Caring for Senior Horses

August 10, 2016
By Richard G. Godbee, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS-Nutrition

Thanks to better nutrition, management and veterinary care, horses are living a much longer, and in many cases, productive life than their forefathers just a decade or so ago. In 2005, 7.6% of horses in the U.S. were 20-years old compared to 5.6% in 1998. In some disciplines, horses are not considered to be “finished” or “peak” until they are in their teens and often compete well into their early 20’s. Aging can be looked at in both chronological (years of age from birth) and physiological age. Horses mature more rapidly compared to humans; a 6 mo old foal is equivalent to a 6-year old child and at 2-years old is equivalent to an 18-year old person. After 2, the age of a horse is the same physiologically to about 3 years of human life, making a 20-year old horse equivalent to a 60-year old person. While there are no set standards as to when a horse enters “old age,” it is generally thought to be approximately 20. Like people, as horses get older, their individuality begins to play a large role in determining age.

As horses age, their needs change; they have more health issues and may have physical changes that impact their health. Changes in nutrition, vision, mobility, immunity and hormonal activity are commonly encountered. It is important to understand that not all older horses have problems, nor do they require special changes to the management, but some do.



Signs of aging

Older horses may show the following changes:

  • Graying of the hair
  • Increased sinking of the hollows above the eye
  • Greater swaying of the back
  • Decreased mobility due to osteoarthritis
  • Loss of muscle mass over the top line
  • Difficulty in maintaining body condition
  • Difficulty eating or loss of appetite
  • Increased incidence of metabolic issues


Factors that may impact nutrient requirements

There are several factors that may impact the nutrient requirements of the senior horse. Dental care is critical. Since dental care has a great impact on equine health, it’s important to maintain a horse’s teeth during his younger years. Horses chew in a circular motion leaving sharp edges on the outside of the upper molars and inside of the lower molars. This impacts the ability to properly chew food, which is the first phase of digestion. Floating or “filing” these areas by a competent equine dentist will improve feed utilization and help the horse maintain body condition and weight.

Other issues that may impact the nutrient requirements of an older horse are the slight to moderate decrease in the ability to digest and absorb nutrients, age-related changes in metabolism and the onset of certain metabolic disorders. For many senior horses, feeding good quality roughage (hay or pasture) and using feeds and supplements designed for this class of horses is sufficient. For others that are obese, underweight, have metabolic conditions or other maladies, proper feeding becomes somewhat more involved. In some cases, adding beet pulp as a fiber source, monitoring the starch/sugar intake, supplementing essential amino acids such as lysine or threonine, adding a joint product, or increasing the fat content of the total diet may be beneficial. Periodic use of a quality prebiotic or probiotic may also decrease digestive issues.


Strategies to keep horses young

Taking care of the senior horse does not have to be overly complicated. Some things to keep in mind include:

  • Maintain routine dental and hoof care
  • Maintain regular vaccination and deworming schedules
  • Monitor weight and body condition on a monthly basis
  • Ensure the horse is consuming sufficient amounts of water on a daily basis
  • Feed high quality, clean hays. If there are digestive issues, look for soluble fiber sources, such as beet pulp and consider adding a probiotic to the horse’s diet
  • Use feeds formulated for the senior horse
  • Use supplements to add quality protein, minerals and vitamins as needed
  • Add a joint supplement, such as Reach Joint Supplement, to aid in improving the mobility and comfort of senior horses
  • Separate senior horses from others at feeding, since they may not be as physically capable to compete for feed
  • If needed, ensure the dietary needs are being met by consulting with an equine nutritionist or veterinarian knowledgeable in nutrition

Remember, every horse is an individual; there is no set practice that will fit every senior horse. With proper care, daily observation and good management, senior horses can live very good, productive lives.