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Caring for old horses

Bill, 28, awaits the arrival of his dinner.

Bill, 28, awaits the arrival of his dinner.

Horses, like people, are living longer. And more horses than ever are living a long and happy retirement. Neil Clarkson reports on strategies for caring for older equines.

Picture your elderly horse as a human for a moment. Would they be the kind of person that would:

  1. Be tucked up at home complaining about the cost of home heating.
  2. Out with their mates playing bingo at the local school hall.
  3. Out playing a round of golf, followed by a few drinks in the clubrooms.

I suspect most horses prefer to grow old disgracefully. When there’s a bit of excitement in the paddock, the oldies will be in for a canter just as much as the rest of the herd.

More horses than ever are living into their 30s, thanks to improving veterinary care and the fierce determination of owners to provide their loved companions with a happy and healthy retirement.

Exactly when a horse should be considered old will vary greatly. The kind of life a horse has led and its breed will play a big part. Pony breeds tend to live longer, often proving rideable up to 30. Bigger breeds tend to make old bones earlier.

It’s therefore hard to define a horse as “old” at any particular age. It comes down to assessing the signs of advancing years, which include a sway back, drooping lower lip, a dulling coat, gradual loss of body condition, increasing numbers of grey hairs, stiffer joints, and the inevitable teeth wear.

It will all sound depressingly familiar to their human counterparts entering the so-called Third Age. Evidence would suggest roughly 10 per cent of horses are over 20.

Caring for an older horse isn’t difficult.

There are key areas an owner needs to address to ensure the later years are as happy as possible for all parties.

As horses age, dental care is even more important.

As horses age, dental care is even more important.

Teeth

Most horse owners know the expression, “No feet, no horse”. The same principle applies to teeth.

There’s little doubt that your elderly horse will not be thriving on pasture unless they possess a serviceable and pain-free set of chompers.

Their teeth are naturally going to be nothing like the pearly whites they possessed in their younger years. However, it’s important what teeth they do have are working well.

The action of a horse’s teeth is the crucial first step in the digestion process. The food needs to be crushed by the teeth to ensure digestive enzymes can work their magic in the intestines. If a horse’s teeth are not grinding up the forage properly, it will affect the efficiency of the whole digestive process. Food that is poorly chewed will not be processed as well in the small intestine, leading to inadequately digested food entering the hindgut, leading to undesirable fermentation and potentially serious problems, such as colic and laminitis.

Regular check-ups by your equine dentist are essential. How often depends upon the condition of the horse, and the condition of its teeth. Be guided by your dentist. If they suggest six-monthly check-ups, then note it in your diary and get it done.

It’s important to realise that horse teeth do no behave like ours.

We grow adult teeth which then stop descending, and are slowly worn down as we age. Horse teeth wear down, too, but they keep growing out. Eventually, there is no tooth left to descend and eating pasture becomes much tougher for the horse.

Older horses are far more likely to develop sharp points on their teeth, hence one of the reasons for regular check-ups. Sharp points can cause mouth ulcers and will discourage the horse from chewing food properly.

Older horses are prone to a condition called choke. This tendency to gag or choke when swallowing food is usually the result of poorly chewed food, probably arising from dental issues. Get those gnashers checked!

Blood

Few people will get through a medical check-up without the dreaded needle and syringe appearing. A blood screening test can reveal a lot of information about your general health, including crucial kidney and liver function.

An annual blood test for your elderly horse will be a wise investment.

As the horse ages, you’re increasingly likely to see deterioration in liver and kidney function. Your vet may not be able to treat the problem, but there are dietary changes that can be made to help the horse. For example, a supplement could be added to shore up a shortfall, or something eliminated from the diet to ease the workload on the kidneys.

You can save a few dollars by arranging the blood test when your vet is out treating another animal.

Body condition

Equine obesity has been in the news in recent times. We are creating paddock potatoes, the research tells us. Fat horses, just like people, are prone to heart disease and a raft of other diseases – not to mention the extra stress all that weight will place on their joints.

A rice-based feed is a good easily digested food source for an older horse.

A rice-based feed is a good, easily digested food source for an older horse.
Soaked sugarbeet: an easily eaten food which is a good source of easily digestible fibre. Soaked sugarbeet: an easily eaten food which is a good source of easily digestible fibre.

One of the biggest risks is laminitis, or founder, which has been clearly linked to obesity and diet. Older horses tend to have trouble either keeping weight on, or keeping it off. Some may even have a foot in both camps, tending to get fat on spring grass, and shedding too much weight during the winter months.

Restricting food intact is the obvious option for fatties, but putting weight on can prove more difficult.

We’ll deal with diet shortly, but the key issue is taking action before weight – or lack of it – issues become apparent. If you know your horse is going to get fat on spring grass, start restricting its intake beforehand. If your horse is still sound, moderate exercise will certainly help it lose weight, and keep it off.

An old horse – in fact, any horse – is better to have its weight controlled through moderate restriction rather than a crash diet. Don’t leave it until your horse is fat.

The same principle applies to horses that you know lose condition over winter. Start lifting food intake a month before you would expect to see any loss of condition.

Gradual changes in body condition can be difficult to detect. Some people keep a good photographic record of their older horses, which they can use to help decide whether the animal is maintaining body condition.

If you’re familiar with the body score system for horses, do an assessment regularly to ensure your horse is not going backwards.

At what point should you start considering the special dietary needs of an aging horse?

An older horse on a normal maintenance diet that has a healthy coat, good body condition and is still eating well is unlikely to be a cause of concern.

However, once the first signs appear that body condition is starting to fall away, it’s most likely time for a dental check and a blood test, and changes in the daily care of the animal.

Paddock arrangements

Older horses tend to be slower eaters. This is an important consideration if your older horse shares a paddock with young upstarts.

The last thing you want is the horse being bossed off their food. Older horses may also prefer to have several goes at a meal, rather than scarf it all in one go.

Your older horse is unlikely to be happy separated permanently from his or her mates, so the logical answer is to feed them separately.

Set up an area surrounded by electric fence tape and let the horse in for its meals. Horses quickly learn a feed routine and the others will soon understand the set-up.

Make the yard big enough so the horse can head off and eat a little grass. Don’t assume that they don’t want the food they’ve left, and give it to the others. There’s a good chance they’ll munch on grass for 15 minutes, then go back to finish the leftovers.

If you own several horses, the whole issue of paddock dynamics needs to be watched carefully. It may well be that your older horse pairs up well with some horses, but not others. Older horses generally prefer the quieter life. Do your best to make it happen.

Diet

Older horses need more protein and fat in their diet than their middle-aged counterparts.

They will also do better if you can provide them with fibre in their diet that is easily digestible, as an old horse’s gut is generally less efficient at breaking down this material.

Vegetable oil is a great addition to an older horse's diet. Horses digest it well and it's a great source of energy.

Vegetable oil is a great addition to an older horse’s diet. Horses digest it well and it’s a great source of energy.

Horses need good quality hay, and this is especially so for older animals. Avoid any that is stemmy and too mature. If their aged teeth can’t grind up stemmy hay well, it will not be digested well. This may well show in poorly digested food in their droppings.

How is this “easily digestible fibre” identified? Generally speaking, feeds that feel softer to the hand will generally have more digestible fibre. So a sweet-smelling hay that is soft and pliable to the grip will be in a totally different league to coarse-feeling stemmy rubbish.

Good hay will cost more, but it’s a good investment, regardless of the age of the horse.

For horses that have trouble keeping weight on, good hay is unlikely to be enough on its own to maintain condition. If you horse needs more calories, unprocessed grain will generally not be the ideal source.

The fields of the world’s grain belts have never been the natural habitat of the horse. They’re adapted to lower grade feed – and plenty of it.

Feeding too much grain runs an increased risk of laminitis, colic and stomach ulcers, caused by changes needed in the horse’s gut to digest the food.

Yes, your horse needs calories.

How you go about giving them to the animal is the important thing. The calories should not be at the expense of plenty of fibre (roughage). And, as discussed earlier, the important thing is that it’s easily digestible.

So what are the alternatives? Plenty, actually.

Lucerne (alfalfa) hay is a great feed. It’s palatable, high in roughage, and contains a high percentage of protein when compared to meadow hay. The higher protein content is just what an older horse needs.

Vegetable oil is another great addition to the diet. These oils are very high in calories and horses are well adapted to digesting them. One or two cups of oil a day would be a great dietary supplement, but add it to the diet gradually, as you would any feed change.

Well balanced pelletised or extruded feeds can also be a valuable source, as the processing cooks the feed, making it more digestible for an older horse.

Bill checks out some lucerne hay. It is very palatable and its higher protein content makes it an ideal choice for older horses.

Bill checks out some lucerne hay. It is very palatable and its higher protein content makes it an ideal choice for older horses.

Some pelletised or extruded feeds are formulated for older horses. They’re likely to have higher levels of protein and fat. Because of the better digestibility, it’s likely your old horse will do better on an extruded or pelletised feed than a traditional sweetfeed or coolfeed mix.

If you do intend feeding grain, make it as digestible as possible. Crush it, cook it; and opt for those that are digested quicker, avoiding options such as corn.

There are other options, too: the pulp of sugar beet and rice-based feeds can all add useful, easily digestible calories to your elderly horse’s diet.

Add a general vitamin and mineral supplement at the recommended level to ensure your horse is getting all necessary trace elements.

Depending upon the state of your horses teeth, you may need to turn the feed into a slurry or mash. Whatever feed regime you adopt, ensure the food smells good, is dust-free, and provides plenty of easily digestible fibre.

Finally, how many feeds should you horse have a day? The more reliant the horse becomes on its supplemental diet for its wellbeing, the greater the benefits of splitting the food into two, three, even four meals a day.

It’s entirely possible your aged equine could turn into a toothless wonder, slurping down three or four meals of nutritious slurry a day.

But the best diet in the world is not going to be of much help if your horse has a problem with worm burden.

Older horses should be wormed just as regularly as their younger counterparts. Aside from the ill-thrift likely from worm infestation, there is an increased risk of colic.

worm burden will be a nasty double whammy for an aged horse. Their digestive system will already be less efficient because of age; the last thing they need is someunwelcome parasites along for the ride.

Shelter

Horse owners tend to have firm views on whether to cover horses that live in the open. It only stands to reason that an older horse needs some shelter from the chills of winter. A covered horse stays dry and will use less energy to stay warm.

A good winter coat certainly provides excellent protection from the elements, but once a horse is wet to the skin it can lose heat at 20 times the rate of a dry horse.

A good cover and established paddock shelter can make a big difference to the general wellbeing of a horse. Don’t let your horse overheat, however, as the seasons change.

The moderate exercise an old horse gets from being turned out in a paddock is not only good for its mental well-being, it will help its mobility and aid digestion.

Standing in a stall all day will contribute to puffiness in the limbs and stiff joints. People are little different: you try sitting or standing around all day.

Hoof care

The strengths and weaknesses in your horse’s feet will be well and truly revealed come old age. Some horses can go shoeless, while others may require regular shoeing to keep their feet in good order. Much will depend upon whether your older horse is still in work.

However, the biggest risk is from within: laminitis is a painful disease which can cause permanent changes in the foot that can have potentially fatal consequences.

The key here is to keep your horse’s weight under control, and its diet well-balanced. Other triggers for laminitis are discussed here.

Illnesses

It would be nice to think that your horse’s later years will be free from ill-health and disease.

Unfortunately, just like people, old age can bring with it a number of problems, some of which can be treated with success, while others involve management and control of the symptoms.

Various forms of arthritis and joint disease are common. Discuss treatment with your veterinarian. Most treatments are aimed and reducing inflammation and pain rather than improving the condition. Some medications have side effects, so discuss the options carefully with your vet.

Problems with the pituitary gland, resulting in Cushing’s disease, are also common. Treatment for Cushing’s is affordable and will improve the horse’s quality of life.

Melanomas, or skin cancers, can arise, particularly in older greys.

Many more conditions can be managed as horses enter old age than was the case 20 years ago. The keys issues are quality of life and freedom from pain.

A wise sage once said that death and taxes are the only certainties in life. Horses are mercifully free of the latter affliction. The first option probably doesn’t appeal much, either.

Provided their general health is good, it’s hard to imagine any horse failing to enjoy a nice day with the feel of the sun on its back.

 

First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in July, 2007.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Anne Csak says:

    After reading the above article, we seem to be doing the right things for our 37 year old mare, Irish draught/TB cross. Even so, loses weight in the winter, and rebounds somewhat on grass in summer.
    What are your thoughts on using blankets?. We are in the foothills of Alberta, Canada, and subject to extreme periods of cold, followed by the chinooks. Temperatures can range from -25C for a week or two and then overnight can zoom up to +0C. to +10C.
    We have a lightweight waterproof blanket which we have used already and removed because of the extreme temperature changes.
    Bonnie is in what we call the “Winter” paddock, close to barn, lightly treed, sheltered from high wind.

  2. Pam says:

    For goodness sake, does Bill really need a blanket up to his ears in all that lush greenery surrounding him??
    My two old guys get waterproof shells late autumn when it is rainy, then 200d quilts underneath at about -10 and colder. They have thick furry coats developed for the winter. I monitor their comfort daily, feed according to body condition. They have run-in shelter and a mix of hay, including soft, second-cut grass/clover/alfalfa. No blankets spring, summer or any time it is green outside!! They want to roll and itch!!
    Owner of 25 and 28 yr-old QHs in OTTAWA, Canada.

  3. Lucy says:

    I can’t get my 35year old Arab stallion back in condition this summer. He has all the grass he wants, weight gain feed with sugar beet, wormed, teeth checked, but he looks like a toast rack. Any tips? He’s a bit arthritic behind now but otherwise healthy.

  4. jenna says:

    amazing it helped me finish a horse 4-h project.

  5. Allison says:

    I have a horse that has cribbed all his life his old owner says he is only 17 or 18 but the vet says that he is roughly 25 he is a big baby that has nubs for top teeth and so it is hard for for him to eat a lot of things and he drops A LOT of food and I live in Texas so in the summer it gets really HOT so the grass does not grow a lot so we try to feed but we have the problem of all of our horses having to much protein so we try to cut back on it or just don’t feed them and when I got him he was a walking bag of bones so we have to watch his weight because we can skip a day of feed and he lose maybe 5 pounds we don’t know what to do.

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