Advances in equine medicine are enabling horses to perform longer in their careers than ever before. Horses from the ages of 12 and older are considered “seniors,” but they often compete successfully into their teenage years.
Many horses that are in the prime of their careers may require extra maintenance in order to continue performing at their best, and advances in veterinary care have helped extend careers. An 18-year-old equine athlete would have been rare 10 years ago, but today, there are horses performing at a high level well into their senior years.
To maintain these athletes requires more work on the owner’s part, as well as the veterinarian’s part, however, preemptive attention to an aging equine’s needs may help keep your partner performing longer.
There are several areas of care that owners should consider in order to maintain their horse’s top health and ensure continued success. It is important to remember that just as the human body changes with age, the horse’s body does the same, notes the Palm Beach Equine Clinic.
- Owners should contact their veterinarians on a routine basis to have their horse’s overall health and fitness evaluated, no matter what the horse’s job is. All regularly performing senior horses should be evaluated a minimum of twice a year. Pleasure horses should be evaluated at least once a year.
- An appropriate fitness program is imperative to the senior horse’s performance. As horses age, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain their fitness. Any exercise that builds your horse’s stamina and muscle mass is essential, and the more your horse gets out of its stall and moves around the better. Anything from riding lessons to trail riding, or even hand walking, can be beneficial. There are new exercise aids available, such as treadmills, which are great for keeping the senior horse in top shape. Owners should talk to their veterinarian to help create a great fitness program that works for both them and their horse.
- Like any athlete, horses can experience physical setbacks, so it is important for owners to have their horse’s gaits evaluated routinely. Veterinarians can suggest appropriate treatments to avoid creating larger issues, whether the horse needs a little assistance with the flexion in their necks or joint injections to ease any discomfort.
- It is important to make sure that the senior horse’s stall is maintained for sanitation purposes and with a nice, deep bed to lie down in. The stall should be out of the direct sunlight and have fans for effective air movement and plenty of fresh water to prevent overheating.
An important component of physical health in the aging equine is metabolic function. As horses age, they become more prone to develop a metabolic disease known as Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease, also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), is when disfunction of the pituitary gland results in increased production of Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH), ultimately creating overproduction of the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone and a surplus of this hormone negatively affects the body.
Veterinarians use the fasting test of ACTH that evaluates the hormone levels to screen for possible Cushing’s disease. This hormone test should be conducted every six months to monitor hormone production.
Cushing’s disease is often detected in older horses between 16 and 23 years of age, but it has been documented in horses as young as eight. A few of the clinical signs of Cushing’s disease include change in body conformation such as development of a swayback and pot belly, lethargic attitude, and in some horses the growth of long, “curly” hair with delayed shedding. Horses suffering from Cushing’s disease are at serious risk to develop laminitis without any specific predisposing causes.
Occasionally, horses may have Cushing’s disease without showing any outward clinical signs as the onset is quite slow. A simple blood test will be extremely helpful in the early detection of Cushing’s and other metabolic diseases.
Organ function and parasite control
Blood tests are also necessary to determine whether a horse has anemia (low red blood cells). Serum chemistry testing can evaluate liver and kidney function to ensure these organ systems are working properly.
A fecal test to evaluate a horse’s internal parasite count is also recommended. The effectiveness of different dewormers can be measured using a fecal egg count reduction test, which involves performing a fecal egg count before and after deworming a horse. Equine tapeworms are difficult to identify in fecal examinations, so deworming for tapeworms with a product containing praziquantel, is strongly recommended.
Establishing an effective deworming program for equine parasites has become a debated topic as veterinarians have changed their views on worming in recent years. New research has found that a minimal parasite load within the horse’s hind gut is actually helpful in producing a natural immunity. However, it is crucial to control the parasitic load. Due to the emergence of new resistant parasites, the recommended method is to practice proper barn management for prevention and control along with rotational treatment with anthelmintic medications.
Environmental management is imperative to equine parasite control. Veterinarians recommend removing manure from pastures at least twice weekly. Mowing and harrowing pastures regularly will break up manure and expose parasite eggs to the sun. If possible, rotate the use of pastures by providing a period of rest or allowing other livestock to graze them. Grouping horses by age in a pasture can reduce exposure to certain parasites.
Additionally, reducing the number of horses per acre to a minimum can prevent overgrazing and reduce fecal contamination of the grazing area. Owners should consider feeding horses in a feeder for hay and grain rather than on the ground. Lastly, caregivers should routinely groom all horses to remove bot eggs from the hair to prevent possible ingestion.
It is important for owners to consider all of these issues in the senior horse and coordinate with their veterinarian for routine testing in horses 12 years and older.
Article courtesy Palm Beach Equine Clinic