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.”