Owning an old horse can be at time upsetting when you see your old companion fading away. However, nowadays, horses can live happily until a very old age, some well after the age of 30. Hopefully this article will help you and your old mate find the right care.
According to NRC and veterinary bodies, a horse is considered geriatric at the age of 20. In general, a horse is considered a senior horse from 15-16 years of age. In fact, many horse feed manufacturers provide specifically designed feed stuff for horses 16 and over. Whether it is true or not is debatable. Some horses seem to age earlier, others later. The horse will age differently depending on the lifestyle it had therefore it would be wrong to label all 16 year-old horses as old. However, from 20 onwards, a horse is definitely labelled geriatric as its body and organs have started deteriorating significantly.
As a guideline, when the horse reaches 15 or 16, one should pay extra attention to its condition to ensure it stays healthy and its weight stays consistent. From the age of 20, a body condition of 2-3 (Australian body condition scoring 0-5) should be maintained.
Most common problems encountered with senior horses
Feeding the old horse might become a challenge as various factors play an important role in feed absorption.
The most common issue is related to teeth. As the horse ages, its teeth will wear off, some might fall off, some might become decayed and chewing of feed will be impaired causing improper absorption of feed and nutrients.
The usual signs for bad teeth are:
- Slow to chew, inability to masticate properly
- Feed falls off the horse’s mouth – the horse seems to be messy at feed time and kind of dribbling
- Whole food found in droppings such as grains and long stems
- Bad breath due to rotten teeth
- Thick nasal discharge, usually on one side, may appear if a decayed tooth has been left untreated and has become infected
- Tendency to choke
- More prone to colics. According to an Auburn University study conducted in the mid 90s, impaction colics have a ratio of 88% in older horses in comparison to 29% in younger horses. Out of the 104 horses above 17 years of age, one of the main reasons was dental diseases (as well as poor grazing and tumours).
During the same era, another study was conducted in Texas (USA) over a period of 12 months to identify dietary and management factors associated with colic in horses. The results identified that horses aged 10 years and over who are stabled and still get regular exercise are at higher risks than those pastured at all times. Among other factors are recent changes in diet, in type of hay, in weather conditions, in housing and worm infestation. Further studies confirmed similar results in 2000/2001, where 364 horses were examined over a period of 12 months in Texas USA. In summary, changes in diet (type of hay, grain or concentrate) as well as feeding more than 2.7kg of grains, feeding round bales of hay, and decreased access to pasture contribute to high risk of colic.
As seen above, worm infestation is a primary issue. This also applies to all horses, young and old. If the horse is ridden with parasites, its feed absorption will be lessen. One should follow a worming regime of 6 to 8 weeks.
A horse infested with parasites is more at risk to have colics and difficulties in putting on weight. If the horse has received a consistent worming programme all its life, it is less likely to have colics and more likely to have a long and healthy life.
As the horse ages, its digestive system seem to become less effective at breaking down food as the horse may have reduced salivation and oesophagus functions. Although calcium absorption does not seem to be drastically affected, fibre and phosphorus digestion reduces with age. The later being even more pronounced in horses with tumours.
When the horse is depleted of important nutrients, its immune system ability to fight illnesses will also be decreased, exposing it to high risks of not only becoming ill, but also not being able to recover easily.
The horse is then prone to lose body condition and weight.
Arthritic conditions are painful and may restrict the horse in walking and grazing.
Horses who developed pituitary and thyroid tumours may have reduced insulin response and become sugar and starch intolerant. Same applies to founders which is often linked to pituitary tumours.
Horse with renal and liver diseases also require special diet. In case of renal problems, beep pulp and lucerne hay should be avoided due to their high content of calcium. In case of liver and hepatic diseases, high protein and high fat diets should be avoided.
How to care for the senior horse
It is important that the old horse be comfortable and enjoy its retirement.
Its teeth should be checked every 6 months and full vet check-up should be done every 6 to 12 months. A full blood test is not expensive and will help you understand how to care for your old companion. It will show many abnormalities and your veterinarian will be able to help you find appropriate treatment.
In case of arthritis, apart from medication to make the horse more comfortable, many natural therapies may help as well. Acupuncture, homeopathy, shiatsu, acupressure, aromatherapy and clay therapy are some. The herb Devil’s Claw can work as a natural anti-inflammatory instead of giving phenybutazone (Bute) but should not be given if stomach ulcers are present, in case of diabetes and cardiac disorders. French green clay applied as a poultice to painful areas may provide great relief.
Old horses quite often get bullied by the youngsters at feed time. One should ensure that the senior horse is able to eat in peace and all its meals.
For better digestion, feed small quantities 2 or even 3 times a day.
A good shelter is essential to the old horse as it is more sensitive to weather changes.
In cool weather, if the horse accepts it, a rug will keep him warm and will help save his energy.
Always provide clean fresh water at all time.
Vitamin C may help the horse’s immune system. Vitamin C can be found naturally in Rosehip. 1 to 2 tablespoons a day in the feed.
Vitamin B group in the form of Brewer’s Yeast might be beneficial, especially in cases of renal and hepatic diseases. It will help with digestion as well. Up to 100 g/day.
Sweet feed should be avoided, especially in founders and sugar intolerant horses. This includes molasses, honey and sweeten feed mixes.
If there is no liver dysfunction, the addition of vegetable oil may help keep its body condition. Up to 2 cups a day, introduced slowly over a 3 week-period. Virgin coconut oil is a rich source of lauric acid, the source of disease fighting fatty acid derivative monolaurin. Cold pressed Canola oil is also an excellent oil for horses. It contains around 10% omega 3 fatty acids, 20% omega 6 fatty acids and omega 9 fatty acids. Omega-3 and 6 are essential to the normal functioning of all tissues and for vision, heart, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. These two fatty acids need to be balanced and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be about 2:1, which is provided by cold-pressed Canola oil. Coconut oil can be given in smaller quantity than Canola such as 25-100ml. Canola can complement to reach 2 cups of oil a day. When providing fat and high protein diets to a horse, one must monitor the horse’s dropping to see if their consistency stays normal. If the droppings become too lose like “cow pat”, reduce the oil and/or the protein content. Too much protein can be seen in urine as it becomes thick, smelly and difficult to pass.
Avoid starch food for better digestion, especially if the horse has a tendency to tie-up or founders.
Because the digestion is not optimal at this age, avoid feeding grains. Extruded grains are much safer and have shown good results with geriatric horses. Feed manufacturers provide extruded/micronized grains as well as especially designed feed stuff for senior horses.
Herbs that may help with gut ulceration are Marshmallow, Meadowsweet, Liquorice and Slippery Elm Bark. A handful each of Marshmallow and Meadowsweet once a day may help with gut ulceration, inflammation and irritation. Liquorice has to be used with caution as it is a laxative and should not be used if the horse is scouring or have loose manure. It should not be used long term either and only 1 teaspoon a day for up to 3 months. Slippery Elm Bark is good for scouring at a dose of 1 to 2 tablespoons a day.
You may provide good quality protein (12-16%, 8-10% if renal diseases are present) in the form of full fat soy meal or stabilized copra meal. Copra meal provides 20% crude protein whilst a full fat soy meal contains 39% protein, so only a small quantity might be needed. No more than 500g of full fat soy can be given to an adult horse of 500kg. If no liver and renal diseases, good lucerne chaff may be added in small quantity for protein.
Because the horse might have poor teeth, provide its meals as a soft mash for easier chewing as well as good quality chaff. Hay might be too hard to chew or the horse might choke on it, so the hay might need to be dampen to soften it, or chopped like chaff. It is good practice to dampen hay so it is not dusty. To do so, John Kohnke recommends to put the hay in an hessian bag and let it soak in water for up to 1 hour. Remove the bag and let it hang to drain water.
Always provide hay at ground level. If hay is in hay nets that are suspended too high, there is higher risk of choke. A horse, by nature, grazes with its head down and its digestive system is adapted to this practice. Having to eat with its head up goes against its physiology and causes problems.
As we are on the chapter of dust, rations should always be dampen to eliminate dust. Dust is very damaging to a horse’s lungs. Stabled horses should also have a dust free environment.
And of course, always seek veterinary advice, even if it seems to be nothing! Better be sure than sorry
Siciliano PD. “Nutrition and feeding of the geriatric horse“, The Veterinary clinics of North America. Equine practice, 2002, p491-508
Cohen ND, Gibbs PG, Woods AM. “Dietary and other management factors associated with colic in horses“, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 1999, p53-60
Dr J. Kohnke, Dr. Frank Kelleher, Dr. Penny Trevor-Jones. “Feeding horses in Australia, a guide for horse owners and managers”, RIRDC Publication No. 99/49, 1999
D. G. Pugh, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACT, Diplomate ACVN. “Feeding the Geriatric Horse“, Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University, 2002
Dr John Konhke. “Feeding the senior horse”, Fact Sheet
Pete G. Gibbs, G. D. Potter, W.L. Scrutchfield, M.T. Martin. “Mature, Senior & Geriatric Horses: Their Management, Care and Use“, Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System, 2005
Victoria Ferguson “The Practical Horse Herbal”, Horses For Courses, 2002
Catherine Bird “A Healthy Horse The Natural Way”, The Lyons Press, 2005