With the Fall fast approaching here in Montana, it is time to take a good look at your horses and start preparing them for the long, cold months ahead. Geriatric horses particularly need to be prepared. A horse is considered “geriatric” when it is around the age of 20 years. Like people, some horses age better than others. Aging depends on genetics, conformation, and their overall care and lifestyle over time. It isn’t unheard of for horses to live to and beyond 30 in this day and age. With longevity increasing, pay particular attention to any older horses you may have; how do they look – are they thin or overweight? Did your old gelding shed out well this summer? Is your old mare dropping any grain when she eats? Are you still riding old Rusty but he seems a little stiff these days? All the answers to these questions can indicate how you should proceed with the care of your aging companion.
Preventive care is an important part of horse ownership, especially for older horses. We recommend an individualized vaccination plan based on your horse’s exposure and lifestyle. Rotational deworming every two to three months can actually cause more harm than good, so we recommend a strategic plan with periodic fecal floats (a very affordable test to count how many and what type of parasites your horse may have). If your older horse did not shed out well, parasites could be the culprit. However in an older horse we also start to consider Cushing’s Disease, especially if the animal has a poorly muscled topline, recurrent infections, an unusually long hair coat along with a variety of other symptoms.
Dental health is a very important area of concern for maintaining your older horse. If your horse is a hard keeper, has trouble chewing hay, or has overall poor body condition, it is probably time for a dental float. Look for nasal discharge, foul odor of the mouth, or clumps of chewed up and spit out hay. Older horses can develop hooks on their teeth, which can make eating very painful. This coupled with a slower metabolism, and a poorer nutritional absorption rate which occurs with age is a recipe for an underweight horse. If you are supplementing with grain already and your horse has dental pain, your horse could be spilling grain out of its mouth and wasting the calories it needs (and your money).
Dietary concerns often come up in conversation with regards to maintaining the geriatric horse. In my experience, working at a large sport horse boarding facility that seemed to specialize in retired geriatric horses, many of the animals needed help supplementing calories in their diets. Our go-to solution diet for the senior-horse-citizens in addition to their hay rations is: a few heaping scoops of pelleted grass hay and a scoop or two of Purina Equine Senior, once or twice a day. This concoction is soaked in water, which creates a nice mash that is very palatable for horses that might not have all their teeth. If horses are hard extra hard keepers or are still in work, a stabilized rice bran pellet can be added to the mix to raise the fat content of the meal. This formula does wonders for keeping horses at an ideal weight and body condition throughout the winter. When choosing a grain product to supplement into your horse’s diet, make sure to read the label! Some feeds are “complete feeds”, meaning an animal can be sustained wholly on that product (no hay needed). It is important to note that foliage plays a very important role in the digestive process of a horse but if necessary “complete feeds” can be the diet for a horse that can’t eat and process hay.
Don’t forget the opposite issue: an overweight older horse. This may simply be because your horse is getting too many calories and/or not enough exercise. A horse that needs to lose weight should consume 1-1.5% of their body weight in hay each day. For these horses, weighing their feed can be helpful to be sure they are not getting too much. If the right amount is being fed, contact us and we can look into some other causes for an overweight horse, such as equine metabolic syndrome which could have some other important consequences for your horse. Remember that an overweight horse needs just as much management and concern as a thing horse!
Lastly, when maintaining your geriatric horse this winter (and all year!) consistent exercise is very important to keep joints in working order. Arthritis is a common ailment that can hinder the mobility of any older animal. Many arthritic horses do well with consistent exercise at a level that the horse can maintain and enjoy. Things that can help combat the effects of arthritis are oral supplements like Cosequin, but perhaps more effectively, injectable products like Adequan. I have personally experienced great results with my own geriatric horse and Adequan coupled with a regular exercise program.
For advice, service, and suggestions with your older horse and the coming winter, All West Veterinary Hospital is always available to serve you and your equines. Good luck this winter and stay warm!
This article was written by Megan McGaffigan Lang, an Equine Technician at All West Veterinary Hospital. She is the owner of “Arthur”, a 21 year old Belgian Warmblood who is still actively schooling and showing in the Dressage arena.