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How to care for senior horses

Everything you need to know about senior equine care, from taking care of their teeth to managing their nutrition

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Increasingly, as they age, horses are being kept as companion animals. (Horses can live well into their 30s, depending on many factors, including their level of care.) In fact, they are being kept longer and longer—in some cases past the time where they can engage in equestrian activities.

While there appears to be no particular set of special requirements in caring for older horses, some age-related changes, if not recognized and addressed, can result in the appearance of abuse or neglect. Here’s how to help ensure that the life of a senior horse is a happy and healthy one.

Caring for Teeth

Over the course of his lifetime, the roots of a horse’s teeth continually erupt. When compared to their younger counterparts, senior horses show an increased incidence of abnormal teeth, increased tooth wear and tooth loss.

Older horses require regular oral examinations that address dentition problems. Older horses experiencing weight loss may have oral pathology, but many don’t benefit from dental intervention primarily because there is no tooth left to care for. Sometimes, they simply run out of teeth, making it difficult to chew and process feed—which can lead to other problems.

Attending to Nutrition

While older horses have no specific nutritional needs, some might benefit from pelleted or chopped preprocessed feeds if they have suffered tooth loss or experience difficulty chewing. Many “senior” feeds typically are alfalfa-based and feature higher protein and calorie content than regular hay.

Ensure that older horses kept in groups can get to their feed. Horses develop a hierarchy where more dominant animals eat more and can prevent less-dominant horses from getting adequate nutrition. In situations where geriatric horses aren’t able to compete for feed, consider feeding them separately. Even if no medical or management problems exist, older animals that experience difficulty maintaining weight might require supplemental calories.

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Provide adequate and safe feeding space. While a horse of average size requires between 10 and 15 pounds of forage a day to maintain his weight, older horses might require more. Interestingly, additional vitamins and minerals have no apparent benefit.

Managing PPID/Cushing’s Disease

As horses age, the majority develop pituitary gland abnormalities, such as pars pituitary intermedia disorder (PPID or Cushing’s disease), the most obvious sign of which is a long, curly haircoat that could be misinterpreted as neglect or abuse.

In addition to the typical haircoat, other signs associated with PPID include lethargy, sweating, muscle tissue loss, repeated infections and infertility (although, frankly, most people don’t breed older horses).

The real problem for many old and hairy horses is that the associated excess production of cortisol can help trigger endocrine-associated laminitis, which can be very difficult to treat.

Even if a senior horse doesn’t exhibit obvious signs of PPID, consider administering dexamethasone suppression and thyroid releasing hormone tests, and measuring resting levels of adrenocortocotropic hormone. No test is 100 percent accurate, and results can vary seasonally. Conversely, there’s really little reason to test senior longhaired horses that don’t shed.

With proper attention to diet, hoof care, dentition and other aging-related problems, horses with PPID can be successfully managed for many years.

Monitoring Arthritic Conditions

Joints affected by arthritic conditions can make it difficult for senior animals to rise and ambulate. However, many older horses with arthritis get along just fine, although humane issues arise in severe cases.

It can be difficult for animals affected with severe arthritis to get to their feed, especially if they are kept in pasture. Watch for signs of lameness in suspect horses. If lameness is seen at the walk, it’s more likely to be a problem for the horse. Many jurisdictions have laws that prohibit the keeping or harboring of animals in an incurable, crippled condition, such as in severe cases of arthritis, where horses are debilitated by their disease.

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Attending to Humane Concerns

No matter how caring the owner, unmet special needs of older horses can make them look like victims of abuse or neglect. If assessments of senior horses bring up concerns about the condition of their environment, inspect the premises to ensure there is an adequate supply of feed on site for the number of horses kept. Many horse owners have neither the capacity nor the desire to keep large amounts of feed on site, but the owner should be able to show records of frequent feed purchases.

Older horses, which provide owners with companionship and good memories, are making up a larger part of today’s horse population. Paying attention to their needs can go a long way toward maintaining a more comfortable quality of life.

Dr. David W. Ramey is a Southern California equine practitioner who specializes in the care and treatment of pleasure horses. His website is doctorramey.com.

Originally published in the April 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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