With continued advances in veterinary care and the steadily growing importance of the human-animal bond, our horses are living longer than ever before. Gaining a better understanding of how the horse ages can help make their senior years as comfortable and dignified as possible.
Most experts consider old age in horses to begin at about 18 years. However, there is considerable variation, with some horses starting to show wear and tear as early as 16 and others still looking in top condition well into their twenties. Aging is a process, not a disease, so each senior horse needs to be treated as an individual. The following are some important factors to evaluate as your horse ages.
Periodically examine your horse for signs of weight loss and other changes. Ribs should be felt with slight pressure, but never seen easily through the skin. Also check the neck, withers and tail head area for changes in fat deposition as these can be early indicators of Cushing’s disease or weight loss. Feel and flex the joints for signs of swelling or pain, and monitor for any other lumps and bumps. Older grey horses are especially prone to skin tumors such as melanoma, which can frequently be found under the tail. A thorough physical exam should be done by your veterinarian at least annually to identify early indicators of disease such as hear murmurs, vision changes, and signs of metabolic disease.
Not all horses will need a change in diet just because they turn a certain age. Also keep in mind that not all “senior feeds” are formulated for the same purpose: some may be higher in fat to discourage weight loss, some lower in protein to prevent weight gain, and some lower in carbohydrates to avoid exacerbating conditions such as Cushing’s and laminitis (founder). Still others are simply formulated to improve ease of chewing and digestibility (pelleted or extruded feeds). Read the labels, and when in doubt, ask your veterinarian which diet is right for your horse. As always, all changes should be instituted gradually to avoid sudden digestive disturbances such as colic or choke.
Regular dental examinations and floating of the teeth are crucial to allowing your horse to maintain good health. Sharp points and hooks on the enamel can lead to slow or painful eating or inefficient feed utilization, predisposing to loss of condition. Malocclusions (improper alignment) can worsen as horses age if not addressed early in life. Horses’ teeth erupt continually throughout their lifetime, and with advanced age teeth may become loose and even fall out. Horses can be very stoic and may not show any signs of pain until abnormalities are severe and difficult to correct, so examinations should be done regularly even in the absence of obvious clinical signs.
Though your senior horse may no longer be active on the show circuit, regular vaccinations are still an important part of preventative health care. Vaccination against Rabies, Tetanus, and Eastern, Western, and West Nile encephalitis is recommended for all horses. Flu/Rhino may be important for an older horse that lives with other horses that are traveling to shows.
Older horses may have a decreased immune response to parasites, making them more likely to suffer from the effects of intestinal worms. Your veterinarian can perform fecal analyses to be sure that the products you are using are necessary and effective.
Regular foot trimming can help reduce stress on aging joints and correct conformational changes. Your farrier may need to be a little more patient with your senior horse, taking care not to exacerbate pain and stiffness by switching legs more frequently and not flexing joints as far.
Quality of Life
Inevitably, the time will come when your old companion is nearing the end of his time on earth. If he is unable to chew his food at all and is rapidly losing weight or repeatedly colicking, or if he can no longer rise or stand without pain, or if he is simply too frail to make it through another of our harsh and icy winters, the time may be near. With diligent care and continued assessment this can hopefully be postponed as long as possible. Do not hesitate to discuss your concerns about end of life care with your veterinarian so everyone is better prepared when it comes time to make the most difficult but loving decision of all.
Dr. Yoanna Maître is the owner of Berkshire Ambulatory Veterinary Services, a mobile clinic that provides on-farm medical and surgical care to horses and farm animals in Berkshire County and neighboring areas of New York State.