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.