Aging Gracefully - 7 Senior Horse Care Strategies

Horses are living longer than ever before. Learn what your equine 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.

Credit: Betsy Lynch When is a horse old? Every horse is an individual. How quickly he 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 your horse looks and acts.

Credit: Betsy Lynch When is a horse old? Every horse is an individual. How quickly he 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 your horse looks and acts.

When is a horse old? Every horse is an individual. How quickly he ages he 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 your horse looks and acts.

Here’s how to help keep your older horse happy and healthy, including seven steps to health, five senior-diet solutions, and exercise tips. We’ll also give you 15 signs of aging. 

Senior Horse Care Strategies

Here are seven ways you can help your senior horse stay healthy and active.

1. Provide adequate feed. Your older horse won’t be able to chew his feed as well as he once did, due to dental concerns. Decreased efficiency of chewing means he’ll take longer to eat. If he’s in a pasture with other horses, you may need to feed him separately. Provide hay in multiple sites for better access. Make sure he has access to hay and can chew it well; this is very important to intestinal function.

2. Check hydration. Check your senior horse’s hydration daily. Note that the skin turgor (pinch) test may be unreliable in older horses, so make sure the inside of his mouth feels moist. If his mouth appears dry, he’s not drinking well or is being kept away from water by other horses. 

3. Provide shelter. Provide your older horse adequate protection from the weather — sun, wind, rain, and snow. Make sure he uses the shelter. In cold weather, you may also need to blanket your older horse. In very hot weather, hose him down, and provide a stable fan.

Credit: Heidi Melocco Provide your older horse adequate protection from the weather — sun, wind, rain, and snow.

Credit: Heidi Melocco Provide your older horse adequate protection from the weather — sun, wind, rain, and snow.

4. Provide hoof care. Regular trims are important to keeping your older horse moving as comfortably as possible. Consult a qualified farrier for the best schedule for your horse.

5. Vaccinate with care. Your older horse faces the same infectious disease challenges as a younger one, often with a less-than-robust immune system. However, poor immune function also means he won’t have the best response to vaccines. And immune dysfunction often predisposes older horses to more severe vaccine reactions.

Minimize contact with other horses that travel to minimize infection risk. Give your horse adequate supplies of antioxidant minerals and vitamins to boost normal immune function. (Note: 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 veterinarians and owners are moving toward checking the level of titers (circulating antibodies) for specific diseases rather than automatically vaccinating, especially if the horse has a history of vaccine reactions. 

6. Deworm frequently. Deworm at least every 60 days, including twice-yearly treatment for tapeworms in most areas. Have regular fecal egg counts performed to avoid over- or undertreating. Check with your vet for an optimal deworming schedule.

7. Check his teeth. Your older horse may experience teeth problems. Schedule regular dental care, and work with your vet on diagnosis and treatment of any issues. If your horse has trouble chewing, consider changing to a formulated senior feed that’s easier for your horse to chew and digest than forage. (See below for more on senior-horse diet.)

Credit: Heidi Melocco Your older horse may experience teeth problems. Schedule regular dental care, and work with your vet on diagnosis and treatment of any issues.

Credit: Heidi Melocco Your older horse may experience teeth problems. Schedule regular dental care, and work with your vet on diagnosis and treatment of any issues.

to chew and digest than forage. (See below for more on senior-horse diet.)

they produce less saliva. Altered movements of the esophagus and dehydration may also be factors in older horses. Soak everything your horse eats, or feed wet meals. Add psyllium or ground flax to replace the high mucus content of saliva with mucilage from those plant sources.

Problem #4: Impaction.

Solution: Older horses with frequent impactions may have a segment of their colon that isn’t functioning properly. Suspect this if the impaction always occurs at the same section of the intestine. Your veterinarian can tell this via a rectal exam.

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 adding a bare minimum of one ounce of salt in the winter per day (two ounces of salt in summer summer) to your horse’s meals. This will encourage him to drink.

Soaking meals and hay before feeding also helps tremendously. Including beet pulp in the diet is a particularly good choice since it’ll hold up to four times its dry weight in water.

Problem #5:Body-Shape/Function Changes.

Solution: Signs of poor digestion include a big belly, increased gas, episodes of soft manure, trouble holding weight, and loss of muscle.

Credit: Betsy Lynch Maintaining body condition becomes more challenging as horses grow older. Photographing your horse every few months can help you observe changes that you might not notice on a daily basis.

Credit: Betsy Lynch Maintaining body condition becomes more challenging as horses grow older. Photographing your horse every few months can help you observe changes that you might not notice on a daily basis.

If your deworming program is good, and there are no unresolved chewing issues, first make sure your horse is getting adequate forage. He needs at least one percent of his ideal body weight per day as hay and other fiber sources, such as beet pulp.

Your horse may also respond 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.

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, move to a senior feed.

Senior feeds contain highly processed grains and easily fermented fiber sources, such as soy hulls, beet pulp, and alfalfa meal. Whenever possible, use senior feed on top of a base diet of one percent of your horse’s 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, the concentrations per pound aren’t as high as some other feeds, so you’ll still need to meet your horse’s vitamin and mineral needs.

Exercise Tips

As long as your older horse doesn’t have a condition that prevents him from being formally exercised, it’s much better to keep him in some level of work. 

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.

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 him moving steadily for even 20 to 30 minutes per day can work wonders.

If your older horse hasn’t been regularly worked for a while, proceed slowly and carefully. If he has any joint or back problems, consult your veterinarian first regarding what types of activity are best and what to avoid.

Start by hand-walking your older horse on level ground (or pony him) for about 10 to 15 minutes.

If this is well-tolerated, increase by five minutes every other day. Once your horse is walking comfortably for 30 minutes, add short intervals of trotting. Always stop if he’s showing distress, such as heavy breathing or heavy sweating.

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.

Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD (www.drkellon.com), is a Staff Veterinarian for Uckele Health and Nutrition, Inc., and is the owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions, a nutritional consulting firm. An Honors Graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, Dr. Kellon completed her internship and residency in Large Animal Medicine and Surgery at the renowned University of Pennsylvania New Bolton Center. Her book, Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals, is available on Amazon.com.