Caring for the Equine Elder

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Equine Guelph

With today’s medical advances, research, and improved management, horses are living longer and longer lives. In the past, most horses were considered old when they reached their late teens. These days, it’s not uncommon for horses to live into their late 20s or even into their 30s, allowing us to spend plenty of quality time with our elder equine friends. Proper management is key to ensuring that the older horse is happy and comfortable throughout his golden years.

Routine Care

Whether the aging horse has a decreased workload or is fully retired, a regular care schedule should be in place. In addition to giving him a daily check for any new or worsening problems such as cuts or lameness, make sure he stays well groomed and clean his hooves regularly. Maintain an allergen- and dust-free environment, especially for horses with recurrent airway obstruction (heaves). If the horse is housed indoors at night, rubber mats are a wonderful addition to any horse’s stall. He’ll appreciate a softer surface to rest on, so stall bedding should be deep enough to be comfortable but not so deep that he has trouble rising. He should be regularly seen by both the veterinarian and farrier, whether or not he is still working.

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Stall mats and adequate bedding make the stall a restful place for your senior. Photo: iStock/Sasha Fox Walters

Health Check

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It is estimated that 20 percent of horses over the age of 15 will develop pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) also known as Cushing’s disease. Typical signs of PPID are a long curly non-shedding hair coat and weight loss. The condition is associated with a range of problems, including laminitis. Photo: Dreamstime/Hikersmurf

Much like human seniors, elderly equines are often more susceptible to health problems. 

Gut motility issues are more common in older horses and can lead to an increased risk of colic. Tumours and increased parasite load are among other issues in the senior’s gastrointestinal tract that can elevate the risk of colic. Difficulty in chewing feed can result in undigested food entering the gut, leading to gas or impaction colic. Older horses also tend to have a reduced urge to drink, making inadequate intake of water an additional risk factor.

Watch for melanomas and skin cancer, particularly in elder greys. Older horses are prone to disorders such as equine metabolic syndrome and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, formerly known as Equine Cushing’s disease. 

Many older horses also suffer from pain due to arthritis. If possible, keep seniors moving around by extending their turnout time. Any discomfort or pain should be addressed by a veterinarian who can suggest treatment options.

It is important that seniors are kept current on vaccinations, and annual or biannual check-ups should be scheduled with your veterinarian. Prevention is always the best medicine.

Hoof Care

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A hoof stand can provide support to the unsteady senior horse during farrier visits. Photo: Shutterstock/JP Cretien

Senior hooves require extra attention and input from both veterinarian and farrier. Hooves need regular care, which helps minimize stress on the joints and hoof structures. The older or retired horse needs this care just as much as his working stablemate. The threat of laminitis also increases in older horses, especially if they develop a metabolic disorder. 

The senior horse benefits from a farrier who understands that the challenges of stiff joints and arthritic limbs mean they lack the flexibility to lift limbs as high as the youngster in the next stall. The support of a Hoofjack hoof stand can bring relief for the senior who is no longer steady while supporting their weight on three legs.

Dentistry

Extra diligence must be paid to the senior’s dental health. Horses’ teeth continually erupt as the grinding surface is worn down by chewing, and instances of unbalanced chewing surfaces escalate horses ages. Uneven wear causes the development of sharp points in the mouth which may result in ulcerations, reluctance to chew food, poor digestion, and a higher incidence of choke. Severely uneven wear can lead to a condition called “wave mouth,” when two or more molar crowns are longer than adjacent teeth and wear down opposing teeth excessively. Missing or loose teeth can lead to “step mouth,” where one molar has grown unopposed by its missing opposite and grows longer than the others in the dental arcade. This condition requires regular inspection and care as food can get packed in, leading to dental disease, abscess, or infection.

In very elderly horses, the teeth may lose their rough edges and become entirely smooth, resulting in the inability to grind food. Horses with smooth mouth should be fed highly digestible feeds that are easy to eat, such as soaked hay cubes or beet pulp — your veterinarian or equine nutritionist will be able to recommend the best course of management.

Maintaining good dental health into old age is one of the single best ways to encourage longevity. It is far more difficult to address and fix a chronic dental issue once the horse has reached later age. Dental exams are recommended annually for all horses and twice a year for elderly horses. Foul odours coming from the mouth, nasal discharge, loose incisors, broken teeth, red or inflamed gums, quidding (dropping partially chewed food), weight loss, not finishing feed, and resistance to the bridle are all reasons to call the vet and have the teeth checked. If your horse is no longer chewing in a regular circular pattern, this can indicate sharp points and uneven wear and warrants a veterinary dental appointment. Some elderly horses may have few or no teeth at all, so special care must be taken to ensure that they are receiving adequate nutrition.

Related: Equine Teeth

Nutrition

Feeding the senior horse can be a challenging task. Some seniors have difficulty keeping weight on, while others go up a girth size at the sight of grass. It is important to develop a diet and exercise program that meets your horse’s individual needs. Many feed companies offer feeds specifically formulated for the senior; these are often higher in protein content and extruded to break down the courser elements. 

The senior that is dropping pounds requires a closer look. Dental care may be needed if their teeth are not grinding food properly. If the enamel is soft, or teeth are missing or worn, changes from coarse feeds to softer ones may be needed. Easy-to-digest supplements may also be needed. Stay on the lookout for quidding as this indicates a dental problem.

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The older horse may need a blanket and an increase in forage to help him stay warm and maintain body condition during winter. Photo: Canstock/Rogera

Other factors that can cause weight loss such as parasite burden, tumours, and infections must be ruled out. Winter weather can take a toll on the senior, who may require an increase in feed and a blanket to help maintain body condition. 

Related: Feeding the Senior Horse

Old age is no excuse for an overly thin horse. The senior’s body condition score should be checked weekly and maintained between four and seven.

Your veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help you determine how to best satisfy your senior’s dietary needs. Remember to always make any dietary changes slowly.

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Old should not mean thin. Pictures taken on a regular basis will be helpful to monitor weight gain or loss. The senior’s body condition should be checked weekly and maintained at a score of between four and seven — see the Henneke Body Condition Scoring chart. Photo: Shutterstock/Vera Reva

Monitor your horse's weight loss or gain by estimating his weight using a measuring tape.

  • Measure the girth by placing the tape over the horse's back just behind the withers, and passing it around the horse over the girth groove.
  • Measure the length from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock.

senior horses care, older horses weight loss, senior horse feed and nutrition, dental care senior horse

Fitness for Health

The saying “you’re only as old as you feel” certainly applies to horses, and “use it or lose it” relates to horses just as much as humans. Unused muscles, tendons, and ligaments will weaken over time. The senior horse’s exercise regime should be carefully planned to encourage mobility for health without putting undue stress on old injuries or areas of particular weakness.

Exercise is important for helping to maintain healthy gut function. Lack of movement weakens muscles and bones, while mild exercise can help reduce inflammation in tendons, ligaments, and joints. Exercise also helps prevent the senior from gaining too much weight; letting an elder become obese only adds to the strain on their joints. 

Although old injuries and general wear and tear may require scaling back athletic activities, seniors certainly benefit from maintaining an active lifestyle. Work with your veterinarian to decide the level of activity that is suitable for your horse.

The Senior Social Circle

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Hay stations should be spaced far enough apart to allow the senior to get his fair share. Photo: iStock/Eileen Groome

Herd dynamics change on a regular basis, not just when a new horse is introduced to the field. Seniority in the paddock means that it is the most dominant, strongest horses that eat and drink first.

One way to help your senior horse to his fair share of resources is to create as many hay stations as there are occupants in the paddock and provide more than one water source. Space the hay stations far enough apart so that each horse can eat uninterrupted. If the older one is not chomping down food as quickly as his paddock mates, this may not be an adequate solution. Consider splitting them up into a smaller and less dominant group or feeding them separately. Also try to keep your retirees separated from horses that travel frequently to reduce the risk of contracting infectious disease.

Related: A Nutrition Plan for Your Senior Horse

Published with the kind permission of Equine Guelph, with thanks to the Ontario Veterinary College veterinarians for input.

Main Photo: AdobeStock/Vprotastchik

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