A Health Plan for Equine Senior Citizens
A horse is considered ‘senior’ when he turns 20, which is the equivalent of a 57 year old person. You can click here to calculate your own horse’s age in human years. According to the Kentucky Equine Research Staff, “17% of the horses in the U.S. are estimated to be over 20 years of age.” That’s a high number, but with exercise and proper nutrition our older equines can stay healthy well into their golden years.
Move It or Lose It
Regular, and age appropriate physical activity builds and maintains muscle. Exercise can help prevent metabolic issues, says Kenneth McKeever, Ph.D., FACSM, professor of equine exercise physiology and associate director for research at the Equine Science Center at Rutgers. “Also, when we first started putting old horses on the treadmill and then the Eurociser machine, they were feeling better and loosening up after three sessions.”
Marijke de Jong suggests being flexible in one’s approach to working an older horse as he will have good and bad days. Don’t work senior equines on humid, hot days as they become easily dehydrated and have a hard time cooling down. Consistent exercise improves their mental wellbeing, by giving them a job and making them feel useful.
Keeping Up Appearances
Extra care is needed to keep senior horses in good condition.
Older horses’ digestive systems don’t absorb nutrients easily, and worms damage the intestines even further while stealing those nutrients for themselves. A fecal count will help your veterinarian develop an effective deworming program.
Fiber: Dr. Lydia Gray suggests “providing fiber that is easier to digest (higher quality hay, soaked hay cubes, beet pulp, complete feed) as well as pre- and probiotics, yeast and digestive enzymes.”
Protein: To maintain condition, older horses often need extra calories from a high protein feed.
Fat: Adding fat to the diet is another way to increase their calorie intake. Kentucky Equine Research suggests feeding it “in the form of vegetable oil, rice bran, or a fat supplement.”
Meals per Day: If fed too much per meal, many horses go off their food. Consider giving your older horse several small feeds a day.
Dental Care: Older horses’ teeth need floating twice a year and Scot T. Gillies warns: “Horses with terribly compromised dentition could be more likely to suffer from esophageal blockage (“choke”) or impaction-type colic.” Dental problems also lead to an inability to chew, resulting in poor nutrition and loss of body condition.
Obesity: Some horses put on weight in old age rather than lose it. As Neil Clarkson quips: “We are creating paddock potatoes.” Overfeeding invites a host of problems including metabolic issues such as insulin-related disorders, Cushing’s disease, and thyroid or pituitary problems.
Hoof Care: Advanced age doesn’t preclude the need for regular visits from the farrier to keep your senior equine sound, as long as his hooves aren’t lifted too high.
The healthiest situation for older horses is 24/7 turn-out on good quality pasture, with equine companions who don’t bully them, and adequate shelter. It doesn’t take much effort to give our senior equine citizens the extra help they need to grow old healthily and gracefully.
Resources & Further Reading
FAQs About PPID (Cushing’s Disease)