Having an elderly horse is a wonderful experience and they make terrific companions.
When they cannot be ridden any more they absolutely love “salad bar” walks in nature and good long rubbing sessions where they can be completely spoiled with some TLC.
If you’ve got a whole herd, they’re wonderful contributors of life experience and will be a great hand in raising foals to be properly mannered horses.
Older horses usually have very well developed personalities and rarely go without a few quirks.
They can also get very stubborn as they get older and want things just so – but then again that isn’t uncommon in humans either!
Elderly horses have different needs than younger horses; they appreciate a lot of R&R as well as lower energy activities.
The signs of ageing in your horse
Domesticated horses are living longer and longer, with more horses entering into long, happy retirements.
Many horses make it into their 30s due to the advances in veterinary care and – let’s face it – the sheer determination of horse owners to provide a comfortable retirement with lots of care.
Determining when a horse is “old” will vary greatly depending on the genetics of the horse and the kind of life it has led. Signs of ageing usually start showing when a horse is around 20.
As a general note, ponies tend to be longer-lived than horses and larger animals tend to age sooner than smaller ones
Some ponies have even proved rideable into their 30s. But as with us all, this is individual and past injuries, stress and overall health play a big part in how each horse ages.
General signs of ageing include whitening of the hairs, stiffness in the joints and muscles, loss of body condition and poorer dentition (teeth).
In addition to these general signs, vets look for things like a swayback, a drooping lower lip and a dull coat to determine if a horse can be called old.
Caring for an older horse doesn’t have to be difficult. You just need to identify key areas that might need more attention compared to before and make sure you regularly monitor how your senior is doing and feeling.
Dental health and the ageing horse
As horses get older their teeth will inevitably wear down.
The most important thing for your horse is to be able to eat – if the teeth prevent eating, starvation becomes a real risk.
Some horses have managed to live without teeth entirely, but having less or no teeth also affects how well the food is absorbed in the gut.
The teeth are the first step in the digestion process because food that has not been chewed properly will not be processed as efficiently in the small intestine.
This can easily lead to undigested food entering the hind-gut, leading to a risk of fermentation and potentially serious problems like colic and laminitis.
So be sure that you know what’s going on in the mouth of your senior and adjust the diet if there are any changes to their dentition.
Uneven wearing that results in sharp points can develop ulcers in the mouth and discourage the horse from chewing the food properly.
Choking as a result of poor chewing is also more common in older horses.
Be in regular contact with your vet to make sure that your horse is healthy and happy. If your vet or equine dentist advises six-monthly check-ups be sure to note it down and not to miss an appointment!
How ageing affects your horse’s body condition
Just like humans, horses tend to put on more fat and lose muscle mass as they get older.
Light exercise in sufficient amounts is key to make sure your horse doesn’t turn into a paddock potato!
Laminitis is one of the main risks of poor nutrition and obesity. Heart disease, as well as other obesity-related diseases, are a concern.
The extra stress any additional weight will put on your horse’s ageing joints is also important and you should take every precaution to prevent it.
Arthritis is common in senior horses and even the smallest extra weight will make it that much harder for him to move around.
Even if your horse doesn’t have arthritis his joints will get stiffer as he ages, adding to the challenges of daily life.
The key with any horse – not just older horses – is to keep the weight under control at all times
Crash dieting is not an option for horses as they can suffer severe consequences, like colic and even death, from fast dietary changes.
Slow and steady is the way to change a horse’s diet. Remember to monitor the body condition of your horse and make sure to adjust the diet according to seasonal changes as well.
If you know that your horse loses a lot of condition in winter, slowly start increasing the amount of feed with small portions 1 or 2 months in advance.
If you’re new to horses and aren’t sure if your horse is getting thinner or thicker, you can keep records by taking photos and comparing them from month to month.
Remember that you should always ask your vet, yard owner, riding trainer or other horse owners for advice if you’re unsure. Better to be safe than sorry!
At the first signs of body condition going down, your horse eating less food or generally seeming under the weather it’s time for a dental check and possibly a blood test.
Senior horses can require more blood-work
A blood test will tell you many things that cannot be determined otherwise, such as deterioration in kidney and liver function.
It is normal for the internal organs to perform at lower levels as the body ages, so keeping on top of it will help you and your vet determine when the horse needs dietary changes.
Deterioration in kidney and liver function cannot be cured and is treated by dietary adjustment.
Dietary supplements will add in nutrients that can help organs to function better or you might be advised to drop out some type of foods to lessen the load on the organs.
Doing an annual blood test on your elderly horse is a good investment.
You can save money by arranging for your annual blood test in advance and get your vet to come out on a day when they’re out in your area anyway or bundling it up with a vet call for another one of your animals or as a part of your regular check-up.
What is a suitable diet for your senior horse?
All horses need an abundance of good quality hay, but this is especially true for the seniors.
As the gut digests food more poorly in older horses soft, sweet-smelling hay is an essential part of their diet.
The finer hay will cost more but is a worthy investment no matter what age your horse is.
If the hay you’re considering buying feels coarse and is very stemmy it’s mostly just rubbish and you shouldn’t waste your money on it.
Horses haven’t evolved to digest grain and it is not a natural part of their diet
Hay and grass are always preferable over grain feed.
The hay is best served in quantity and ad-lib so your horse can munch away as close to his natural rhythm as possible – which is constantly feeding for around 17 hours a day.
No horse benefits from a high-grain diet, fibre is what a horse gut is designed to digest.
Alfalfa is a good option, especially for older horses, as it is high in protein (compared to meadow hay) and high in fibre – not to mention that horses love it. Just remember to keep an eye on that weight!
An older horse in need of more good quality calories can have vegetable oil added to the feed as horses digest it well.
Sugar beet pulp is another excellent feed for any horse as it is also high in fibre and packs calories.
Feeding supplements should be discussed with your vet to ensure your horse gets all the trace minerals he needs.
The form of the food is, of course, dependant on the dental health of the horse and I’ve known some completely toothless horses that ate a porridge – but this is individual.
If your horse ends up having no teeth at all you’ll have to serve the food in a mash or slurry.
The most important thing is that the dietary needs of the horse are met and that you try to break down the feeding into as many times as possible in a day.
Or if your horse is happy eating the slurry once a day be sure to offer ad-lib (good quality) hay all day.
Paddock arrangements and hoof care for your elderly horse
Horses will generally stay healthy and happy when you allow them lots of time outside and suitable company.
The worst you can do, for any horse, not just the older horse, is to keep it in a stall 24/7.
Horses are designed to travel many miles per day in search of food and letting your horse be out and about is much better for the overall health of your horse – and will contribute to keeping your vet bills as small as possible.
To begin with keeping active will prevent many hoof and leg issues as your horse will have plenty of stimulation in the limbs.
Bones and joints will remain stronger and in better working condition the more your horse is allowed to walk around
Having many types of surfaces to walk on is important as well. Hooves will wear down naturally – if you’ve got a barefoot horse – and it will be less likely for your horse to develop hoof problems such as laminitis, navicular syndrome or thrush.
The more area you can provide your horse with on a daily basis the better, but even a good size paddock to walk and run around in will do if you provide your horse with other types of physical activity as well.
You can also make use of corridor type paddocks that encourage your horse to walk a lot more than a conventional paddock.
Just make sure the activity is appropriate for your horse’s health and energy level.
Going for what I call “salad bar” walks with your horse is a great way to bond and spend time with a horse of any age, but it will be especially appreciated by your senior.
Just take your horse with you on a halter and lead rope and start walking; going slowly and allowing your horse to pick and graze along the way.
This will not only develop your relationship with your horse but will also provide variety in the diet as your horse can pick and choose what to eat from the roadside buffet.
Just make sure to keep an eye out for poisonous plants and keep your horse away from those!
Companionship is still important for your senior horse
Don’t forget that your horse will still be a herd animal even in old age, even if he prefers to spend more time at the edges of a herd.
Your horse should not be housed alone under any circumstances because as a herd animal your horse will suffer stress if he is left to live alone.
If another horse, pony or donkey is not available or an option for you, consider getting a goat.
Dogs, cats and chickens cat also give companionship to a horse, but unless they are together with the horse 24 hours a day they should not be considered sufficient companionship for your horse’s mental well-being. Horses really do best with other equines.
If it is not possible for you to get a companion for your horse – consider lending out your horse to someone else as a companion horse.
Another horse owner with only a single horse might be looking for a paddock buddy to keep their horse company and would be happy to have your horse stay with theirs as a retirement job.
Remember to then discuss living arrangements, expenses, care and emergency protocol for your horse – some owners will take full responsibility of caring for your horse in return for having free company for their horse, others might want you to still come and do the daily chores etc.
A question asked is never wasted in situations like this. Draw up a written contract detailing each person’s responsibilities and financial commitments to make everything clear and above-board.
General health and regular check-ups for geriatric horses
Whatever the condition or age of your horse is, you can never go wrong with regular check-ups.
The most ordinary check-ups are your responsibility as the owner and are easily done on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
A daily once over accompanied by some rubs in those sweet spots will make sure you are on top of things.
Whenever you feel you aren’t sure or think there might be something wrong, give your vet a call.
Establishing how your horse looks and behaves when healthy and in good condition will help you to determine when something is wrong.
Observing your horse regularly will give you an idea of what he or he usually looks, behaves and feels like.
Illnesses are an inevitable companion to old age and as nice as it would be to have an old horse with no problems, that isn’t what you should prepare for.
You should be prepared to combat anything from Cushing’s disease to choke and pituitary gland problems
Especially older grey horses can have issues with different types of skin problems from eczema to cancer, small scrapes and cuts can turn into a bigger treatment than it would have when the horse was younger and joint problems are fairly common.
Some issues will be treatable and some will be more about pain relief and management.
Whatever the problem is, the key here is quality of life – your horse should not suffer pain or loneliness.
As long as your senior horse is comfortable, whatever issues and illnesses are manageable and his quality of life – though not comparable to when he was younger – remains good, you will be able to enjoy a relaxed, laid back companion.