Experts estimate that the life expectancy of a horse in this country is somewhere between 18 and 22 years. Of course, that's just an average; illness or accidents will claim some horses in their prime; many more will thrive well into their 20s.
Just how long an individual horse lives depends on a combination of genes, luck and lifestyle. You can't change a horse's pedigree--or his luck for that matter--but you do have control over how he lives.
Today, most horses live pretty well. For one thing, veterinary advances and technological progress have improved the overall quality of care. Plus, "horses are considered pets today more than ever," says Robert Magnus, DVM, of the Wisconsin Equine Clinic and Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wisc., noting that this phenomenon takes on new significance as the years pass. "There's an emotional component to ownership that leads us to pay closer attention to an older horse's health and be more willing to seek better-quality health care, even if the horse isn't as 'useful' as a younger one may be."
Yet you might wonder whether there's something in particular you can do to increase your horse's chances of living a long and happy life. The answer is "Yes," judging from one of the largest studies of older horses to date, which was completed at Tufts University in 2003.
For the project, Margaret Brosnahan, DVM, and Mary Rose Paradis, DVM, surveyed the owners of 218 horses between the ages of 20 and 40, and reviewed the records of 467 horses over the age of 20 that were admitted to the Tufts veterinary clinic between 1989 and 1999. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that colic was the most common health problem among the horses in the study, followed by musculoskeletal diseases, such as arthritis. The third infirmity seen frequently among the horses studied was heaves and other respiratory disorders.
How can you head off these and other problems? As in human health, there are no guarantees. But a few specific management practices can help horses avoid some of the most common ills of old age. "An individual horse's care has to be tailored for that horse, that owner and their specific situation," says Magnus. "But there are some aspects of care that are particularly important when it comes to helping a horse stay healthy in his older years."
1. Take Care of His Teeth
Dental problems can have far-reaching health implications: The inability to properly chew foods can result in malnutrition, weight loss and colic. "If I had to tell horse owners to do one thing for their horses to help them as they age, it would be to pay attention to their teeth," says Brosnahan. "Bad teeth can lead to a world of problems in any animal and particularly an older one."
As a horse chews grains and grass, his teeth continually wear down. By the age of 20, he may have worn away 1 1/2 inches of his 2 1/2-inch-long teeth. This wear isn't always even. Individual teeth can develop sharp points, and molars can become misaligned, making chewing painful or impossible for an older animal.
Poor mastication, in turn, puts a horse at greater risk of choke and colic as large pieces of food pass through an esophagus and gastrointestinal tract designed to process much smaller morsels. In extreme cases, old horses may be unable to chew hay enough to swallow it at all. Even if ingested, poorly chewed food can't be digested optimally. "Whenever I see an older horse that isn't holding his weight or just isn't thriving, I make it a point to look at his teeth," says Magnus.
Equine dental care need not be elaborate: Most horses require only annual checkups and floating to smooth uneven wear. But regular dental attention is critical, and this, says Brosnahan, is where many horse owners fall short. "Since you don't often see your horse's teeth, it's easy to forget about them, but neglect can lead to dental disease so severe that the situation literally can't be fixed," she says. "We can almost always improve things a bit, but in many cases it's impossible to return a badly neglected mouth to 'normal' and the horse is forever dealing with the problem."
2. Be Vigilant About Parasite Control
A comprehensive parasite-control program, initiated when a horse is young, is critical to long-term health. "Horses are living much longer these days than before," says Brosnahan. "And one of the reasons often cited is that we have such great parasite-control products available."
Damage from parasites is cumulative. Over the years, scars develop where larvae attach to tissues, narrowing portions of the gastrointestinal tract. "Long-standing damage from parasites can lead to serious problems, including deadly colic," says Magnus. "And the damage can't be reversed."
But, he says, the deworming products available today are so effective that a new parasite-related threat has developed: a sense of complacency among horse owners. "Since parasites aren't as huge of a problem as they were years ago, I'm afraid some horsepeople think regular deworming isn't necessary," Magnus says.
The reality, of course, is that regular deworming is important for horses of any age but becomes increasingly critical as a horse grows older. Even subclinical parasite loads--those that don't manifest in obvious signs such as colic--can silently tax an elderly horse's system, tying up the immunological and nutritional resources needed to support basic body functions.
Which deworming products and schedule are best for your horse depend on many factors, including where you live, your horse's exposure to other animals and your manure-management practices. Your veterinarian can help you devise a program that is suited to your horse's situation. Whatever regimen you choose, Brosnahan recommends conducting regular fecal egg counts to gauge how well your program is working. "I've been to farms with great management and a regular deworming routine, but still find an individual horse with a parasite burden that needs to be addressed," she says. "An egg count once or twice a year is a great insurance policy against parasite damage."
3. Feed Them Well
The calories, vitamins and minerals supplied by your horse's daily diet are his life-support system. Along with providing the energy and raw materials to sustain basic body functions, nutrients help support a healthy immune system that wards off disease. A horse fed well throughout his life and into his mature years will almost certainly be healthier and live longer than a chronically malnourished horse.
Your horse's nutritional needs, regardless of his stage of life, depend largely on his lifestyle. Young, growing horses require greater amounts of vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients than do middle-aged animals, and active athletes need more "fuel" than recreational trail mounts. Fortunately, you need not spend hours with nutritional charts and a calculator to ensure that your horse's diet suits him. Nowadays, you need only start with a good-quality hay and, if needed, add any one of the many commercially manufactured horse feeds. "There are so many good feeds specifically formulated for horses in various stages of life and work that finding one that your horse does well on shouldn't be difficult," says Brosnahan. "If you've got a horse who is holding his weight and has the proper amount of energy, that's a good indication that you're on the right track nutritionally."
But take note: As your horse ages, his needs change. As the years pass, the equine digestive system has increasing trouble breaking down fiber--a function of dental wear and intestinal changes--and becomes less efficient in absorbing certain nutrients, such as phosphorus, and utilizing tissue-building protein.
A horse who has trouble taking in hay or grass may benefit from soaked beet pulp, which consists of 10 percent fiber and is easy to chew and digest. But an even easier alternative is one of the many "senior" feeds that have come onto the market over the last decade or so. Specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of older horses, these products typically are higher in protein, fiber and fat than standard feed products. Many also go through an extra processing step, called extrusion, that makes them easier to digest. Also available are "complete" senior feeds that provide roughage along with more concentrated energy, fulfilling all of a horse's dietary needs.
In short, "Unless your older horse has a specific health problem, such as a metabolic disease or chronic laminitis, it's hard to go wrong with a good-quality senior feed," says Brosnahan.
4. Maximize Turnout Time
The simple act of turning your horse out for as long as possible every day can improve his health in many ways. "Being outside 24 hours a day is a wonderfully healthy way for a horse of any age to live," says Magnus. "Just because a horse is older doesn't mean he needs to be kept indoors. In fact, turnout can help prevent many of the problems we typically see in older horses."
Having room to roam contributes to long-term mobility by keeping muscles toned and joints moving freely. "One of the saddest things I see is an older horse that is in otherwise perfect health, but has gotten so physically weak in his hind end that he can no longer get up and has to be put down because of it," says Brosnahan. "It can start with a touch of arthritis in the back end, and the owner might think that less activity will help, so he limits the horse's activity and turnout, but the horse just gets weaker and weaker." If your older horse doesn't take advantage of turnout time by moving, Brosnahan recommends using a lead to walk your horse around the paddock once or twice a day. "An older horse doesn't have to be worked with the same intensity as in his past, but he's got to keep moving to stay physically fit and strong."
Turnout is important for other body systems as well. An older horse's respiratory health will be protected and improved with time outdoors, as regular confinement in even "clean" barns has been proven to contribute to the development of heaves. "We see a lot of older horses with heaves," says Magnus, "and the real trouble is that it's a progressive disease-it never goes away and it gets tougher to manage as the horse gets older."
Turnout can even reduce an older horse's chance of colic by increasing gut motility and encouraging natural grazing patterns. "Horses were designed to be moving, grazing animals," says Magnus. "And that doesn't change as they age. In fact, it becomes even more important."
An older horse's turnout needs aren't any different from those of a younger animal--just provide shelter from the elements as well as water, a mineralized salt block and whatever forage is necessary to maintain his weight--but you will want to make sure that he has access to these resources. "Many times an older horse will fall in the pecking order of the herd," says Brosnahan. "The other horses may not allow him access to the shed or they'll run him away from food." If you see such a situation develop, you'll need to bring in either the bully or the older horse at feeding time and provide a second shelter. If you have the space, you may want to form a smaller herd with your older horse and amicable companions.
5. Schedule Regular Veterinary Visits
If your horse receives veterinary attention only when something is wrong, you could be putting his long-term health at risk. "So many problems of younger and older horses are easy to manage when caught early," says Magnus. "But they are also very easy for an owner to miss until they've progressed to the point where the horse is obviously ill or in pain." He recommends annual exams for all horses, including recording of vital signs, a lameness test, dental checkup and fecal egg count. In addition, his clinic offers a specialized "geriatric" wellness program for horses over the age of 15, which includes a complete blood screening to look for elevated enzyme levels that can indicate kidney or liver dysfunction. At-risk horses are also given a test for Cushing's syndrome and X-rays are taken of their front hooves to look for laminitic changes.
However, says Magnus, the most valuable part of the exam is just seeing the horse. "If I only see a horse every two or three years, it's highly unlikely I'm going to notice the earliest signs of a disease. But if I get to look at a horse once or twice a year, I'm much more likely to catch something early. It's the same as people who only go to a doctor once every 10 years--they could be in for a shock when they finally do go."
Magnus adds that regular exams also help foster a relationship between clients and veterinarians, which can lead to better care for the horse. "The more I know about owners and their situations, the better equipped I am to help them make decisions regarding their animals' care. Communication between people is an important part of caring for horses."
Brosnahan also recommends routine veterinary visits for all horses and more regular exams as a horse ages. "I really encourage owners of older horses to have their veterinarian visit twice a year--just because," she says. "When I see an older horse, I'll do a general physical exam and talk about diet, management and any other concerns that may come up." It may be practical to arrange such visits to coincide with spring or fall vaccinations, but don't expect your veterinarian to simply make the time to examine an older horse--schedule an appointment specifically for a physical exam and consultation so no one feels rushed. Also consider making a list of concerns and questions before the visit so nothing slips your mind.
Overall, the routine management needs of older horses are pretty similar to those of younger animals. The one key difference, perhaps, is that consistency in care becomes increasingly important as the years pass--the older a horse becomes, the less able he will be to recover from illness, injury or parasite infestation. Your best insurance policy, then, is vigilance in seeing to your horse's basic needs even when all seems to be going well. The benefits of this approach might not be immediately obvious, but they will become evident with every passing year your horse enjoys. You'll certainly be glad that you took the time and made the effort.
This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of EQUUS magazine.