What to ex­pect as your horse grows old

EQUUS - - Equus -

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.

By Chris­tine Barakat

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