Senior Horse Care Tips for keeping your older equine healthy

By Christine Churchill, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer

Senior horse Missy is 28 years old.

With today’s advanced health care and superior feeds, horses are staying active and living longer than in the past. Two of my childhood horses lived into their late 30’s and I currently have a mare who is a spry 28. You can see in the picture to the right that Missy (our official pasture ornament) has a coat that still shines and she’s still an easy keeper.

One year of a horse’s life is equal to an average of three years of a human’s life; so my sweet-natured 28-year-old horse is equivalent to an 84-year-old person. She has officially been retired and now her only job is pasture ornament, but she gets around reasonably well, slow, but steady.

With proper care and feeding you can extend the productive life of your older horse. Here are a few tips that can help you keep your elder horse in good condition.

Equine Dental Care

Regular dental care for your aging steed is critical. Sharp points can develop in a horse’s molars making it difficult or painful to chew. My vet recommends a dental check every 6 to 12 months for older horses. Observe your horse as he eats, if he’s dropping a lot of food, suspect dental problems. Check his manure for excessive amounts of grain or unchewed hay – these signal inefficient digestion which occurs when a horse can’t chew properly.

Regular dental checks can alert you to tooth loss or breaks that occur more frequently in an older animal. If your horse loses too many teeth, you may have to make adjustments to how and what you feed. I knew one senior horse at a therapeutic riding stable that had lost all his teeth but still maintained his weight and vitality thanks to daily slurries of senior horse food mixed with water. This pellet soup allowed the horse to lap the food since he couldn’t chew.

Elder Horse Nutrition

Senior horse food

The older horse also has decreased digestive efficiency so feeding food that is top quality and digests easily is very important. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent senior horse feeds on the market that were created to address the nutritional needs of older horses. Many of the senior feeds are “complete” – meaning they have hay (fiber) in addition to concentrates. Our vet also recommended adding corn oil to our senior’s diet to help increase energy and shine. Since every horse is unique, consult with your vet on diet recommendations for your elder’s dietary needs.

As with any horse, access to fresh clean water is important. In the winter use a tank warmer to encourage water consumption. Adequate water (and fiber) helps prevent impaction colic. Check out “Feeding the Geriatric Horse” by D.G.Pugh for more information on feeding older horses.

Arthritis and Joint Care

Joint supplements may help your senior horse stay active and move around more comfortably. Glucosamine and Chondroitin are over the counter supplements that have been helpful to some seniors. If you try these products, note that it takes over a month to see any changes.

There are also intravenous injections of hyaluronic acid (such as Legend) that can help lubricate joints. After giving our elder horse monthly shots of Legend, our farrier noticed dramatic improvement in the flexibility of our older mare’s hind legs.

Something to keep in mind if your horse has arthritis and you occassionally trailer her is that it may be easier for her to use a ramp trailer than a step down variety. It is a consideration if you have older horses and are trailer shopping.

Note: I have a follow up article to this article entitled Managing Older Horse Arthritis Joint Care that talks about recent arthritis treatments I’ve tried with my horse.

Maintain Activity

Keep your senior horse active. You may not be able to ride them, but maintaining them in a pasture where they can move around at will keeps their joints more flexible than confining them to a stall. Movement also helps to increase circulation, improves digestion and generally stimulate the horse keeping them healthier and happier.

If you can still ride your senior, you may need to dedicate more time to warming him up and cooling him down. Hard strenuous rides may also need to be replaced by more leisure rides.

Protection from Aggressive horses

Elder horses may need extra protection from horse bullies. Aggressive horses may run the elder horse off their food or attack them and the elder horse may not be able to defend themselves. Consider fencing off a section of the pasture where your elder and a buddy can live their days in peace and without the stress of an aggressive bully.

Adequate Shelter

Your elder horse will also need access to shelter. A run-in shed or stall access will provide needed refuge from the hot sun, harsh winds, or when the black flies attack. If you can’t keep your senior horse yourself, you might explore some of the many horse retirement options.

One thing I have noticed with my older horses as they matured is that they need more protection from the cold than when they were younger. This is especially true if they get wet and then cold. After I found my older mare shivering one morning, I made it a practice to blanket her on cold wet winter days. Even though her coat gets thick in the winter, she doesn’t tolerate the cold as well as when she was a youngster. (You can see a picture of her in her high tech horse blanket here.)

Regular Vet and Farrier Attention

You may not be riding your elder horse, but he still needs regular health care. Regular trimming, vaccinations, and regular vet exams can go a long way to keeping your aging horse healthy. Make sure your senior is de-wormed regularly, especially if you notice weight loss or a sudden decline in the coat condition.

Elder Horse Attention and Love

Your senior has given you the best years of their life. Reward them with good care and love and they will return the favor with companionship for years to come.

Excellent Books On Senior Horse Care

The following books are excellent resources for information on how to keep your elderly horse happy and healthy. All give practical advice and describe symptoms of ailments to watch for in the elderly horse. I highly recommend them if you have an older horse in your pasture.