Caring for and Keeping Older Horses

Feeding grain when it is not needed or access to lush pasture can result in weight gain, an important predisposing cause for laminitis.

Photo: iStock

At age 20, people might be in their physical prime, but for horses 20 generally marks the beginning of the golden years. Scott Austin, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, an equine veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, says senior horses require special attention to ensure their comfort as they get older.

“Some of the major issues that we see as horses age are slowing down, weight management struggles, and weakened immunity,” says Austin. He offered advice to owners at the annual Horseman’s Clinic, held at the College of Veterinary Medicine in February.

As horses age, they tend to lose muscle mass for various reasons. To address this problem and help keep them in better shape, Austin says many older horses often require a “senior diet” that is highly palatable, digestible, and contains an amino acid profile that maintains muscle mass.

Much like people, older horses can become arthritic, which can make them less likely to want to walk and exercise. However, one of the worst things that a horse with arthritis can do is stand around. Movement and exercise are beneficial for maintaining joint health as well as for keeping weight down.

Watch Their Weight

Every geriatric horse should have a yearly veterinary examination to monitor body weight and dental health and screen for medical problems. Older horses could be in danger of becoming either overweight or underweight, depending on the circumstances. Weight tapes combined with body-condition scoring are tools that can be used to detect weight problems before they are serious.

Austin adds that pasture ponies often gain weight as they age because owners tend to show their love through food.

“Geriatric horses that spend the majority of their time grazing in fields (might) need a diet low in grain,” he explains. "Feeding grain when it is not needed or access to lush pasture can result in weight gain which is an important predisposing cause for laminitis and founder.”

A veterinarian can advise owners on a weight loss treatment plan tailored to meet the needs of their overweight horse.

Horses of any age need dental exams care at least yearly and in some cases more often, especially as they approach old age and their dental health can begin to decline dramatically.

“Older horses often cannot grind their feed very well due to the deterioration of their teeth, which can cause a decrease in appetite,” says Austin. “Because these horses need to chew their food more, they are slower eaters. In large group feeding settings, these horses may be chased away from their food by younger individuals.”

If this occurs, owners should feed the older horses separately, allowing plenty of time for them to eat. Austin also recommends using feed that is already ground, cooked, or extruded, since some older horses can have difficulties absorbing nutrients from food.

Signs of Decline

Another problem in aging horses, as in aging people, is a weaker immune system.

“Since we know that their immune system declines, we need to keep horses up to date on vaccines and deworming,” says Austin. “Older horses can also become more susceptible to metabolic diseases, such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction and kidney failure.”

Signs of pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, also known by the name Cushing’s disease, although it is not the same as Cushing’s disease in people) include drinking and urination, kidney failure, a potbelly, loss of muscle, and long hair that does not shed well.

Take-Home Message

The bottom line is that owners need to watch their geriatric horses closely for signs of decline and to take quick action to address problems. More frequent veterinary visits, along with attention to diet and exercise, will help keep older horses comfortable in their golden years.

Reprinted with permission from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

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