Management of the Geriatric Horse

By Jennifer Stonewater, DVM, Pilchuck’s Equine Department
Today’s horses live longer, more productive lives due to improvements in nutrition, management and health care.
Horses are considered geriatric around 18 years, but this can vary and depends on genetics, environment, nutrition, health care and use. Minor issues can quickly turn into severe problems, so regular care is imperative.
Common signs of aging include: swaying of the back, pot-bellied appearance, weight loss/gain, loss of muscle tone, low sloping pasterns, an unthrifty coat that may be slow to shed, and elongation of the incisor teeth.
Effects on the horse include: the digestive tract becomes less efficient, arthritis causes painful bones and joints, and the immune system is less reliable. Parasites take a heavier toll, and geriatric horses are more prone to respiratory, eye and dental problems. They also develop less of an immune response to vaccinations.
Routine care: An annual physical exam is crucial and may allow your veterinarian to detect early signs of disease. It should include auscultation of the heart, lungs and gastrointestinal tract, as well as evaluation of eyes, teeth, body condition and mobility. Yearly blood work, dentistry and discussion regarding deworming and vaccination recommendations should be included.
Nutrition: Hormonal and metabolic changes affect and interfere with digestion and utilization of nutrients. Older horses may benefit from complete rations or supplemental feeds formulated to compensate for these changes.
Maintaining weight: Weight loss is often a first sign of aging, and can be due to dental issues, reduced digestive efficacy, improper nutrition or underlying disease. Weight gain can occur when a horse retires but continues to eat the same.
Dental issues: As horses age, their teeth wear significantly and can develop conditions such as wave mouth or shear mouth, predisposing them to colic and choke. Ineffective mastication and malocclusion lead to periodontal disease, tooth loss, gaps between teeth, feed packing and abscesses. Quidding (dropping chewed up wads of hay) may indicate dental issues and warrants evaluation by a veterinarian.
Joint and foot care: Regular hoof care and exercise will help to reduce strain on bones and joints, increase flexibility, and decrease pain from arthritis. Medications such as NSAIDs and chondro-protective agents can be beneficial as well.
Metabolic conditions: Equine Cushing’s disease and metabolic syndrome are prevalent in the elderly horse population and can lead to secondary complications.
In conclusion, it is important to distinguish among benign signs of aging, physiological changes that may predispose a horse to disease, and clinical signs of disease associated with aging.
As an owner of a geriatric horse, it is your responsibility to recognize ill health and deterioration of quality of life. With the help of your veterinarian, your horse can remain comfortable and happy well into his golden years.
To learn more about geriatric horse care and Pilchuck’s other comprehensive equine services, call 360.568.3111 or visit