Keeping Older Horses

Reader Contribution by Renee-Lucie Benoit
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We need another wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. – Henry Beston

I have a 28-year-old appaloosa gelding. He’s worth his weight in gold. You can do almost anything with him and not worry. You can ride around bareback and not be concerned that he’s going to come unglued at every little thing. You can lead the grandkids around and not worry about him taking off and causing a big wreck. These old campaigners have a special place in my heart. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. If they’ve been treated well their whole life as mine has been there’s not much that is better. They’re willing. They’re sensible. They’re precious.

So, how do we keep our oldsters happy and safe in their twilight years? If you understand a little bit about the special needs of the older horse, it’s not very hard. The key to caring for an older horse is to understand how his body changes as it ages. The areas to consider are: nutrition, lameness, vision, immune response and hormone changes.

Nutritional needs of aging horses will vary greatly between individuals. Some older horses may never need changes to their diet whereas other senior horses will require a special diet to help them maintain good health and body condition. There are many reasons why it becomes harder for some horses to meet their nutritional needs as they age. Sometimes their teeth get bad. Proper care of your horse’s mouth by a qualified equine dentist or vet will help your horse get nutrients from his food. Horses chew in a circular motion from one side of their mouth to the other. This motion wears away the teeth. Over time, this chewing motion will lead to sharp points on the outside of the upper molars and on the inside of the lower molars. These sharp points must be filed down. The proper term is “floating.” I suggest you have your vet check your horse’s teeth when he comes to administer the rabies vaccine. That’s what I do. Just make it a habit. Floating will improve your horse’s chewing ability and allow him to better digest his food. Here’s a warning sign: If your horse is taking his hay but much of it falls out of his mouth in clumps, you should have the vet take a look at his teeth.

Some older horses may not even have teeth. This makes it really tough for your older horse to chew and digest foods he would ordinarily eat. This can be fixed relatively easily by changing the type of food he eats. Senior horse feeds tend to be more soft than regular horse feed. Concentrates fed in the form of pelleted feed can be softened with water to make a gruel that is easy to chew. Forage can be provided in the form of hay cubes or pellets (made of either alfalfa or alfalfa/grass mix) and they can also be softened with water. As a matter of fact, this has worked well for our old boy who tends to bolt his food and has gotten choke. Choke is when food gets stuck in the esophagus. Horses usually work it out but it’s awful to watch. So go ahead and moisten the food a little bit and everyone will be much happier. As always when making a change to your horse’s diet go in small steps. It’s all about gut integrity, and if you give him all of the intended food all at once, you can cause colic. Give a little bit each day, increasing as you go, while blending it with his old food. A couple weeks is not too long.

Some problems with getting proper nutrition may be due to intestinal damage from parasites so routine de-worming is critical in maintaining the horse’s health and longevity.

If you have a horse that doesn’t hold his weight you can try beet pulp in some form. Beet pulp is a highly digestible fiber for horses. You might see it in commercial feed or you can buy it separately to be wet down and fed in addition to hay or grain. We have used equal parts beet pulp, sweet feed and equine senior to supplement our old codgers. Rather than try to figure out what vitamin supplementation he needs, we choose to use a high-quality commercially processed senior feed with some hay free fed. Horses love to graze. They may not be able to process the hay very well but it suits them to chew all day long.

Does your horse have proper kidney and liver function? Horses with liver dysfunction will not tolerate added fat in the diet. Also providing feeds with high protein and/or calcium (e.g., alfalfa, beet pulp) can aggravate the kidneys in horses with kidney disease. So it’s wise to do a simple blood analysis prior to supplementing the horse’s diet with additional protein, fat, vitamins or minerals to determine liver and kidney functions.

Keep grain and forage free of mold and dust. Moldy, dusty feeds can cause gastrointestinal tract problems. Older horses often are more susceptible to respiratory irritation, and feeding dusty feeds will only aggravate that. You can soak their hay for 15 minutes prior to feeding to control dust but my old guy never liked this. He would turn up his nose. I’m assuming that you are feeding good quality alfalfa horse hay or grass hay and not cow alfalfa hay or junk grass. It is important, if feeding hay, to feed good quality hay that was cut at the appropriate time. Hay that is too mature when cut is generally not very digestible for the horse. This kind of hay has a lot of stem in it.

And then you have the easy keepers. Not all older horses are hard keepers. Just like people, being heavy is hard on bones and joints and may aggravate conditions such as arthritis and navicular syndrome. Make sure your horse is meeting all of its nutritional requirements without gaining an excessive amount of weight. For horses that are not in a routine riding program, ample pasture time will provide your horse with exercise and help him maintain a healthy body condition.

Some horses may develop metabolic conditions as they age. This is commonly caused by hormonal imbalances like Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome in horses are similar to the diabetes in humans. Horses with Cushing’s produce excessive amounts of cortisol from their adrenal glands. This can lead to problems such as recurring laminitis, muscle atrophy, susceptibility to disease, slow wound healing, excessive hair growth along with failure to shed, and lethargy. Talk to your vet. Cushing’s can be controlled with medication, and horses with metabolic disorders can be managed with routine quality hoof care, vaccinations, de-worming, and a specialized diet. Again talk to your vet. An easy exercise program may help prevent the onset of metabolic disorders or help horses already suffering from these problems.

Our old boy has arthritis. It is one of the most common problems seen in older horses. You can try feed supplements marketed to improve joint function. However, very little scientific research has been done to test these products. Equine joint supplements are not FDA approved and, therefore, are not regulated. Because of this, there is often considerable variability in these products. I’ve heard of some horses that are helped, but they’ve never done much for us. My friend Mary used injectable products that she felt worked. These typically contain substances thought to replace joint fluid or improve cartilage regeneration. Some well-known products are Adequan and Legend. If that doesn’t work, a veterinarian can inject a joint with steroids for immediate relief. These may improve joint flexion and reduce pain within days, and benefits may last for months to years before the need to repeat.

Older horses can have foot problems. Many older horses don’t grow high quality horn because of lack of use and a decline in their ability to extract nutrients from their food. Poor hoof quality can make arthritic conditions worse and can lead to soft tissue injuries. So while an older horse may not be working and performing like they once were, routine, proper hoof care is still essential to maintain health and soundness.

Horses vary greatly from individual to individual, and there are no hard and fast rules for caring for horses, old or young. Older horses, just like you and me, may not be as productive in the same way as when they were younger, but they can be just as useful in a different way. If they get routine veterinary, dental, and hoof care – along with proper nutrition and parasite control – they can be healthy for the remainder of their life span. That’s a good thing for both them and us.