Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and improved nutrition, horses are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. A few years ago, a horse that was 18 was considered old. Nowadays, you’ll spot equine “teenagers” galloping around cross country courses, competing in reining competitions and pole bending at top speed in Pony Club mounted games.
Older horses are usually the best mounts for young riders. If they’ve been ridden regularly over the years, old-timers tend to be confident, calm and capable. You’ll learn so much from an older, experienced horse.
But senior horses require special care to keep them going strong into their 20s and 30s. They may need extra attention from the vet, a special diet and regular exercise to keep them in shape for the riding activities you have planned.
So if you’re the proud owner of a golden oldie or are considering leasing or buying a senior equine, we’ve got 10 tips to keep your horse healthy, happy and active into his later years.
1. Keep Moving
Let your aging horse spend as much time as he can outside. If you live in a mild climate, keeping him out 24-7 is preferable. Being able to walk around as much as he likes is good for his circulation and his joints and can help keep arthritis at bay.
If your horse lives in a pen, make sure he gets turnout time every day in a larger area, and take him for a couple of walks a day to keep his joints moving and flexible.
Living in a stall isn’t ideal for an older horse because standing in one place all day and night can make him stiff, so find another living situation for your oldie.
2. Regular Dental Visits
Seniors need to be checked by the equine dentists twice a year. The dentist examines the horse’s mouth and floats (rasps) his teeth if necessary.
Aging horses can suffer from tooth decay and periodontal disease. They may also have loose or missing teeth which make chewing difficult. If your horse doesn’t grind his feed up small enough with his chompers he won’t digest it properly, and this can lead to weight loss.
Really old horses sometimes lose all of their teeth or wear them down to the gums. This means that you’ll have to soak a pelleted feed in water at least twice a day to make a tasty mash that he can slurp up.
If feed drops out of your elderly horse’s mouth when he eats, it’s time to call the dentist.
3. Pasture Pals
As your horse ages, he may not be able to get away quickly from rowdy pasture pals and this can cause him stress. Find “mature” field mates who won’t chase him away from hay or bully him. His field should be a peaceful, relaxing place with plenty of space to amble around.
Make sure his field has a large shelter of some sort in it to protect him from the wind in winter and pesky flies in summer.
4. Stable Comforts
If your horse spends time in a stall, give him plenty of space to move around in and lots of bedding. Older horses feel the cold more than younger horses, so give him a cushioned bed to snooze on. It can be difficult for an older horse to get up and down, so make sure the walls are banked up higher with bedding so he doesn’t get cast (stuck against the wall.) If it gets really cold at night, cover him with a stable blanket.
5. Special Senior Feeds
As a horse ages, his digestive system processes food less efficiently and his body’s ability to absorb the nutrients he needs from his feed decreases. He may miss out on the protein and fiber required to stay healthy. This is why feed companies have developed special feeds just for oldies--feeds that contain ingredients which are easy for horses to digest, including high-fiber beet pulp, soybean hulls and alfalfa. Senior feeds are high in fat, because your senior citizen needs lots of calories in his diet. They also contain essential vitamins and minerals, and many have pro-biotic supplements mixed in which help to keep your horse’s digestive system working smoothly.
If you have trouble keeping weight on your old horse, feed him three small meals a day instead of two big ones. A skinny horse will also benefit if you mix a flake or two of high-protein alfalfa in with his regular grass hay every day.
6. Vital Signs
Check your senior citizen every single day to make sure he’s eating and drinking normally. If he stops making manure regularly, it could signal a digestive problem and you should talk to your vet. Look him over for skin ailments and wounds because they may take longer to heal on an older horse.
Schedule a veterinary check up every six months. Just like younger horse, your senior needs regular vaccinations, and it doesn’t hurt to let the vet take a good look at him. He may need blood tests to diagnose liver and kidney problems, Cushing’s disease and anemia. Your vet should also check your horse’s eyes to make sure he hasn’t developed cataracts or other eye ailments.
While the vet is at your farm, scoop up some of your horse’s manure in a plastic bag and give it to your vet so he can get a fecal worm exam done at the lab. Once you get the results, you and your vet can develop a deworming plan.
7. Keeping Him Sound
An older horse needs regular visits from the farrier to help keep him sound. He needs to be trimmed or shod every six to eight weeks. Keeping his hooves well balanced is essential if he suffers from arthritis, navicular or laminitis. If your horse has experienced navicular changes, he may need corrective shoeing to keep him comfortable so you can continue riding him.
8. Achy Joints
Older horses can be stiff when you first hop on them. This stiffness is usually caused by arthritis, a condition that affects many older horses. It occurs when the tissues and membranes which lubricate the area around a joint (where two bones meet) become swollen and sore, making it difficult for a horse to move freely.
If the vet suspects that your horse has arthritis, she may take X-rays of his legs, which may show damage to one or more joints. If your horse is diagnosed with arthritis (which is quite normal in older horses,) there are a few things you can do to keep him active.
If his arthritis is mild, you may be able to give your horse Phenylbutazone (bute) before you ride him. Bute is like aspirin and can relieve pain. You’re not allowed to use it at some shows, so check with your vet before you give it to your horse. It comes in a paste form that you administer with a syringe or in a powder form that you mix with your horse’s feed.
Your vet may inject your horse’s arthritic joints when necessary with a joint lubricant product such as hyaluranic acid to promote flexibility.
Feed your horse a daily joint supplement that contains chondroitin or glucosamine, substances that many people think encourage the growth of new cartilage, which helps keep a horse moving easily as he ages.
Another supplement that might help your horse is MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane), a natural sulfur compound which can help horses with stiffness and soreness.
10. Regular Exercise
If your horse is sound, regular exercise is beneficial for him so tack him up and spend time schooling in the arena or hacking out on the trail a couple of times a week. Just remember that an older horse may need a little more warm up than a younger horse. Warm up gradually by walking for a few minutes before you trot, canter or jump.