Caring for Geriatrics

When The Horse editor Kim Herbert asked me if I might be interested in writing on one of my favorite topics--old horses--it brought to mind so many great memories from my childhood. I was an endurance rider, so I got to be really close to my horse, Flagpole. There is nothing like going 100 miles on a horse to cement a relationship!

What I think most people don't know is that many of the endurance horses are considered to be older horses. I didn't even get Flagpole until he was in his 20s, and I rode him into his 30s. Just like people, horses can go on to lead productive lives well into their latter years. Even in my travels around the country now, many of the best horse stories I hear are about tried-and-true older horses.

I really like older horses. So much so that I was inspired to write a book called Understanding the Older Horse, published by Eclipse Press. In it, I try to give owners of older horses practical recommendations in caring for their older horses. As a vet, there are a few key ideas I would like to share with you about older horses that would help them.

First, I cannot stress enough the importance of proper dental care in the older horse. As horses' teeth age, points and waves can develop that can actually affect eating patterns. I recommend a dental exam every six months. This does not mean that the teeth will need to be floated every time, but catching problems early can save your horse a lot of pain and potential problems.

Nutrition is another important aspect of older horse care. Just like humans, we have to take into account age and activity level in making nutritional choices. There are several good older horse diets out there that you might want to consider. Nutritionists have specially formulated these feeds with the needs of older horses in mind. It is often a fine balance in an older horse to keep them at a healthy weight.

Deworming is a big issue for older horses as well. A parasite load will often affect an older horse more significantly. Sometimes it can cause them to go off feed, lose weight, and/or have diarrhea. It takes older horses longer to recover from any major feed changes or nutritional imbalances. I like to use a daily dewormer for older horses, like Strongid C. This ensures that most parasites are not an issue and makes sure that you are not delivering a huge shock to the system by killing a large number of parasites at the same time. You should also use an ivermectin/praziquantel product, such as Equimax, twice per year to cover additional parasites that pose risks to your horse. Ask your veterinarian to help you develop a parasite control program suitable for your older horse.

As your horse ages, I recommend that you get a baseline CBC (complete blood count) and serum chemistry when your horse is healthy. That way, if your horse has a problem later, it will be easier to see what levels are out of reference range from the normal for your horse. At this time, it is worth having endocrine (hormone) levels checked; problems can indicate Cushing's disease. Your vet will be able to monitor potential indicators for cancer from these blood levels as well.

If your older horse has an injury or a joint issue, make sure to give increased layoff time for recovery. Again, I know I don't bounce back from injury like I did when I was young; why should we expect more of our horses?

Finally, I would always be on the lookout for behavior changes. Perhaps your horse is in a fight over who is herd leader. Make sure he or she is getting access to all daily feed. Perhaps your horse is not able to see as well as he might have in the past. Check for moon blindness and make accommodations to help your horse get along better. If we keep an eye out, our horses will tell us when there is a problem.

Most of all, you should enjoy your older horses. They can be great friends.

About the Author

Robert E. Holland Jr., DVM, PhD

Robert E. Holland Jr., DVM, PhD, is a senior technical service veterinarian for Pfizer Animal Health. He served on the AAEP task force revising equine vaccination guidelines, and his research interests include virology, biomechanics, drug testing, and air flow.

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