The reason why I decided to write a post about aging horses is certainly not to sound like a know-it-all or to even suggest that horse people with older horses don’t know how to take care of them. I’m sure everyone out there with an older horse knows exactly how to deal with their health issues. I did it because I recently had someone over who commented on our retired horses. He remarked that now some of our horses were retired and pasture ornaments they no longer needed as much care so it should be easier and cheaper for those retirees to be kept. On the contrary, if anything, they take more care and money as they get older and need more supplements, different feeds etc…. One of the reasons we bought our own farm was because we wanted to have a place where we could care for our horses into old age.
As we age and acquire the unwanted baggage that comes with it—stiff joints, weight changes, graying hair, loss of muscle tone and perhaps poor teeth—we’ve come to realize these same afflictions happen to our aging horses. We should all strive to help our horses age gracefully as we ourselves hope to. Although each horse is different, some of these signs may appear as early as 15 years of age. Because we ourselves have a few oldsters residing at the barn I thought I might do a quick post on the basic care we can and should provide for our senior citizens and the horses who are turning the bend from youngsters into middle age. Horse ownership in my opinion requires commitment from the beginning and should be carried out to the very end. By being the best caretakers to our horses’ needs we can help keep them healthy and comfortable throughout their lives; we owe them that much for all they do for us in return.
Since we rescued Sweetie it has been a little bit of a challenge knowing what the exact right thing for her age and infirmities are. We do have older horses, for example, Mellon who is 21 or slightly older. We’ve had him since he was three so are familiar with his particular needs. Lifeguard was 24 when he passed and Erik was 18; they had a few medical problems too and, again, we had them for many years and so could cope with whatever came up on a daily basis. The only other horse I can think of that we rehabbed that we did not know anything about was a chestnut Thoroughbred off the track (Critter) who came to us with a torn suspensory and fractured pastern in a cast. However, he was much younger and that is a story for another day.
I am certainly not a qualified nutritionist by any means, but if there are major changes in weight or drastic loss of muscle tone, you need to be vigilant and investigate what is causing these changes in your horse. As horses age their intestinal tracts may not function as efficiently as they once did making it more difficult for them to digest food to process into energy. In addition, so much of the horse’s immune system is located in the digestive tract that, keeping that healthy can help keep the whole horse healthier. Unhealthy or missing teeth can also contribute to a change in your horse’s health.
Body weight is an important consideration for any horse but especially the older ones. Too much weight or obesity could cause them to have joint, tendon and ligament problems, heart disease and a share of other problems. On the other hand, too little weight and poor condition over all should be dealt with in a timely fashion. One thing we do to see with where our horses are weight-wise is we keep a photo of each horse for each month and chart how they look in side by side evaluations month to month. If we see they are getting too fat, say on spring grass, we limit this by using grazing muzzles, which they don’t like much, but we consider it a necessity. The same applies to losing weight, which may occur during the winter months. Overfeeding would not be advisable but we gradually increase their feed until they are able to maintain the desirable weight. We feel it’s a good idea to address a problem before it happens, if you notice your horses are packing on extra poundage and just enjoying being pasture potatoes, start limiting their grazing and on the flip side of the coin if they are losing condition gradually start upping their food intake, especially in the form of good quality hay and/or beet pulp.
It’s just a fact of life that older horses need more digestible fiber, protein and fat in their diet than younger ones. It should also be easily digestible because the older the horse the less efficient it’s gut is at breaking down their high fiber food. We like to give our horses a probiotic combined with digestive enzymes to help them along, though we try to avoid giving antacids and buffers unnecessarily, as these can negatively affect digestion and absorption of key nutrients.
For horses requiring a change in diet, it could be as simple as switching to a healthier feed or a senior feed. Don’t try to keep down costs by purchasing the cheaper feeds—and especially cheaper, poorer quality hay—as this could be more costly simply because you need to give more feed for the calories and nutrition required by an older horse. You may save money in the end by purchasing a high quality feed and /or a nutritional senior feed that you need to feed less of in order to get the necessary nutrients.
Be careful about feeding too much grain as this will run an increased risk of laminitis, colic and stomach ulcers, caused by changes needed in the horse's gut to digest the food. Your horse needs calories but they should not be given at the expense of plenty of fiber (roughage). The important thing is that whatever you decide on is easily digestible. There are other options, too: the pulp of sugar beet and rice bran based feeds can all add useful, easily digestible calories to your elderly horse's diet.
Older horses need good quality hay, but avoid any that is stemmy and too mature. If their aging teeth can’t grind it up well, it will not be digested properly. You can witness this for yourself in their manure, as you will notice undigested pieces. Generally a sweet-smelling hay that is soft and pliable to the touch will be better for your oldster than the coarse stemmy kind. We find, for example, that coarse first cutting hay is less digestible than a softer second cutting grass hay, and though it is usually more expensive initially, more of it is useful to the horse and requires less energy to digest. Alfalfa hay is a great feed, particularly as a supplement to grass hay. It is palatable, high in roughage, and contains a high percentage of protein when compared to grass hay. The higher protein content is just what an older horse needs, so long as the horse has healthy kidneys. Of course, this will cost more but it's well worth it.
We have seen firsthand how a simple change in diet can give an older horse a new lease on life and make them look, feel and act years younger than their calendar age.
I would like to add that supplements can be a vital part of any horses diet, but certainly an older horse can reap the benefits to keep them healthy and feeling spry. If you are confused about what supplements would benefit your horses why not get in touch with a horse nutritionist or your veterinarian and see what they recommend. There are so many vitamins, herbal concoctions and supplements available in the market right now, it’s mind-boggling. Sitting down with a catalog can make you frustrated; I know I start to glaze over after a few pages, so give the professionals a call.
Vegetable oil is another great addition to the diet. These oils are very high in calories and horses do fairly well digesting small amounts of them, though too much can cause problems. Up to one or two cups of oil a day could be a useful dietary supplement for some older horses. As with any feed change you should add this to the diet gradually and not all at once. We sometimes feed our horses olive oil, wheat germ oil or coconut oil and try to stay away from the corn and soy types.
Another consideration for your older horse is their pasture/paddock situation. If your older horse is in a paddock with the younger brats, you may have to separate them at feed time. Older horses eat slower and may even walk away from their feed to graze for a while and then come back to their feed. So separating them at feed time is a good idea to make sure they are getting their full share. I’ve also seen how the other horses tend to push the older horses away from their piles of hay and move in on them. It’s a herd dynamic that the older horses simply seem to get pushed around. We have seen this happen to Sweetie quite often and while it is not fair, it is the way of things. So she gets to eat her hay in her own little paddock or her stall and then join with the herd when she’s finished. The only one she has any control over is her little boy Sami. He may be a brat with all the other horses and not listen to them but he sure listens to Mama. One look from her has him scurrying. The old girl still has it.
Hoof & Mouth
It obviously goes without saying that all horses should have their teeth checked regularly. We have an equine dentist but veterinarians can also maintain your horses teeth.
As for their feet, again their hooves should be checked and trimmed/shod as needed. Sometimes an older horse may need some new adjustments to make them more comfortable. We have a great pair of boots for Sweetie that supports her frog and gives her more cushion and support for her tired, sore feet. Sort of like a good sneaker with cushioning. They’re called “Soft-Ride” boots and they come in any size, a number of different therapeutic inserts and are really easy to use if you are interested.
I should add that even though retirees are no longer working they still need exercise. We accomplish this by making sure turnout is available every day from sun-up to sun-down. They get to move around all day and graze and they’ve been known to have a good trot or gallop once in a while when the mood strikes. Even Sweetie!
I hope I’ve covered the basics about condition and feed for the older horse, but I know I haven’t gotten to everything so, if you do have an oldster, research and do what you can to ensure a long comfortable healthy life for him or her. I’d be interested to know how you feed your aging horses and what steps you take to ensure their healthy condition with feed and supplements or any practices you think may be helpful to others.
Until next time
Quote for Today
A horse loves freedom, and the weariest old work horse will roll on the ground or break into a lumbering gallop when he is turned loose into the open.
- Gerald Raferty