Caring for the Senior Horse

By Travis McKinzie, DVM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

Let’s face it: Your older horse wouldn’t have stayed at your place this long if you didn’t love him or her. These horses may be the “bomb-proof” kids’ horse or the one that really takes care of you on a trail ride. Whatever the story, our senior friends need special care for their continued use.

Teeth are a primary concern for the older horse. Because they continually erupt, the roots get shorter and tooth loss is the eventual outcome. Routine floating and dentistry become even more important because – in addition to keeping the normal sharp edges smoothed for proper chewing – if a tooth is lost, then the opposing tooth will overgrow. This will of course make proper chewing difficult, but can be cared for with dentistry performed by your veterinarian.

As horses age, the immune system gets weaker. This leaves them more prone to diseases and parasites. Therefore, routine vaccinations and deworming are even more important. Reducing their exposure to disease is also important. When at an event, do not use a water tub that is shared by everyone; keep your horse away from any horses that appear sick; and don’t share grooming equipment with animals from other barns unless it is cleaned and disinfected.

Other issues affecting the senior horse are endocrine changes, hoof care and arthritis. If your horse is not shedding properly, has unexplained weight loss or gain, or has abnormal fat deposits, your veterinarian may recommend blood testing for problems like Cushing’s or insulin resistance. Many supplements are available for hoof and joint support. In addition, several anti-inflammatory and joint health medications are available to help control arthritis. If arthritis is a problem, talk to your veterinarian about which supplements, injections or other medications are right for your horse.

Your horse’s metabolism will also change. Some horses will have problems getting too heavy, while others won’t be able to keep weight on. The key is to properly feed to maintain your horse’s condition. Remember, you want to be able to feel the ribs but not see them. When properly conditioned, fat should be deposited between the ribs but not covering the top of them. For many horses, the intestinal tract loses some of its absorption capability. This, coupled with possible dental issues, creates the need for senior-type horse feeds. These will be a pelleted feed. The extrusion process used to make the pellets actually partially digests the ingredients, making them more bioavailable to the horse.

With proper care, our senior horses won’t just need to be retired. Many can continue their performance and many can be repurposed. So enjoy your old buddy.

For more specific advice on caring for your senior horse, please contact your veterinarian or call Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital, Snohomish, at 360.568.3111 to schedule a consultation with one of our equine practitioners. 

Article added 10.23.14