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The Golden Years: Caring For Senior Horses

BY EARL GAUGHAN, DVM, DIPL. ACVS

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A little gray around the muzzle. Kind, knowing eyes that seem to say, "been there, done that." And a carefree attitude. It is hard not to love a senior horse. And, thanks to advances in equine health care and nutrition, we are getting to enjoy them longer. Not long ago we considered a 20-year-old horse to be "old," but now we see many horses living well into their 30s. In this article we will give you the key tips you need to care for your equine companions at this life stage.

The Immune System Isn't What it Used to Be

As your senior horse ages, so does his immune system. Like humans, aging horses' bodies have a harder time fighting off disease, and if they do get sick, it is much more difficult for them to regain their health.

Disease risks Keeping your senior current on his vaccinations is paramount to helping prevent disease. In addition to the annual core vaccines (West Nile virus, Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis, tetanus, and rabies), he might also need risk based vaccines to protect him from diseases such as equine influenza and equine herpesvirus-1 (EHV-1).

In addition to implementing a veterinarian-guided vaccination program, strongly consider housing your senior separately from youngsters and traveling horses. Horses in these life stages can carry the neurologic strain of EHV-1, which tends to prey on horses with weakened immune systems, along with other diseases veterinarians vaccinate against based on risk.

Parasitism A senior's weakened immune system also makes him more susceptible to internal parasites. Disorders such as Cushing's disease, also known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, can increase this risk. A veterinarian-guided deworming program based on fecal egg count results is very important for the senior. One of the most common reasons we see weight loss in every life stage is internal parasites, and older horses usually can't afford to lose any extra pounds.

Nutrition The senior's digestive system also changes with age, which can make it difficult to keep him in ideal body condition. The easiest way to make sure your senior is getting appropriate nutrition from his diet is to feed a complete feed (meaning forage is included in the concentrate) designed for the senior horse. Depending on your horse's dental health, you might want to consider creating a mash to allow for easier chewing and digestion of the concentrate. If your senior is able to chew forage properly, make sure you provide him with an easily digestible option. "The right hay makes a difference," says Katie Young, PhD, Purina Animal Nutrition technical equine nutritionist. "Look for good-quality, leafy, early cut hay. It is more nutritious, easy to chew, and won't unduly tax the digestive system." In addition to feeding a high-quality forage and concentrate designed for seniors, here are some other tips Young says can help keep weight on your vintage companion:

  • Increasing high-quality protein intake can help offset muscle loss that results from the senior horse's reduced digestion of crude protein and decreased digestive tract function.
  • Feeding smaller meals more frequently helps your horse more easily digest and process feed.
  • Offering clean, fresh water keeps food moving through your horse's system. If you're worried your senior is not drinking enough, consider supplementing his diet with salt to stimulate water consumption. Remember, horses prefer tepid water that's 45-75° Fahrenheit.

Dentistry Nutrition, weight loss, and dental care go hand in hand in senior horses. All horses' teeth continually erupt from the roots throughout their lifetimes to compensate for the constant wear from chewing. As a horse ages, the teeth elongate and the incisors begin to angle forward.Horse in lying in pasture Additionally, the horse's molars can develop hooks and sharp points that make chewing and grinding food painful. In very old horses the teeth simply wear down and fall out—you might even find teeth or parts of teeth in your grain bins. All of these changes can make it more difficult for seniors to chew and digest food properly. Typically, good dental care n a horse's younger years can help him maintain proper dentition as he ages. But if your horse didn't receive routine dental care during his youth, it's never too late to start. Senior horses should undergo a veterinary dental exam at least annually, while others need to be evaluated twice a year. Your senior might need dental care if he's showing these signs:

  • Dropping grain or hay while chewing
  • Abnormal movement and/or positioning of his head and mouth while eating
  • Wadding up hay inside his mouth while chewing or evidence of it (wadded up hay or grass he's dropped on the ground)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss without loss of appetite
  • Unusual or foul-smelling breath

Pain management Muscle and joint deterioration are some of the most common ailments we see in senior horses. Arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD) can be caused by overuse, injury, and/or infection, but the most common cause is agerelated wear and tear. Cartilage damage is the hallmark of DJD in aging horses. Unfortunately, cartilage has little to no ability to regenerate and heal, which is why DJD is irreversible and usually progressive. However, through the use of modern medicine, veterinarians can diagnose and manage DJD so that many senior horses can live a longer, more comfortable life.

Working with your veterinarian and farrier can help ensure your senior stays sound, and possibly even rideable, well into his 20s and even 30s. Your farrier might need to make special adjustments to compensate for your senior's joint discomfort. Talk with your veterinarian and farrier about ways to keep your senior comfortable during his routine hoof trims, such as allowing for longer rest periods during the trim, prophylactically administering painrelieving medication, etc.

A multifaceted approach to managing DJD might include:

  • Rest
  • Physical therapy
  • Farrier care and/or corrective shoeing
  • Corticosteroid injections (either systemic or intra-articular)
  • Chondroprotective joint injections such as sodium hyaluronate (HA), polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, or other nutraceuticals
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as phenylbutazone or Banamine
  • Regenerative therapy such as platelet rich plasma, conditioned autologous serum, or stem cell therapy

Other considerations Again, tracing back to their weakened immune systems and aging bodies, senior horses might be more susceptible to diseases and conditions such as laminitis, Cushing's disease, equine metabolic syndrome, cancer, cataracts, kidney, heart and/or liver disease, choke, and colic, to name a few. While this might seem like a long and gloomy list, a sound health care and nutrition plan can be your best line of defense in keeping your senior strong.

Take-Home Message

Whether your senior is active or retired, he has different needs than younger horses. Working closely with your veterinarian, farrier, and an equine nutritionist can help you ensure your senior stays happy and healthy for many years to come.

Merck Animal HealthVaughn, Earl. The Golden Years: Caring for Senior Horses.
N.p.: Merck Animal Health, 2013. PDF.