Looking after the older horse

Looking after the older horse

IMG_3048Domesticated horses enjoy longer lives than ever before, but this happy fact brings its own issues for owners. Obvious signs of aging include deepening fossa (hollows) above the eyes, greying around the muzzle and eyes, and often a loss of weight, muscle tone and top-line. Other, more serious issues may also develop as the horse ages, however, and here we suggest ways to deal with four common problems, to help your horse have a happy, healthy life well into their twilight-years.

Tooth wear

Regular dental work to correct minor issues early in and throughout the horse’s life will help him maintain good dental health into later life. Horses’ teeth erupt and are worn down continuously; a young adult horse has teeth around 10cm in length that erupt at a rate of about 3–4mm a year. The older horse may have relatively short teeth, or may begin to lose them, thus requires regular checks and careful work to make the most of the tooth that remains. Periodontal disease may occur as the gums shrink away from the teeth, allowing food to become trapped. Loose teeth may need to be removed, or they can be shortened and ‘rested’, which may allow them to re-establish a good connection. A diet high in long forage means that the horse chews in the best way to promote even tooth wear. However, the time may come when the horse is no longer able to chew long fibre efficiently, and ‘hay replacers’ will become a necessary part of the diet.

Weight loss

Often older horses demonstrate difficulty in holding their weight, particularly as a result of tooth wear and reduced digestive ability, although veterinary checks should be done to ensure that there is no underlying disease. If the horse has a reduced ability to chew hay, a mash-type hay replacer feed, fed by dry weight, or chaff, will help maintain calorie intake. Many processed feeds made specifically for ‘seniors’ are available, and these, like many other commercial feeds, are essentially pre-chewed, the smaller particle size allowing the horse to extract as much value as possible. If straights are fed, many – such as barley, oats and linseed – can be cooked, allowing easier chewing and digestion. In addition, high-fat foods such as micronised linseed are highly nutritious and provide a good level of calories. If the horse is still in work the saddle fit should be frequently checked, while regular, appropriate work, correct nutrition and gentle massage or bodywork will help in maintaining muscle tone and bulk. Weight loss can be a particular problem in the winter, and it’s important to provide ad lib forage, to begin or increase supplementary feeding early in the autumn, to carry out a programme of worming or worm egg counts and to rug appropriately, so that the horse is always at a comfortable temperature – not too cold, but also not too hot.


Degenerative joint disease can occur at any age, depending on conformation and workload, but, being generally a result of wear and tear, it is more common in the older horse. A horse with arthritis should be maintained at a good body condition score, and if anything, slightly on the lean side, to reduce pressure on the joints. There is relatively limited evidence for the effectiveness of joint supplements, particularly for horses that have already developed joint disease, but the careful use of anti-inflammatory drugs such as Bute can help in keeping the horse comfortable and working. Corticosteroid or hyaluronan injections into the affected joint(s) can also help allow the horse to continue in its work, although the effects of these do wear off over time. Moderate, regular exercise and as much turnout as possible will help greatly in maintaining mobility, while keeping the feet well balanced will prevent unnecessary strain on the joints. As the condition progresses, depending on which joints are affected, horses may have difficulty in lifting the legs for foot care, so sympathetic handling is essential.

Cushings Disease (Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, PPID)

A common disease of aging, but increasingly found in younger horses too, Cushings is a dysfunction of the pituitary gland. Symptoms include hirsutism (excess hair growth), excessive drinking and urination, muscle wasting along the topline and abnormal fat distribution – fat ‘pads’– and an increased susceptibility to infections, such as foot abscesses. It is also associated with an increased risk of laminitis, and Cushings horses should be managed as such, by keeping them at a good weight, providing a diet low in non-structural carbohydrates (sugar and starch) and feeding a good-quality mineral balancer free from unnecessary ‘fillers’. Cushings may be controlled with the drug pergolide (Prascend); early diagnosis and treatment by a vet can help in avoiding the development of laminitis, so any potential symptom should be taken seriously.
Horses were once considered ‘aged’ at nine; now many are at their athletic peak in their teens, and lead working lives into their twenties. The age that domesticated horses can often reach today means that they may exhibit age-related problems to a greater degree than in the past – as is also true of humans. Nevertheless, they are also able to enjoy a longer working life, and a more comfortable retirement, thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and feeding and nutrition, well-designed lightweight rugs and tack, and a wide range of qualified para-professionals who can help make the horse’s life more comfortable and productive. Although extra care is required on the part of the owner – just as would be the case with a human relative – the effort put in is more than repaid by the pleasure of seeing an old, wise friend enjoying his or her later years.