Like us, horses may begin to decline physically as they age. They may lose weight, develop arthritis, and/or suffer from other conditions such as Cushing’s disease. Some of this is a normal part of the aging process. However, careful attention to our older companions as well as implementing some “senior horse care strategies” can help to combat these issues as well as increase their overall quality of life.
1) Regularly Assess Body Condition
One of the most important things you can do for your senior horse is continually monitor their body condition and make dietary or management changes as needed. A horse’s teeth will begin to naturally wear down as they age and they may also develop other dental issues that further affect their ability to chew.
To compound dental problems, senior horses may have trouble digesting protein and other nutrients as well as they did when they were younger, and pain stemming from conditions such as arthritis may also lead to decreased appetite. When you add all of these things together, it’s easy to see why seniors may start to lose weight and body condition.
On the flip side, some senior horses don’t have dental problems, and with retirement or decreased exercise, they may actually gain weight, especially when left on pasture. Obesity can be detrimental to their overall health as it places added stress on joints that may already be compromised by arthritis. If this is the case, decreasing grain, utilizing a grazing muzzle, and/or increasing exercise is likely needed.
You may find it helpful to assess your horse’s body condition using the Henneke body scoring system (BCS) which uses scores of 1-9.
2) Care for the Joints
Wear and tear on the joints is normal as horses age, but it can be exacerbated by strenuous activity from certain riding disciplines. Arthritis develops when there is interference with the normal structure and function of joints.
Damage to cartilage and/or bones changes the bone surface, making it rough, and movement of roughened bone ends or damaged cartilage leads to inflammation, pain, and restricted movement.
While arthritis is often inevitable for senior horses, the severity of their joint pain will depend on what the horse has done for most of their life. Trail or pleasure horses may only have minor aches and pains, but a retired barrel horse or jumper may have more severe joint problems. If arthritic pain isn’t alleviated in some way, it can lead to a vicious cycle of inflammation, causing further pain, stiffness, and damage to the cartilage.
Signs of joint pain and/or arthritis include:
- Shortened stride
- Uneven gait
- Swollen joints
- Difficulty getting up after a period of laying down
- Reluctance to do certain tasks horse once easily performed
It’s important to note that arthritis cannot be cured but there are proactive steps you can take to combat inflammation and make your horse more comfortable. Some of these include:
- Feeding anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids such as that in fresh grass, flaxseed, or chia seeds;
- Limiting foods such as grains and oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids that are pro-inflammatory;
- Supplementing a natural anti-inflammatory such as Rocket Hemp Pellets;
- Striving to keep your horse at a healthy weight;
- Keeping feet trimmed on a consistent basis to reduce added stress on the joints;
- Increasing exercise which will, in turn, will increase circulation, nourish joints, and help to flush out waste products. Exercise also strengthens muscles and tendons, reducing wear and tear on the joints.
3) Feed the Right Nutrition
Good nutrition is important for any horse but it becomes increasingly important as a horse ages. With any senior diet, the first thing to ensure is that it’s based on fiber.
Forage should be fed at a minimum of 1.5% bodyweight daily. Pasture often works well for seniors, but if eating hay is a problem during fall/winter, switch to soaked hay cubes, chopped hay, or possibly soaked beet pulp.
Senior feeds can also make up the majority or all of a horse’s diet, if needed. Keep in mind that many older horses are sensitive to sugar and starch, so choose products that are low in non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs).
Good quality protein is also crucial for seniors and by providing varied protein sources, this can help to combat muscle wasting and loss of body condition. Along with protein, seniors need high-quality, chelated minerals which are more easily absorbed, and they can also benefit from antioxidants (especially vitamins C and E), prebiotics such as yeast culture products, and high-quality probiotics such as Fullbucket’s Equine Probiotic Pellets.
With old horses that are eating little to no hay, it’s important to feed smaller meals more often throughout the day to keep their gut moving.
4) Schedule Regular Veterinary Check Ups
One key to staying on top of any issues that your senior horse already has or is maybe just beginning to develop is maintaining routine veterinary and dental care. A yearly check-up with your vet is advisable, and this should include a complete oral examination.
Loose teeth may interfere with chewing and cause pain. These teeth need to be pulled to make the horse more comfortable. Your vet can also do yearly blood work to check for metabolic problems if that’s a concern.
For seniors with Cushing’s Disease or other chronic problems, more frequent veterinary check-ups may be warranted.
5) Keep an Eye on Herd Dynamics
Even if your senior horse was once at the top of the pecking order, that may change as he gets older. Your senior may get pushed away from feed or hay or may even be picked on by horses that are more dominant.
Keep an eye on your herd dynamics and make management changes if needed.
For example, you may need to separate your senior at feeding time to ensure he’s able to eat all of his feed or you may even need to put him with another companion in a separate pasture. Though management changes can be stressful for any horse, your senior’s safety and ability to eat should be the number one priority.
Watching our horses aging isn’t always easy but fortunately, there are a number of things we can do to increase their quality of life.
By keeping an eye on body condition and herd dynamics, addressing joint pain, feeding an appropriate diet, and maintaining routine veterinary, hoof, and dental care, our seniors can often stay healthy and happy long into their golden years.