Like people, horses are living longer. Thanks to advancements in vet care and owner’s dedication, the options to care for elderly horses needs are vast. Again, like people, horses needs change as they get on in years. Now horses regularly live into their thirties, and figuring out when your horse is elderly is kind of case-by-case. Contributing factors will be how hard a life the horse has lived, breed and size and health conditions. Once a horse is well into it’s teens you need to look at things like coat dullness, a worn down general body condition, drooping lower lip, grey hairs, teeth wear etc. to figure out if it’s time to think of your horse as “old”.
If you’ve worked out the answer is yes, there are a lot of things you need to consider to give your old mate the happiest retirement you can. One of the biggies is how your horse is eating. This involves a few different aspects. How healthy are your horses teeth? Over time a horses teeth will wear away, making it difficult to grind up food, which can impact digestion. They can also develop sharp points that can cause mouth ulcers and discourage them from eating. Due to badly chewed food, older horses are prone to a condition called Choke, which is pretty much how it sounds. Keep up with dentist visits religiously to keep on top of these issues. Eventually it’s possible the teeth will deteriorate to where they will need to just slurp down a slurry. It is what it is, just make sure your nutrition is on point.
Feed itself will become a little more complicated. Your regular check up blood tests might start showing signs of kidney or liver problems. You could need to add or remove supplements to help with this. Older horses generally either have trouble keeping weight off or putting it on, and can often swing one way or the other with the seasons, so you might need to adjust for this too. A gradual restriction helps shed extra weight, but putting weight back on may prove trickier. Make sure that aside from getting enough calories, you remember to keep up enough fibre and look more into easily digestible foods like rice based foods, soaked sugar beets and balanced pelletised feeds. Things like Alfalfa hay have a good amount of roughage and higher protein. Gradually introducing vegetable oil can help keep the calories up too. Having your older horse in with younger, high spirited horses might end up with the oldy being bullied away from it’s food since they like to eat slower and sometimes not all at once. It might be smart to feed them separately in this case.
Your horses weight can and will affect other old-age issues. Keeping your horse in some sort of work and activity will almost always be beneficial, as it keeps them flexible, maintains muscle condition and keeps joints young. Deteriorating joints happen and will make movement more difficult and painful. On top of movement, keep up with important supplements like glucosamine to support the cushioning of the joints. To keep your horse moving, one can never forget the feet.
You will have been taking care of your horses feet it’s whole life. These delicate structures require a lot of vital maintenance since keeping them healthy is key to your horse’s overall well-being. As they age, any weaknesses in their hooves will become more apparent.The biggest risk to older horses hooves is a painful condition called Laminitis. It can caused permanent changes to the hoof structure which can lead to injury. This is another instance where keeping your horses diet and weight in check will help prevent issues. Keep up with your farrier’s recommendations also.
Up until now you may not have bothered with cover for your horse out in the paddocks. However, your newly senior horse is at a higher risk from the elements. Make sure they have a good winter coat and shelter from the wind and rain when outside. A horse that gets wet can lose heat at 20x the rate of a dry horse. Staying dry and warm helps them conserve energy. Be aware in warmer weather that they don’t overheat, which can be equally detrimental.
When your horses are younger and busier you will spend a lot of time on them, with them, paying close attention to them. So it’s easier to pick up issues or changes early, often as soon as they pop up. Once your horse has slowed down a bit, perhaps retired and put out to pasture, it’s natural there will be less interaction and one on one time to go over all the little details regularly. Do try and take the time so you stay familiar with their dental health, hoof health and general condition, including worming and grooming. It could be beneficial to take regular photographs to document changes over time you might otherwise miss. Most importantly, take the time because your horse will miss your connection. Your attention and company will help keep them healthier, longer.