by Heather Zorn, PAS
In addition to my position as nutritionist for Animal Nutrition Solutions, I am also fortunate to own/run The Desert Sky Ranch, Equine Retirement Boarding Facility in New Mexico. I board aging horses and really get to put my knowledge as a nutritionist to good use in keeping my old guys happy and healthy.
To most horse people, an older horse would be 15+ years, but at my ranch, an older horse is late 20’s to early 30’s and a pony can be early 30’s before I’d consider him old! It is a downright untrue myth that just because a horse is old that it is impossible to keep weight on them and keep them healthy.
As horses age, their nutritional needs change as well. As younger horses, they were able to eat a certain amount, while playing with their herd mates and working, all while maintaining their proper weight without too much concern. There are different challenges to keeping an older horse healthy.
Dental/Teeth condition is something that can cause rapid weight loss in an aging horse. Teeth begin to wear and grind unevenly and can cause pain or even sores in the mouth, discouraging eating enough to maintain a healthy weight. Just like in humans, teeth can fall out leaving gaps in the mouth, which can cause problems in chewing hay or grass. Senior horses should be checked at a minimum of once a year by a veterinarian, preferably one who specializes in dentistry.
If a horse is missing teeth (often molars) forage digestion can be difficult. By soaking hay or hay pellets, not only does it increase water consumption, but also allows for easier digestion by increasing surface area.
Ration portion needs to be considered with a senior horse as well. Many of my senior horses are on a free choice diet. Their metabolism changes as they age, requiring more energy to support healthy organ function, restoring fat supplies and maintaining an overall healthy weight. Playing with herd mates for awhile utilizes more energy for an older horse than it would for a youngster, therefore increasing overall nutritional needs. Free choice rations may not be suitable in every situation, but consider increasing the hay amount if your horse begins to lose weight.
Pain from arthritis, previous injury and stress of aging can cause a decrease in appetite. It is important to determine the source of pain and treat it appropriately. Plenty of turnout time with a herd mate can make a huge difference in movement and a reduction of swelling and pain. Medications are often prescribed, but know the side effects, as your horse cannot tell you. Some medications are appetite suppressants and others can cause liver and kidney damage with long term use. Weigh the options of pain management versus long term effects, always holding quality of life to the highest standard.
Winter and cold weather can be especially hard on an aging horse. Simply producing enough body heat to stay warm can use excessive amounts of energy and caloric intake. Be sure that they have an enclosed shelter or a barn to retreat to get out of the elements. Keeping a horse warm in inclement weather can make a huge difference in maintaining a healthy body weight condition over the winter. My horses love to be blanketed in cold weather, as it makes turnout a more enjoyable experience when they are not fighting to stay warm. I provide plenty of forage during daily cold weather turnout, along with blankets. Movement in turnout encourages movement, reduces swelling and gives them good exercise even through a cold day.
Keep in mind that as horses age, their tolerance to cold decreases. In his teens, he may have been fine at the 30 degree range, but as a senior, you may find him shivering in the low 40 degrees. Specific medical conditions and diseases can also cause changes in weather tolerance. Know you horse’s tolerance level, which will change with age and health.Hot weather can also have an impact on your senior horse’s health. Temperature regulation does not function as well in an older horse as it does in a younger horse. Provide access to a shady area, with plenty of access to cool water to prevent overheating situations.)
Farrier visits are just as important to a senior horse as they are to a performance horse. Simply because your horse is no longer working or showing is no reason to neglect proper and routing hoof care. Since an older horse may not move around as much, they may need routine farrier service even more than a younger horse. Proper alignment within the hoof structure can decrease pressure on joints that are suffering from arthritis.
Senior horses in herd situations are often at the bottom of a hierarchy. Make sure there are different feeding and water areas, so in case he is pushed out of one area by a younger horse, he still has plenty of access to food and water.
Daily checks are important in monitoring the aging process. Look for cuts and scrapes to indicate problems within the herd. Check around the leg area for any swelling or pain, which may indicate problems lying down and getting up, as well as inhibiting movement. Check for rubs from blankets, as skin thins with age. Even through a winter coat, feel for ribs. You should be able to feel them, but not see them. An older horse can lose a dramatic amount of weight in a very short time.
Wellness checks with your veterinarian. Know your horse well enough to be helpful to the vet. You should know each horse’s resting vitals- heart rate, respiration rate and temperature. Any major changes to these vitals can indicate issues that need attention.
Consider adding a joint supplement to meal time. Keeping a senior horse comfortable and quality of life at a high level are the most important things in caring for an aging companion.
Animal Nutrition Solutions Equine Mineral Balancer with Joint Support is a perfect supplement for an older horse. It contains the specific minerals lacking in hay and forage, as well as the addition of a joint supplement.
Heather is a certified animal nutritionist for Animal Nutrition Solutions, a New Mexico based consulting company dedicated to consumer education and improving the nutrition of dogs and horses.