Keeping Older Horses

| 9/22/2014 10:40:00 AM

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

Renee-Lucie BenoitI 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.

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