Care of Older Horses
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Your 22-year-old gelding is starting to get a sway in his back and some grey hairs. Horses generally don’t become senile or as physically frail as elderly humans (unless they have a health problem), but some changes occur as they grow older. These changes happen sooner in some horses and later in others depending on various factors, including genetics. Some horses start to show signs of aging as early as 15 or 16, and some don’t look old until their late 20s or older. Humans age at different rates and so do horses.
Some of this may depend on how fast their teeth wear out. Signs of old age include swayback, due to weakening of the main ligament that supports the back. You may also see a weakening of tendons in the legs, allowing the fetlock joint to drop lower, especially in the hind legs. Other signs of aging include gray hairs (especially around the eyes and face), drooping lower lip, sunken eyes, and stiff joints. Arthritis may make it painful for the horse to move athletically, or even get up and down. Health and body condition should be monitored since certain issues need to be recognized and addressed when caring for older horses — and some individuals may have more problems.
Most horses tend to stay reasonably healthy, active, and sound through old age and then decline quickly, compared to humans that often deteriorate gradually. Sometimes we can postpone that decline in an older horse with good care.
The horse might be able to go on several more years with diligent care — such as a horse with no teeth or a horse with metabolic problems that need special care and medication.
In judging body condition, horses are scored from 1 to 9 with 1 being emaciated, and 9 being obese. It’s best to keep older horses between 4.5 and 5.5 on that scale, if possible. You don’t want them thin but also don’t want them overweight because the extra weight is hard on their joints.
Horses tend to lose their topline as they age. Even if they have appropriate body conditions, their backbone starts to show. Steady exercise and keeping the horse fit (good muscle development) can help slow muscle loss along the topline. If the horse doesn’t have much covering along the backbone, pay attention to saddle fit and proper use of saddle pads if you are still riding him.
If he has an adequate feed, no dental issues or metabolic problems, and still loses weight, you need to evaluate his diet, and possible parasite issues, and have your veterinarian check him; there may be some underlying health issues that need to be addressed.
If you are still riding or driving the horse, using him in competition, or for trail riding, you want him to stay fit and sound. Keeping older horses active is better than trying to get a horse back in shape after a period of nonuse. Steady exercise is best, without a lot of time off or periods of extreme exertion.
Keep an eye on how the saddle fits to make sure it’s not rubbing certain areas that weren’t a problem in his younger years. You might need extra pads or special pads to protect his more-prominent backbone. Regular hoof care should be routine for every horse but if the older horse has any hoof problems, those should be addressed to keep him sound and able to do his job. He may need special shoeing if he has a hoof crack or suffers from arthritis or navicular syndrome.
If you are still riding him, his old joints and muscles may be stiff, so always take time to warm him up gradually before you ride. Increased blood circulation will loosen tight muscles and joints; he will move freer and more comfortably and be less apt to suffer exercise-related injuries. Take time to get joints warmed and limbered to where they are less apt to be injured during athletic work. Careful cool-out is also important after a long ride. If he is completely cooled out before you put him away, he is less apt to break out in a second sweat or have stiffer joints and muscles the next day.
Some horses don’t have a “job” and are fully retired, but still need regular exercise, especially if they don’t have a large pasture where they can move around and self-exercise. You might not want to put an old horse with a group of boisterous younger ones that may roughhouse or try to bully the older one, but an older horse can have a very satisfying life being a babysitter and role model to a group of weanlings or yearlings that respect his dominance. Horses always do better with a buddy of some kind — even a donkey or goat. Companionship is important for their mental well-being.
All horses need adequate nutrition and a balance of proper nutrients. This is especially true in older horses that may have dental issues or less ability to absorb nutrients due to less efficient digestion. Nutrition affects body condition, the immune system, and whether the horse can stay active and fit. The older horse may need special feeds and supplements; make sure the feed is something he can readily eat.
There are many good senior foods that are easier for a horse to eat if his teeth are bad, and these feeds also contain a good balance of nutrients. Some contain things like glucosamine to help support joint health. There are many commercial “senior feeds” and also supplements to add to the diet. Some feeds contain extra fat, but you can also add a fat supplement or something like vegetable oil.
Some probiotic products can help the older horse. The microbial population in the cecum and large colon declines with age — fewer microbes to ferment the feed. It helps to feed a fermented fiber source, such as haylage, which is already broken down a little.
Many people use joint supplements for older horses, to try to alleviate arthritis, but most of them are oral. They have to go through the stomach, where the stomach acids destroy most of the ingredients before they get into the bloodstream to go to the joints. These supplements are probably useful, but it takes longer to see results — and you need to make sure the supplement has the right compounds and correct amounts.
An injectable supplement bypasses the GI tract and more of the product goes directly to the joints, and you tend to see better results. The injectable products are more expensive, but most people feel they work better — especially the supplements that have high concentrations of hyaluronic acid. The results will also depend on how severe the arthritis condition is. If it’s mild, you may see good results. If it’s severe, you may not see many results with oral supplements.
It’s important to keep older horses vaccinated to keep the immune system.
If you can keep older horses healthy and vaccinated, appropriately dewormed, supply good nutrition, and minimize stresses (exposure to extreme weather, overwork, emotional stresses, etc.), they generally don’t have major immune issues, but they may sometimes have more internal parasites due to a diminished immune system and less resistance to parasites. The older horse may need to be dewormed more often. It pays to monitor the worm burden in the older horse (with fecal egg counts), especially if the horse is on pasture — which is where he will be most likely to pick up those parasites.
Another manifestation of a waning immune system is the increased frequency of cancer in geriatric horses. Melanomas on gray horses often proliferate as the horse gets older. Squamous cell carcinomas may develop in areas of unpigmented skin in light-colored horses, such as around the eyes, prepuce, and vulva. Internal tumors may develop, resulting in weight loss and other signs specific to the body system affected. Keep track of the horse’s health and any changes.
Metabolic issues are more common in older horses. The most common is PPID (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction), often called Cushing’s disease or Cushing’s syndrome. If you have a geriatric horse, it’s a good idea to have an annual veterinary physical exam — especially if the horse is showing any signs in physical appearance associated with Cushing’s. Some veterinarians recommend a yearly test for this condition. This can be done with a blood test called an ACTH (adrenal corticotropin hormone) test. Horse owners should work with their veterinarian on this because not every horse over 18 needs to be tested.
It helps to do the test annually, however. Just because a horse tested negative a year or two ago doesn’t mean he won’t come up positive later. If a horse does have this condition he needs to be treated, for the rest of his life. Treatment can greatly improve his quality of life.
Endocrine disease can affect the horse’s immune system. When a horse has increased cortisol production due to Cushing’s this is similar to being continually on medication with corticosteroids except in this instance the horse’s body is making the steroids. This continual supply of cortisone depresses the immune system, which can show up as wounds that don’t heal well, dental problems, foot abscesses, etc. There’s also more risk for laminitis, due to the excess cortisol in the body.
A horse’s teeth continually change as they gradually erupt from the jaw. Front teeth become more angled with age, and molars may develop hooks and ridges. If a horse loses a tooth, the opposing tooth has nothing to wear against and “grows” abnormally. Older horses may need periodic dental work to avoid problems. If horses become quite old, worn-down teeth may come clear out. Then you must make sure their feed is chopped up and softened because they can’t chew.
HEATHER SMITH THOMAS ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history. She has raised and trained horses for 50 years and has been writing freelance articles and books for nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Find Heather online at heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.