From a veterinary perspective, horses can be considered “middle-aged” by 13 years of age, and “seniors” by 20 years of age. Although many sport horses may just be coming into their prime for training and competing during these years, horses show signs of ageing at different rates just like humans do. As horses age, some physiological functions start to decline, and they require extra care to maintain their overall health and condition.
Advances in diagnostics, therapies, and medications can help to support equine athletes and keep them performing well into their golden years. While many of the same health factors apply to horses of all ages, several additional and significant concerns should be considered for the ageing horse.
Ageing impacts a horse’s ability to digest and use the nutrients in its feed as well as its ability to maintain weight and muscle mass. Senior horses require a diet that is highly digestible, palatable, and has an amino acid profile that will maintain muscle mass. As diet is one of the most crucial facets of a horse’s care, owners can consult their veterinarian to make sure they are fueling their ageing horse with an adequate ratio and amount of high quality of forage, grains, vitamins, and minerals.
“When it comes to the best nutrition for senior horses, access to high-quality forage is very important and some horses may need free-choice quality hay to maintain optimum health,” says Dr Marilyn Connor of Palm Beach Equine Clinic. “There are many commercially available feeds labeled as “senior” that are formulated to meet the dietary needs of the middle age to senior horse. These feed products are often beneficial to all adult horses as they are processed to be nutrient-dense and highly digestible.”
There are many additional factors that go hand-in-hand with feeding a senior horse, such as minimising the risks of colic and ensuring the best dental health. A veterinarian will be able to advise the owner if their senior’s diet is meeting the horse’s needs and setting them up for success in the years to come.
The digestion process begins in the mouth, so maintaining good dental health is imperative. Equine teeth, unlike human or small animal teeth, will continue to grow throughout the horse’s life. An annual dental exam will go far in preventing and fixing sharp points, hooks, chipped or fractured teeth, or damage to soft tissue within the mouth.
In geriatric horses, the teeth are no longer erupting as quickly and as a result they may not develop sharp points as quickly. But with age, the teeth wear which causes the crown to thin and roots to shorten. As this happens, the teeth are more prone to damage and fracture. Dr Tyler Davis says regular dental exams will catch these potential issues sooner than if allowed to become problematic.
“Another condition more common in geriatric horses is Equine Odontoclastic Tooth Resorption and Hypercementosis (EOTRH). This condition affects the incisors and occasionally the canine teeth and can be very painful,” Davis says. “Often times, EOTRH can be recognised as irritability, head shyness, or if the horse struggles to bite treats like carrots. We can make a definitive diagnosis of this through taking radiographs.”
Older horses are more prone to developing endocrine diseases such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID or Cushing’s disease). These diseases can lead to progressive deterioration of healthy tissue and have major negative effects on almost every bodily system in the horse. A horse with unmanaged PPID is more likely to experience episodes of laminitis, chronic infections, anhidrosis, and infertility, as well as career-ending soft tissue injuries. Research indicates that between 20 to 30 percent of horses over the age of 13 have PPID, many with no clinical signs making the disease go unnoticed.
Dr Marilyn Connor recommends that all patients over the age of 13 start annual endocrine metabolic testing to look for early changes associated with PPID or EMS. She says horses can start to develop these diseases at as early as the age of seven.
“I think it is critical to be proactive in the middle-age and senior horse so we can start treatments to correct the hormone imbalances before they begin to cause long term damage or the horse sustains an injury that might have otherwise been avoided,” Connor says.
Routine blood tests, such as a Complete Blood Count (CBC) or Serum Chemistry analysis are useful in identifying changes to the horse’s red and white blood cell counts (to see if they may be anemic) and to assess internal organ function. Having your horse tested every six to 12 months will be helpful for tracking and detecting any changes in their health and implementing treatment early on.
Immune system function also gradually declines with age, making middle-age and senior horses more susceptible to illnesses. It is important for owners to stay vigilant and up to date on their horse’s core vaccines, and to consult their veterinarian about timing and frequency of boosters to make sure their horse is protected.
Routine fecal testing is also recommended to evaluate the horse’s internal parasite count and implementing a consistent deworming program. This is imperative for clients based in areas where there is a lack of frost which usually kills many parasite eggs. Fecal egg count testing should be performed twice per year, in the spring and fall, to assess parasite load in the intestines. It is important to note that not all parasites are susceptible to every deworming product, and the results of a fecal test will give the veterinarian insights as to the type of parasites and which dewormer is best to administer for that unique horse.
A safe, comfortable environment
Ensuring your ageing equine has a well-bedded, sanitary space with adequate water and protection from rain, snow, direct sun, and biting insects will help keep them comfortable. Middle-aged and senior horses may also become more sensitive to respiratory irritants such as mold, fungus, dust, and pollen. As a result, it is recommended that barn and stall cleaning is done while the horse is in turnout or being ridden so they do not breathe in dust stirred up during cleaning. Minimizing their exposure to these irritants by maintaining a clean and well-ventilated stable will go a long way in keeping an older horse healthy.
Like all athletes, horses can experience physical setbacks and are not always so quick to bounce back as they age. Osteoarthritis and laminitis are two common medical conditions that become more prevalent with age. It is important for the middle-aged and senior performance horse to be managed with proper veterinary care, farriery, and a suitable training program.
Routine performance evaluations by a veterinarian are a useful tool in detecting subtle changes in a horse’s gait and movement before issues become injuries. A veterinarian will be able to suggest the appropriate treatment, such as anti-inflammatories, joint injections, biologic therapies, or alternative medicines, to maintain and even increase the horse’s flexibility, range of motion, balance, and ease any discomfort. Many owners begin consulting their veterinarian on regenerative and alternative therapies well before their horse has reached senior years as these therapies may help to support longevity in performance and better health for the horse’s organ and musculoskeletal systems.
Changes in the horse’s behavior or energy level, even minor or seemingly unimportant changes, can be indicators of underlying issues or disease. Exercise intolerance, poor coat condition, weight loss, stiffness, dropping feed, or changes in how much water they drink can be signs that something may be going on and should be communicated to your veterinarian. The sooner issues are identified, the sooner the horse can receive the right care and ultimately ward off serious illnesses.
Periodic preventative care checkups, performed at least bi-annually, can be key to catching many age-related conditions and diseases that owners may not notice in their everyday care because of gradual onset. Involving your veterinarian in the management of your senior horse will go a long way toward ensuring their health and happiness throughout their golden years.