It’s natural to worry about your horse’s health as he grows older. Whether you’ve owned him for most of his life or he only recently joined your herd, you know that, with the passage of time, health problems that started out as minor can worsen, and new issues may emerge. And, of course, you want your horse to enjoy his later years in good health and spirits. So you keep a sharp eye out for signs of trouble.
But it’s best to balance vigilance with an appreciation for the natural processes of aging. To be sure, not all degradations of old age are inevitable, and many problems can be prevented and minimized with mindful management. Yet you may waste time, money and emotional energy by fretting too much over physical changes that simply signify the passage of time. Remember: Age is not a disease.
To help you focus your efforts and avoid false alarms, here’s a look at the five health attributes most affected by age. We’ll describe the changes that are normal as a horse grows older and what you can do to reduce their impact, along with guidance on spotting trouble that requires further investigation and your veterinarian’s intervention.
Many horses, as they grow old, will drop a few pounds for a variety of reasons. Weight loss can be due to increased caloric needs—especially in the winter months when metabolism ramps up to keep the body warm-—or tooth wear that makes chewing difficult, or a general loss of muscle mass as the horse becomes less active. However, contrary to popular belief, older horses do not have less efficient digestion, and they do not lose weight simply because they can no longer process food or nutrients. This myth comes from an erroneous interpretation of a 25-year-old study that the original researchers themselves have since publicly clarified. Of course, weight loss can be related to serious illness, but unless a horse shows other signs of health problems, there’s no need to assume the worst.
What you can do: Senior feeds are an easy and effective way to manage weight in older horses. These products tend to be very palatable, easy to chew and high in fat—which makes them calorie dense and safer than carbohydrate-rich feeds. Look for a formulation that fits your horse’s particular requirements: Some senior feeds are high in molasses, which can be an issue for horses with metabolic0 syndrome or who are otherwise at risk for laminitis. As for amounts, follow the label instructions or consult with your veterinarian. Even thin horses are vulnerable to the health hazards posed by overfeeding.
If senior feed alone isn’t keeping weight on your older horse, you can provide extra calories safely by adding vegetable oil or a fat-based weight-gain supplement to his feed regimen. Also, make forage available to older horses at all times, if possible, and in a form that is easily chewed. Finally, don’t forget regular dental checkups to ensure that your horse gets all the benefits from the nutrition you provide. Because changes in condition can be difficult to detect on a day-to-day basis, it can be helpful to track your older horse’s weight through photos and notes. Take regular pictures with your cell phone to compare over time or show to your veterinarian if you are unsure. You can also use a weight tape, which isn’t necessarily accurate to the pound but can help highlight variations over time.
When to worry: Dramatic weight loss that occurs over a short period of time without any changes in activity level or feed schedule isn’t normal for a horse of any age. Nor is weight loss accompanied by other signs of trouble, such as fever, diarrhea or lethargy. Likewise, if your horse’s weight doesn’t remain fairly stable even with an appropriate and thoughtful feeding plan, an underlying issue may be sapping his energy. In all of these circumstances, investigation is warranted, and it’s time to call in your veterinarian.
Click here for two methods to determine how much your horse weighs without using a scale.
Arthritis can be caused by injury, but most often in older horses it is the result of simple wear and tear. As a joint moves, minute damage is done to the structures within, and the body responds by mounting a mild inflammatory response, which draws healing cells to the area. When a horse is young, his body can usually control that inflammatory process, and joints remain healthy. However, as he ages and his joints sustain repeated microtraumas, inflammatory processes may overwhelm his body’s natural controls, triggering a cascade of events that ends up breaking down the lubricating synovial fluid, damaging the cartilage that covers and cushions the ends of the bones, and causing other deterioration within the joint. All of this, in turn, triggers more inflammation, and the cycle continues, leading to chronic arthritis.
What you can do: Older horses with arthritis need to keep moving. Regular exercise helps to keep joints flexible and lubricated and conditions the muscles and tendons that stabilize them. This doesn’t mean you need to ride your elderly horse as if he were a youngster, but regular turnout with an active companion, along with a consistent but gentle riding schedule, can help check the progression of arthritis significantly. It’s natural for an old horse to seem a bit creaky at the start of a ride but then loosen up with slow and sensible exercise.
You may also want to give your older horse a joint-support supplement. A huge variety of products are available, but most contain one or more of the following active ingredients: glucosamine0, chondroitin sulfate, MSM0 (methylsulfonylmethane), hyaluronic0 acid and avocado/soybean unsaponifiables0 extract. Your veterinarian can provide you with guidance on which products are likely to be most beneficial for your horse.
Finally, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help control routine arthritis pain. When administered before a ride, an NSAID can keep inflammatory cytokines in check as they are released. And, although phenylbutazone (“bute”) given in high doses has well-known side effects, this medication can usually be administered safely for long periods of time to a healthy older horse. Illness and dehydration increase the risks associated with bute, so keep that in mind if your horse’s health status changes. Another option is a medication containing selective cox-2 inhibitors, which provide anti-inflammatory effects with fewer systemic side effects.
When to worry: Joint pain that interferes with or inhibits a horse’s normal activities is cause for concern. If arthritis is keeping your horse from easily navigating his environment or rising readily after he lies down, it’s time to consult with your veterinarian about other treatment options.
Click here to learn what type of activities are best for keeping arthritic horses moving well and feeling good.
Weakened immune system
Age-related changes in the equine immune system haven’t been extensively studied, but it is known that the function of T-cells—a type of white blood cell integral to fighting pathogens—is reduced in older horses. As a result, an elderly horse cannot respond to infections as quickly as he might have when he was younger, which makes him more susceptible to disease and slower to recover when he does become ill. Compromised immune function also means that an old horse may not get full protection from vaccination and may be at a higher risk for significant internal parasite infestations.
What you can do: Keep your aging horse on a consistent and appropriate vaccination schedule. His specific immunization needs depend on his life-style and location, so work with your veterinarian to develop a customized plan. Parasite control is also important. Regular fecal egg count tests will be needed to determine how often your horse needs to be dewormed and with which anthelmintic agents.
Biosecurity measures will also help protect an older horse from disease. Quarantine new arrivals to your property until you are certain of their health status, and do not share buckets or other equipment among horses—especially when you travel with an older horse.
When to worry: If an older horse develops a fever, runny nose or other signs of illness, call your veterinarian right away. Even minor ailments can hit an old-timer harder than his younger pasture mates and you’ll want to intervene as soon as possible to ensure a quick recovery.
Click here to learn how horses contributed to the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Loss of fitness
Inactivity is the main cause of lost fitness in older horses. Just like people, horses who continue to exercise as they age are stronger and more supple than their less-active peers. And once an older horse loses conditioning, it can be difficult to restore because of limitations imposed by arthritis or old injuries. Ironically, early “retirement” of active horses to life as a pasture ornament can precipitate their decline.
What you can do: Encourage your horse to exercise for as long into old age as he is able. Continual turnout is an easy and effective way of keeping a horse moving. Given enough space and friendly companions, an elderly horse will walk enough to maintain some level of fitness. When you ride an older horse, dial back the activities based on how he responds. Some horses thrive on long gallops and jumping well into their 20s, but for others these activities become too difficult much earlier in life. Whatever the case, put off full retirement for as long as possible. An hour-long walk on a trail through the woods is better, physically and mentally, for a healthy, older horse than languishing in a stall or small paddock. If riding is no longer an option, hand-walking is better than standing still.
If you need to get an older, out-of-shape horse back into condition, allow at least twice as much time than would be required for a younger horse. And double the amount of downtime. Conditioning occurs when tissues are stressed and given time to repair, but without sufficient rest, injuries occur. An aged horse may need two days off after a workout instead of just one. Be particularly patient when bringing an old-timer back from a layoff: It will take at least three months for him to develop enough fitness for even light trail outings—assuming he has no setbacks.
If the pain of arthritis or another problem limits your older horse’s ability to exercise, address the underlying condition and cautiously return him to work as soon as you have clearance from your veterinarian.
When to worry: When “unfit” becomes “weak,” an older horse faces significant risks to his health. If your horse seems unsteady in his gaits or has trouble rising, don’t ride him and call the veterinarian without delay.
For most of a horse’s life, his teeth continually erupt, meaning they emerge through the gums to replace what is worn away by chewing—sort of like the lead of a mechanical pencil. In a young horse, there are two to 3 ½ inches of “reserve” tooth below the gum line. By the time a horse reaches his mid-20s, however, this reserve is depleted, leaving him vulnerable to periodontal disease and tooth loss.
What you can do: The best thing you can do to care for an older horse’s teeth is to schedule dental checkups with a veterinarian every six months. During these checkups, your veterinarian can identify any issues that need to be addressed before they become significant. If your horse develops problems chewing, you may need to eliminate hay from his diet, replacing it with chopped forage or a complete pelleted feed. It can also be helpful to soak his grain or pellets in warm water for a few minutes before feeding.
And don’t forget treats: Apples, carrots and crunchy treats can pose a choke risk to horses who cannot chew well. Cut them into small pieces or opt instead for goodies that dissolve, such as peppermints—but be mindful of the sugar they may contain. A good option for horses with metabolic syndrome or otherwise at increased risk for laminitis are the easy-to-chew, low-starch treats that are now available.
When to worry: If your older horse loses weight despite good overall health and an adequate ration, he may be having trouble chewing so schedule a veterinary visit to investigate. Likewise, call your veterinarian if partially chewed feed or hay drops from his mouth as he eats or if he suddenly refuses to eat. Finally, make it a habit to sniff your horse’s breath each day as you groom: A foul odor could indicate infection or illness that needs to be investigated without delay.
Caring for an old horse can be rewarding. Sharing leisurely grooming sessions with him or just watching him doze in the sun will fill your heart. Don’t let those moments be crowded out by needless worry about his health. Just keep in mind what’s normal, and be ready to act if something goes wrong. Then simply enjoy time with your old friend.
This article was originally published in Volume #473 of EQUUS magazine.
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