The saying goes, “You’re only as old as you feel.” The same applies to our equine partners. Horses in today’s world are living longer because of the research and improvements in nutrition and care. The chronological age of a senior horse is any horse over the age of 18 years old. The horse’s physiological age can be assessed by how they feel and move. Horses that show signs of weight loss or loss of vigor may be experiencing other symptoms like lameness or dental issues.

Some signs of aging include:

  • Grey hairs around face
  • Increased napping
  • Decreased muscle strength
  • Joint stiffness
  • Reduced digestive efficiency & increase of colic
  • Gum and dental diseases
  • Reduced tolerance to extreme heat and cold
  • General slowing down and not interested in movement

As horses being seniors, having their teeth checked on a regular basis is essential. By having a veterinarian or licensed equine dentist check your senior horse twice a year, you can prevent many issues that may occur. Horses with dental issues can experience worn enamel, sharp edges, loose teeth and infections.

Some signs to look out for include:

  • Dropping feed
  • Excessive salivation
  • Slow to eat
  • Quidding- Wads of chewed up feed
  • Choking Bad breath
  • Weight loss
Photo of senior horses face.

Older horses tend to lose muscle mass and replace it with fat deposits. Extra weight is hard for older horse joints and they could potentially develop a condition like type 2 diabetes. Older equines should maintain a Body Condition Score of 5-6.

For the energy requirements for an older horse, you want to look at the carbohydrates and the fats in the feed. Carbohydrates, or the starches and sugars, will break down to glucose. Laminitis or colic can occur if the starches are fed at high amounts. Many senior horse feeds limit the amounts of starches and sugars. Fats are an easy to digest, concentrated energy source. To add calories to a horse’s diet and improve the hair coat, you need a higher fat content. Some supplemental fat sources would include vegetable oils, rice bran or flax seed. Look for higher omega-3 fatty acids (n3) to reduce the inflammation in your older equine. “Supplementation with n-3 fatty acids in horses may help manage chronic inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, equine metabolic syndrome, laminitis, and thereby help to improve longevity of sport horses” (Hess & Ross-Jones, 2014).

Graphic expresses need for: Body Condition Score 5-6, 2% or more in daily forage, more than 5 gallons of water per day, and omega 3 fatty acid supplementation.

Protein needs are usually met by most commercial feeds, but occasionally the senior horse will need a higher protein to meet their needs to combat the loss of muscle due to aging. Lysine is an indicator of the quality of the protein. Lysine is an essential amino acid and cannot be made by the horse so it must be present in the feed. Vitamins and minerals are required for normal body functions. Vitamins can be supplemented, and it is recommended for horses to have access to the free choice minerals. The most important part of a senior equine diet is fiber or the forage. Many senior feeds are fed as a complete feed and it can meet the total fiber requirement. Horses need around 1.5-2.5% of their body weight in dry matter forages. This means that a 1000 lb horse will need around 20 lbs of forage per day. The grass and hay should be the center of a horses diet. Check out the “Hay is for Horses” article in the September issue of The Leading Rein for more information of quality hay and forage.

Hydration in older horses should be of a concern. Horses drink between five and ten gallons of water per day and dehydration is a common cause of impaction colic. Water should always be fresh, free choice and at an acceptable temperature. Older horses may not drink in the winter time because of the water temperature being too cold. They may have a loss of enamel and it hurts their teeth. Be sure to regularly check the mouth for dryness and for gum color, which should be a pale salmon pink. Top dressing the feed with electrolytes can help keep your older horse hydrated. A vet can help make these feed recommendations.

Two common diseases that occur in older horses are Cushing’s disease and equine metabolic syndrome. Cushing’s also known as equine pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) is a complex progressive disease of the pituitary gland. Horses with Cushing’s disease are prone to chronic infections such as tooth and hoof abscesses. They typically have a long curly hair coat that doesn’t shed out. You can speak with your vet about a TRH test to determine if your older horse has Cushing’s and how you can manage it. Horses that experience equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) have increased adiposity or fat deposits, insulin resistance and a predisposition to laminitis. EMS is typically seen in middle aged horses, but can affect all ages from 5-20 years old. You can reduce the risk of laminitis by managing the horse’s diet and regular exercise. With any PPID or EMS horse, regular check ups, blood work, as well as dental and hoof maintenance will keep detection and management of these diseases easier. (Adams, 2013)

To combat the signs of aging, maintain the senior horse’s topline with regular exercise. Adding stretch exercises with treats will increase flexibility in the back and neck. Be concerned with the reduced circulating blood volume. Older horses are less efficient to build muscle, increase cardiovascular output, and dissipate the heat. Take multiple breaks when working with a senior horse. To evaluate how an older horse feels on any given day, it is best to lunge them first and observe their movement and gait. If they are moving stiffer, then it might be best to skip the day of work. Older horses need turn out as much as possible. Talk with your veterinarian about anti-inflammatory drugs, as they can aid in reducing the stresses of arthritis. Supplements like Glucosamine and Chondroitin have evidence to support their use in the older equine. Joint injections are another measure that you and your vet can take to ensure your senior horse is more comfortable. Eventually, you will have to stop riding your mount. Know the signs of declining quality of life. A horse that can’t maintain good body condition or lie down and get up with ease is of concern. Talk to your veterinarian about any changes you see and have a plan ready for when it’s time for euthanasia.

Ashley Best, Newton County Extension Coordinator