Thanks to advances in management and veterinary care, our horses are living longer than ever before. Learn what your senior citizen needs to enjoy his golden years.
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.
Here’s how to help keep your older horse happy and healthy.
Provide shelter. Provide your older horse adequate protection from the weather — sun, wind, rain and snow. Also, make sure he’s using the shelter. You may need t blanket your older horse in cold weather and hose him off or provide a stable fan in very hot weather.
Check hydration. You’ll also want to check hydration daily by making sure the inside of the horse’s mouth feels moist, since the skin turgor test may be unreliable in older horses. If the mouth appears dry, the horse is not drinking well or is being kept away from water by other horses.
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 is 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.
Provide hoof care. Regular trims are important to keeping your older horse moving as comfortably as possible.
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 or avoid 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 circulating antibodies (titers) for
specific diseases rather than automatically vaccinating, especially if the horse has a history of vaccine reactions.
Deworm frequently. Deworm at least every 60 days, including twice-yearly treatment for tapeworms in most areas. If you’re using anything other than Moxidectin or Ivermectin, have a fecal egg count checked at least once per year, six to eight weeks after you use one of the alternate dewormers.
Check his teeth. Your older horse may experience tooth problems. Work with your veterinarian on diagnosis and treatment. In general, unless the horse has obvious pain with chewing, or a foul odor to the breath indicating infection, some people choose to limit dental care to just routine floating. One good strategy might be to change feed types to something that is easier your horse to chew and digest.
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.
• 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.
A variety of supplements and special feeds are available for the senior horse. However, there’s no reason to change the basic adult diet until your horse is no longer doing well on it.
It’s probably time to modify your horse’s diet if he’s not thriving despite your best efforts to provide adequate feed and there are no glaring dental problems.
Here are five common dietary problems and possible solutions:
Problem #1: Quidding (wads of partially chewed hay fall from your horse’s mouth).
Solution: Try bagged hay, chopped hay, hay cubes, or hay pellets. If your horse can’t chew these well either, soak the feed before feeding. Include a little bit of leafy alfalfa, or alfalfa pellets or meal to increase appeal.
Problem #2: Poor grain digestion.
Solution: If your horse isn’t chewing grain well, or a lot of undigested grain is showing up in the manure, try steamed, crimped oats or a mixture of equal parts soaked beet pulp and steamed crimped oats.
This recipe is fairly well-balanced for calcium and phosphorus. Beet pulp has the same calorie yield as plain oats, but does not put a burden on digestive enzymes because it’s fermented in the hind gut, like hay and grass.
Problem #3: Choke
Solution: Saliva is the normal lubricant for food. When horses don’t chew well and long, they produce less saliva. Altered movements of the esophagus and dehydration may be other 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 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) 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.
If your deworming program is good and there are no unresolved issues with chewing, 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.
He 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 (soy hulls, beet pulp, 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.
How Much Exercise?
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 a 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 on level ground (or pony your older horse) for about 10 to 15 minutes. If that is well-tolerated, increase by five minutes every other day. Once he’s walking comfortably for 30 minutes, add short intervals of trotting. Always stop if he’s showing distress, such as heavy breathing or heavy sweating.
Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD, of Equine Nutritional Solutions in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, is an authority in equine nutrition and expert in the field of equine nutraceuticals. Her most recent book is Horse Journal Guide to Equine Supplements and Nutraceuticals (Globe Pequot Press)