One of the hardest challenges we face as horse owners is proper care and nutrition for the aging equine. As horses age, their dietary and physical needs can change quite dramatically. It is our job to notice when these changes occur and act accordingly to ensure that our horses stay healthy and happy even in their golden years.
The most significant change in all horses as they age, is their bodies ability to utilize nutrients. The senior horse’s digestive system is less efficient, and has an especially hard time processing protein, fiber, and phosphorus. Decreased efficiency is a direct result of the hormonal and physiological changes that take place during aging, but can be further affected by the state of the horse’s dental health.
As horses age their teeth wear down. Horses over the age of 20 will start to show significant wear in their molars and pre-molars, which are the teeth responsible for grinding feed. Once a horse reaches this stage of life it is important to provide proper dental care every 6 months. An equine dentist can help keep an older horse’s teeth even, and will notice loose or broken teeth that may affect the horse’s ability to chew. As a horse’s primary caregiver you should be on the lookout for hay that has been chewed up and spit out in the horse’s stall and paddock. This act is called quidding, and is a sure sign that your horse is having trouble chewing properly. You may also notice that your horse is not finishing their hay or grain with the same vigor as normal, which can be another hint that they are having trouble eating.
Once they reach 20 years of age, most horses will require a change in dietary needs due to the decreased efficiency of their digestive system. You should plan to monitor your horse’s weight and overall condition on a daily basis. A good rule of thumb is you should be able to feel the ribs with light palpation, but not see them. It is also a good practice to weight tape your horse once per week to notice any changes. You should plan to feed your older horse 2-3 times per day in smaller amounts to avoid any digestive upset, and be prepared to change hay and feed to a more senior friendly diet if needed. Some of the things that you can feed your older horse that are easier to digest are chopped hay, soaked hay cubes, hay stretcher, second crop hay, and senior complete grains. There are so many options when feeding the older horse that it is best to consult your veterinarian before making any significant changes. Also, remember to make any changes gradually to avoid digestive problems.
As with any horse, senior horses require access to water and shelter at all times. Keep in mind that as the horse ages, their tolerance for excessive cold and heat will deteriorate. You may have to blanket the senior horse when temperatures dip below 40 degrees, or bring them into a stall during the heat of a summer day. Pay attention to your horse and try to notice when they seem uncomfortable or stressed, and if possible try to make changes as needed.
Horses are now living well into their 20s and even 30s, and some continue to work into these golden years. With age comes arthritis and other health problems that may affect your horse’s ability to continue to lead a productive career as a riding horse. There are many options for joint support and overall wellness in the senior horse and these should be discussed with your veterinarian before deciding what is best for your horse’s individuals needs. Eventually, a time will come when your horse is no longer able to work, but it is still important to keep them moving and try to keep a baseline of healthy muscle formation. If your horse starts to decline or change suddenly, you should call your veterinarian. It is important not to assume that a decrease in weight or muscle mass, or a change in energy level or behavior, is “just old age” as it can be a sign of a much more serious medical condition that requires treatment.
We are so fortunate to be able to share in our horses’ golden years. The horse gives us so much throughout its life that it seems only fitting we return that gift by providing good quality comfort and care in their final days. Here’s hoping that you all enjoy many more happy, healthy years together!