Older horses, like older people, tend to have some health problems. As our equine preventative health care improves, the lives of our horses grow longer. Virtually any health issue can be seen with a senior horse, but some health problems are far more common than others. Here are three issues to prepare for as you work to maintain your older horses.
Arthritis is certainly not confined to older horses, but it typically gets worse with age and may even appear in an older horse that did not have problems at a younger age. Part of the problem is that the basic maintenance processes slow down as the horse ages. The cartilage proteoglycans-like chondroitin sulfate and hyaluronic acid-decrease in cartilage during the aging process.
Older horses also lose muscle mass and can be more prone to weaknesses in the tendons and ligaments. This, in turn, affects the joints because these tissues help to stabilize joints and prevent abnormal movements that can cause damage. Finally, older horses are often less active, which contributes to all the age-related changes above.
It used to be that the only advice you would get from your veterinarian for treating or managing an arthritic older horse was to put him on phenylbutazone. This drug is still useful, but we now know it can come with a price in terms of toxicity. Gastric ulcers, right dorsal colon ulcers, and kidney damage are all possible side effects of regularly using "bute" to treat arthritis symptoms. Because of this, it's better to reserve use of phenylbutazone for times when the horse has a very painful flare up. Even then, be wary of using it for more than a few days at a time and always use the lowest dose possible. If the horse needs longer-term pain relief, consider herbal alternatives such as Devil's Claw or the herbs with natural aspirin-like activity, like Meadowsweet and White Willow Bark.
Keeping the older horse in light work is actually beneficial for the joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Light work can do a lot to prevent muscle loss in older horses and keeps the horse more limber. It is particularly beneficial for cartilage. Cartilage has no blood supply. It gets the nutrients it needs from the joint fluid. Cartilage is compressible, similar to a sponge. As the horse moves, fluid is forced out of the cartilage when the joint is loaded, and fresh fluid rushes in again when the weight is lifted.