Is muscle weakness inevitable in old horses? 

Taking steps to maintain an older horse's strength and coordination can add years to his life.

Q:  I have a 16-year-old gelding who I adore and plan to keep until the end of his life. My past experiences with old horses have been that overall muscle weakness compromised their ability to get around. Both of my other aged horses had some arthritis, but it was weakness that seemed to be the big problem. Eventually, they were both unable to rise easily and had to be put down in their mid 20s. My horse is in good shape now and I’d like to do all I can do to maintain his strength/coordination as he gets older. Why do aging muscles become weak? Are there exercises that I can have my horse do that will preserve his strength? Can anything else be done to prevent muscle weakness/loss in old horses?

An older brown and white pinto horse grazing in a field
In addition to consistent riding suited to his physical abilities, turnout is an effective way to support an older horse’s musculoskeletal health.

A: Your questions are excellent. Planning ahead can really help keep an aging horse comfortable and may even add years to his life. The inability to rise can definitely become a limiting factor for old horses. The key to helping a horse keep strength in older age lies in many familiar horse-care techniques, but with “old age” twists.

• Watch for PPID (pituitary pars intermedia disorder, also known as Cushing’s). Look for the signs of disease—including a persistent winter coat, weight loss or increased drinking and urination—and screen annually to try to catch the condition as early as possible. PPID can reduce muscle strength and interfere with all types of healing. 

• Keep on top of dental problems. Older horses need not just floating, but a full dental exam done by a veterinarian who can diagnose and treat a wide range of oral problems. Older horses get periodontal disease and dental infections at a far greater rate than many of us ever knew! You may not readily associate dental disease with muscle problems but the ability to chew comfortably and efficiently is essential to good nutrition, which in turn is necessary to support strong muscles. Chronic dental infections sap energy and strength from your horse directly, too. 

• Provide good nutrition. Making sure your horse has good quality forage, plus concentrates that suit his needs, is vitally important. Amino acid balance is key, along with sufficient energy in a form that that your older horse can easily digest. 

• Encourage exercise. Keep your horse doing whatever movement he can manage comfortably. If your horse can’t be ridden, encourage him to engage in whatever light exercise he can manage. If he is still ridable but a little stiff, he may need to go down a level or two in his sport. If you are uncomfortable riding at a lower level, seek out a novice who needs a schoolmaster. Consult your veterinarian about the best exercise for your horse but whatever you do, make sure your program is slow and consistent—old horses do not make good “weekend warriors.” In addition to regular exercise in the traditional sense, check out the work done by Hilary Clayton, DVM, PhD, on keeping core muscles strong. The exercises she created are for athletes, but I have found them very helpful for the older horse as well. Those core muscles are important in getting around and in getting up and down. 

Diligent care makes a big difference for equine longevity and successful aging. But even if you carefully follow the best advice, remember that the outcome for any particular horse also has to do with genetic factors, lifelong good health and even luck. So, my advice is to do your best, team up with your veterinarian and farrier, and be ready for whatever comes! Your horse is lucky to have a loyal owner who is planning for successful future aging.

Melinda Freckleton, DVM 
Firestar Veterinary Services, LLC
Catlett, Virginia 

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