What to expect as your horse grows old
To keep your horse healthy and comfortable as the years pass, focus on the five areas of equine health most affected by aging.
It’s natural to worry about your horse’s health as he grows older. Whether you’ve owned him for most of his life or he only recently joined your herd, you know that, with the passage of time, health problems that started out as minor can worsen, and new issues may emerge. And, of course, you want your horse to enjoy his later years in good health and spirits. So you keep a sharp eye out for signs of trouble. But it’s best to balance vigilance with an appreciation for the natural processes of aging. To be sure, not all degradations of old age are inevitable, and many problems can be prevented and minimized with mindful management. Yet you may waste time, money and emotional energy by fretting too much over physical changes that simply signify the passage of time. Remember: Age is not a disease. To help you focus your efforts and avoid false alarms, here’s a look at the five health attributes most affected by age. We’ll describe the changes that are normal as a horse grows older and what you can do to reduce their impact, along with guidance on spotting trouble that requires further investigation and your veterinarian’s intervention.
Many horses, as they grow old, will drop a few pounds for a variety of reasons. Weight loss can be due to increased caloric needs---especially in the winter months when metabolism ramps up to keep the body warm---or tooth wear that makes chewing difficult, or a general loss of muscle mass as the horse becomes less active. However, contrary to popular belief, older horses do not have less efficient digestion, and they do not lose weight simply because they can no longer process food or nutrients. This myth comes from an erroneous interpretation of a 25-yearold study that the original researchers themselves have since publicly clarified. Of course, weight loss can be related to serious illness, but unless a horse shows other signs of health problems, there’s no need to assume the worst.
What you can do: Senior feeds are an easy and effective way to manage weight in older horses. These products tend to be very palatable, easy to chew and high in fat---which makes them calorie dense and safer than carbohydrate-rich feeds. Look for a formulation that fits your horse’s particular requirements: Some senior feeds are high in molasses, which can be an issue for horses with metabolic syndrome or who are otherwise at risk for laminitis . As for amounts, follow the label instructions or consult with your veterinarian. Even thin horses are vulnerable to the health hazards posed by overfeeding.
If senior feed alone isn’t keeping weight on your older horse, you can provide extra calories safely by adding vegetable oil or a fat-based weight-gain supplement to his feed regimen. Also, make forage available to older horses at all times, if possible, and in a form that is easily chewed. Finally, don’t forget regular dental checkups to ensure that your horse gets all the benefits from the nutrition you provide.
Because changes in condition can be difficult to detect on a day-to-day basis, it can be helpful to track your older horse’s weight through photos and notes. Take regular pictures with your cell phone to compare over time or show to your veterinarian if you are unsure. You can also use a weight tape, which isn’t necessarily accurate to the pound but can help highlight variations over time. When to worry: Dramatic weight loss that occurs over a short period of time without any changes in activity level or feed schedule isn’t normal for a horse of any age. Nor is weight loss accompanied by other signs of trouble, such as fever, diarrhea or lethargy. Likewise, if your horse’s weight doesn’t remain fairly
Contrary to popular belief, older horses do not have less efficient digestion, and they do not lose weight simply because they can no longer process food or nutrients.
stable even with an appropriate and thoughtful feeding plan, an underlying issue may be sapping his energy. In all of these circumstances, investigation is warranted, and it’s time to call in your veterinarian.
Arthritis can be caused by injury, but most often in older horses it is the result of simple wear and tear. As a joint moves, minute damage is done to the structures within, and the body responds by mounting a mild inflammatory response, which draws healing cells to the area. When a horse is young, his body can usually control that inflammatory process, and joints remain healthy. However, as he ages and his joints sustain repeated microtraumas, inflammatory processes may overwhelm his body’s natural controls, triggering a cascade of events that ends up breaking down the lubricating synovial fluid, damaging the cartilage that covers and cushions the ends of the bones, and causing other deterioration within the joint. All of this, in turn, triggers more inflammation, and the cycle continues, leading to chronic arthritis.
What you can do: Older horses with arthritis need to keep moving. Regular exercise helps to keep joints flexible and lubricated and conditions the muscles and tendons that stabilize them. This doesn’t mean you need to ride your elderly horse as if he were a youngster, but regular turnout with an active companion, along with a consistent but gentle riding schedule, can help check the progression of arthritis significantly. It’s natural for an old horse to seem a bit creaky at the start of a ride but then loosen up with slow and sensible exercise.
You may also want to give your older horse a jointsupport supplement. A huge variety of products are available, but most contain one or more of the following active ingredients: glucosamine , chondroitin sulfate, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), hyaluronic acid and avocado/soybean unsaponifiables extract. Your veterinarian can provide you with guidance on which products are likely to be most beneficial for your horse.
Finally, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help control routine arthritis pain. When administered before a ride, an NSAID can keep inflammatory cytokines in check as they are released. And, although phenylbutazone (“bute”) given in high doses has well-known side effects, this medication can usually be administered safely for long periods of time to a healthy older horse. Illness and dehydration increase the risks associated with bute, so keep that in mind if your horse’s health status changes. Another option is a medication containing selective cox-2 inhibitors, which provide anti-inflammatory effects with fewer systemic side effects.
When to worry: Joint pain that interferes with or inhibits a horse’s normal activities is cause for concern. If arthritis is keeping your horse from easily navigating his environment or rising readily after he lies down, it’s time to consult with your veterinarian about other treatment options.