living longer than ever before. Learn what your senior citizen needs to enjoy his golden years.
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Thanks to advances in management and veterinary care, our horses are living longer than ever before. Learn what your senior citizen needs to enjoy his golden years.
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When is a horse old? Every horse is an individual. How quickly a horse ages isn't necessarily related to his calendar years. Some horses look time-ravaged in their teens, others are vigorous at 30. Take your cues regarding when to start special care by how the horse looks and acts.

What is aging, anyway?

That question still plagues scientists. There's no real consensus on why aging occurs. It's not as simple as the tread wearing off a tire. Living things come equipped with mechanisms for reproducing cells and repairing damaged tissue-but only for so long.

One theory of aging is that cells are programmed to be able to produce only a finite number of copies. Another theory is that tiny bits of DNA are lost every time a cell is copied, eventually resulting in enough damage or change that it doesn't function properly. There is also considerable evidence that damage from free radicals (molecules having a single, unpaired electron) is involved.

But the bottom line is, aging probably involves all of these mechanisms and occurs as an interaction between the horse's basic genetics and environmental factors. We can't do anything about the horse's genes, but we can do our best to make sure we provide the horse with the proper care and nutrition he needs to live a long, healthy life.

Signs of Aging
Aging is a gradual process. The changes of aging are similar in all species and include:

  • Appearance of gray hairs on the face, sometimes throughout the coat
  • Decreased elasticity of the skin.
  • Decreased muscular strength and definition
  • Loss of elasticity in tendons and ligaments
  • Joint stiffness
  • Reduced digestive efficiency and increased risk of colic
  • Gum and dental disease
  • Reduced exercise tolerance and difficulty in conditioning
  • Reduced mental alertness and increased napping
  • Osteoporosis
  • Trouble maintaining weight
  • Reduced tolerance for extreme heat or cold
  • "Slowing down"-less interest in movement in general
  • Reduced resistance to infections and parasites
  • Development of vaccine reactions and allergies.
  • Many of these things interact to produce the typical picture of an old horse. For example, loss of elasticity in the skin and tendons, combined with loss of muscle strength and definition, can lead to the sagging back and belly we associate with an older horse. Hormonal problems often compound the muscle loss that occurs with aging and inactivity.

Loss of digestive efficiency involves many things. The horse may chew inefficiently. He may not produce as much saliva and digestive enzymes. He may suffer from cumulative parasite damage, although that's not as big a problem today with our modern, easy-to-administer dewormers. There may be changes in how well the digestive tract mixes and propels feed along the route. Poor digestion, in turn, contributes to a pot-bellied appearance, sluggishness, difficulty holding weight, manure changes and muscle loss.

Equine Eldercare

  • Separate your senior at feeding time so he doesn't have to compete for food.
  • Provide shade, shelter, blankets or fans to help regulate body temperature.
  • Stable your senior with a gentle companion so he isn't being bullied.
  • Modify diet as needed, but be judicious when it comes to dental care.
  • Provide regular hoof care, and deworm and vaccinate as recommended by your vet.
  • Maintain a regular exercise program as befits your senior's soundness and condition.

The Essentials
Turn out, and even continued regular exercise (see sidebar), is beneficial for the older horse but with some qualifications. In a herd situation, the older horse is usually at the bottom of the pecking order. Being weaker and slower than the others puts older horses at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for shelter, food and water. Decreased efficiency of chewing means they will take longer to eat and may also need special feeds to hold their weight.

If the horse has lameness issues, he may not travel to drink as often as he should. One of the earliest signs that the horse is not competing well in a herd situation is weight loss. There can be other causes for this as well (poor chewing and poor digestive efficiency), so it's important to make sure the horse has adequate feed and enough time to eat as a first step. Exposure to extremes of weather is also a problem.

Keep a close eye on how your horse is interacting with other animals in a group setting and check daily for any evidence of bites or kicks. If the horse is being picked on, move him to a smaller area with one gentle companion.

Is He Sick or Just Old?

Picture a horse standing off by himself in a field. His back and belly are sagging, ears drooping. He looks half asleep and when he does move, it is more of a shuffle than a brisk walk. Is he "just old," or is something wrong with him?

This scenario plays frequently. Truth is, it's not always easy to separate what is a normal change that comes with aging or a genuine problem that needs to be treated-especially for a veterinarian who does not see the horse every day. There's also often a fine line between an aging change and actual disease.

Your horse can't talk, so you will need to pay careful attention to all the things that signal that something is wrong. Look for changes in patterns of urination or passing manure, appetite, social interactions with other horses, how well the horse is eating, how much he drinks, and how the horse looks in general. Sudden changes are always significant, but a decline over several weeks or months may be significant, too.

It helps to keep a record of the things you observe, even if they may not seem important enough to warrant a vet visit at the time. This will give your vet a helpful timeline. Taking a picture of the horse from the front, side and back every 3 to 6 months to keep track of body condition changes can be very revealing. Yearly check-ups, including blood work, are important in identifying problems early.

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Make sure the horse has adequate protection from the weather-sun, wind, rain and snow. Also, make sure the horse is utilizing the shelter and is not being kept out if pastured with other horses. Blanketing may be necessary, or you may need to hose off your horse or provide a stable fan in very hot weather.

An older horse who is shivering in the cold definitely needs the help of a blanket. But there are other reasons to consider blanketing an aged horse. Blanketing reduces the amount of calories that must be diverted into maintaining body weight in winter. Reduced resistance to infections may also make your senior more prone to skin problems like rain scald. Consider a waterproof blanket if this is a concern. A fly sheet in summer will also help an older horse who develops insect bite sensitivities

You'll also want to check hydration daily by making sure the inside of the horse's mouth feels moist, since the skin turgor test may be unreliable in older horses. If the mouth appears dry, the horse is not drinking well or is being kept away from water by other horses. You'll need to get to the bottom of that problem right away.

If the horse shows any signs of not holding weight well, arrangements will need to be made for feeding the horse separately, at least for grain or concentrate meals. If you will be returning the horse to a group situation for hay feeding, make sure there are multiple sites where the horses can get hay, and that they are well separated to minimize the chance of other horses keeping him away from hay. Take some time to make sure the horse is actually getting access to hay and is able to chew it well. This is very important to intestinal function.

Don't skimp on hoof care. Regular trims are important to keeping the horse moving as comfortably as possible.

Deworm frequently, at least every 60 days, including twice yearly treatment for tapeworms in most areas. If you are using anything other than Moxidectin or Ivermectin for your dewormings, have a fecal egg count checked at least once a year, 6 to 8 weeks after you use one of the alternate dewormers.

Dental Concerns
A variety of dental problems can be found in older horses, from uneven wear, to loose teeth, to abscesses. However, there is considerable debate regarding whether aggressive dental procedures are really of any benefit to the horse. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association in 2005 looked at the effects of dental floating versus not floating on feed digestibility and body condition scores in broodmares and found no differences for up to 19 weeks. They further found that in the horses which were not floated, the severity of their dental problems had no influence on how well they digested their feed.

This doesn't mean horses never need dental care. However, it is reasonable to weigh the risks of heavy sedation, and post treatment pain and stress, against any benefit to be gained. Your veterinarian can help you make this decision. But, in general, unless the horse has obvious pain with chewing, or a foul odor to the breath indicating infection, some people choose to limit dental care to just routine floating. Changing feed types to something that is easier for a horse to chew and digest is often a good strategy.

Use It or Lose It

Retirement to a nice field may seem like the kindest thing you could possibly do for a horse that is getting on in years, but that's not necessarily the case. As long as the horse does not have a condition that prevents him from being formally exercised, it's much better to keep the horse in some level of work.

Many human studies have found that regular exercise can largely prevent, even reverse, the muscle loss that goes with aging. Exercise also maintains bone density, improves the health of joint cartilage, and helps minimize joint stiffness. Exercise also increases intestinal motility, important to avoiding spasmodic colic or impactions. Many horses also seem to miss having regular work in their daily routine. Giving them something to do often improves alertness and general attitude.

Even horses with joint problems that prevent them from continuing to perform at a demanding level can usually continue to work at something less strenuous with the help of joint supplements and other joint care. (See "Your Healthy Horse: Managing Arthritis," October 2006.)

A horse with a problem that makes him obviously more uncomfortable under saddle may tolerate driving well. Free-longeing on a daily basis to keep the horse moving steadily for even 20 to 30 minutes a day can work wonders. However you manage to do it, maintaining the horse in some type of regular exercise for as long as possible will help keep many physical signs of aging at bay.

An older horse that has not been regularly worked for a while can benefit from restarting regular exercise, but you need to proceed slowly and carefully. If the horse has any joint or back problems, consult your vet first regarding what types of activity are best and what to avoid, (such as hard, rocky ground conditions, hills, etc.).

Muscles respond the quickest to conditioning, but tendons and ligaments are not as flexible as in a younger horse. Start by hand-walking on level ground (or lead the horse while you ride another) for about 10 to 15 minutes. If that is well tolerated, increase by 5 minutes every other day. Once the horse is walking comfortably for 30 minutes you can try adding short intervals of trotting. Always stop if the horse is showing distress, such as heavy breathing or heavy sweating.

The Senior Diet
A variety of supplements and special feeds are available for the senior horse. However, there's no reason to change the basic adult diet until the horse is no longer doing well on it. If you have already made sure the horse is getting enough feed and enough time to eat it, and there are no glaring dental problems, and he's not thriving, it's probably time to modify the diet.

Here are some common dietary problems and possible solutions:

Quidding. Wads of partially chewed hay fall from the horse's mouth. Hay is very important to normal gut function and protection from ulcers, so you don't want to just give up on it as a first step. Try the horse on bagged, chopped hay, hay cubes, or hay pellets. If the horse cannot chew these well either, soak before feeding. Including a little bit of leafy alfalfa, or alfalfa pellets or meal, will increase appeal.

Poor Grain Digestion. If your horse is not chewing grain well, or a lot of undigested grain is showing up in the manure, try steamed, crimped oats or a mixture of equal parts soaked beet pulp and steamed crimped oats. This recipe is fairly well balanced for calcium and phosphorus. Beet pulp has the same calorie yield as plain oats, but does not put a burden on digestive enzymes because it is fermented in the hind gut, like hay and grass.

Choke. Saliva is the normal lubricant for food. When horses don't chew well and long, they produce less saliva. Altered movements of the esophagus and dehydration may be other factors in older horses. Making sure that everything the horse eats has been soaked or is fed as a wet meal helps avoid choke. Adding psyllium or ground flax will replace the high mucus content of saliva with mucilage from those plant sources.

Impaction. Older horses with frequent impactions may have a segment of their colon that is not functioning properly. Suspect this if the impaction always occurs at the same section of the intestine. Your vet can tell this via rectal exam. It's also important to try to rule out sand collections, enteroliths or a lipoma (fat tumor on a stalk) encircling the intestines. Again this is a job for your vet. If no underlying medical cause is found, the problem is most likely related to inadequate water intake. Solve this by making sure you add a bare minimum of 1 ounce of salt in the winter or 2 ounces of salt per day during the summer to your horse's meals. This will encourage the horse to drink and maintain good water levels in the body. Soaking meals and hay before feeding also helps tremendously. Including beet pulp in the diet is a particularly good choice since it will hold up to four times its dry weight in water.

Changes in Body Shape and Function. A big belly, increased gas, episodes of soft manure, trouble holding weight and loss of muscle create the picture of a horse who is not digesting his feed efficiently. If your deworming program is good and there are no unresolved issues with chewing, make sure the horse is getting adequate forage as a first step. He needs at least 1% of his ideal body weight per day as hay and other fiber sources, such as beet pulp. Many of these horses respond very well to either a probiotic or live organism probiotics. Minimum daily dose for the probiotics is estimated to be about 10 billion organisms, so check the labels carefully. Many products are well below this and you will have to increase the amount fed. If this doesn't solve the problem, consider a digestive enzyme supplement (I recommend one that contains amylase, lipase, protease, and fiber digesting enzymes) or a move to a senior feed.

Senior feeds have been a major boon for many older horses who simply cannot hold their weight well despite the previous measures. They contain very highly processed grains and easily fermented fiber sources (soy hulls, beet pulp, alfalfa meal). Whenever possible, senior feeds should be used on top of a base diet of 1% of the body weight as chopped forage, hay cubes or hay pellets. This will help buffer acid in the stomach and the large bowel. Senior feeds contain supplemental vitamins and a balanced mineral profile. But because most senior rations are designed to be suitable as complete feeds (little or no hay feeding), the concentrations per pound are not as high as some other feeds, so you will still need to meet your horses vitamin and mineral needs.

Vaccinations
Your older horse faces the same infectious disease challenges as a younger one, often with the complicating factor of a less-than-robust immune system. However, poor immune function also means the horse will not have the best response to vaccines. And immune dysfunction often predisposes the horse to more severe vaccine reactions.

Step one in protecting the horse is to minimize or avoid contact with other horses that travel a lot. This will keep exposure to infections as low as possible. Making sure the horse gets adequate supplies of antioxidant minerals and vitamins will go a long way in supporting normal immune function. Immune stimulating herbs often end up stimulating the areas of the immune system that are already overactive and should be used only with your vet's supervision.

Finally, many vets and owners are moving toward checking the level of circulating antibodies (titers) for specific diseases rather than automatically vaccinating, especially if the horse has a history of vaccine reactions.

Bottom Line
Caring for seniors properly is a challenge, but if you understand their needs and adapt your care routines appropriately, your old friend can live out his golden years with you in the best health possible.