Caring for Old Horses

Caring for Old Horses

The ever-improving veterinary care and keen determination of owners to provide their geriatric comrades with a happy and healthy retirement makes caring for older horses an important experience.

Horses comparatively have long life spans, often living into their late 20s and early 30s and the kind of life a horse has led and its breed plays a significant part in their twilight years. Pony breeds tend to live longer, often proving ride-able up to 30. Bigger breeds tend to make old bones sooner. The signs of advancing years in a horse include drooping lower lip, swayed back, dulling coat, deterioration in the overall health, increasing number of grey hairs, stiff joints and teeth wear.

Caring for old horses isn’t very difficult once you have a detailed insight on the practical aspects of looking after them. Diseases associated with old age are inevitable. All you can do is to make it more comfortable for them by adopting various methods and techniques and concentrate on key elements of the horse’s health in order to make them as happy as possible.

  • Nutrition and Diet:

Nutritional needs of geriatric horses vary greatly. Some older horses may not need drastic changes in their diet and nutrition, whereas other old horses may need a special diet to help maintain an overall good health and body condition. The ultimate goal is to provide adequate nutrition. Older horses require more protein and fat compared to their middle-aged counterparts. Old horses have a weak digestive system which makes it less efficient to process the food that they eat. Fibres that are easily digestible should be fed while ensuring that the food smells good and is dust-free. A general vitamin and mineral supplement at the recommended level should be added to ensure the necessary intake of trace elements.

  • Dental Care:

A healthy set of teeth is conducive to an efficient digestion process. This food needs to be properly chewed so that digestive enzymes can mix properly. Horses chew in circular motion from one side to the other which wears away the pearly whites. Food which is not chewed properly will lead to indigestion causing fermentation and pave way for more serious problems like colic and laminitis. Proper and routine check-ups by your equine dentist will aid the dental care of your horse and help maximise nutrients from the food that it eats. The number of check-ups will depend upon the condition of the horse and condition of its teeth.

  • Hoof Care:

It is essential to maintain a good hoof care regime as the strengths and weakness of your horse’s feet is truly revealed in old age. It is recommended that a farrier attends to a geriatric horse’s feet once or twice a year even if they are not in work.  They may have similar hoof issues such as younger horses like stone bruises and quarter cracks. The biggest risk that an old horse could fall prey to is laminitis. It is a painful disease and can cause lasting change in the foot and have potentially mortal consequences. Keeping your horse’s weight under control by ensuring recommended intake of a well- balanced diet is very important to avoid laminitis and ensure continued hoof care.


  • Blood Tests:

Blood tests can reveal a lot about the state of an elderly horse and it is a wise investment. A blood screening test can disclose a number of health issues, and various body functions. As the horses age, there is a gradual rise in the deterioration in their liver and kidney functions. The problems revealed may or may not be treated by veterinarians, but dietary changes can be adopted to tackle the problem. For instance, a supplement could be added to cope with deficiency or something can be excluded from the diet to ease the workload on the kidneys. Annual blood screening tests are generally recommended for old horses.

  • Overall Body Condition:

Equine obesity is on the rise as more and more paddock potatoes (horse counterparts of couch potatoes) are created. Overweight and fat horses much like humans, are prone to heart diseases and a number of other diseases. Extra stress and over-exertion of the joints is another issue. Gradual body changes of the horse can be a bit difficult to detect. Although, some horse owners have a detailed health record of their older horses which can be useful in determining the overall body condition. Using the body score system for horses can be of huge help. An older horse on a normal diet having a healthy coat, a good body condition and routine eating habits is not a cause of concern. However, any signs suggesting otherwise calls for a dental check-up and a blood test and changes in the daily care of the animal to ensure continued good body condition.

  • Paddock Arrangements:

Old horses are generally slow eaters and it can be a cause of concern if an older horse shares a paddock with young horses. Old horses prefer having several goes at their meal rather than gobbling it all in a single attempt. Horses adapt to a feed routine easily and thus an area surrounded by electric fence is an ideal choice for meal times. The yard should be big enough for the horses to roam around and eat a little grass. If the horses leave their food and wander, don’t assume that they don’t want it. They are likely to come back to finish it off. In case you own several horses, the paddock set-up needs to be watched carefully. An older horse may pair up well with a few horses and not so much with others. Old horses mostly prefer a quiet environment. Owners should make arrangements catering to these needs.

  • Grooming:

Grooming is a must and should be done on a regular basis to keep an old horse’s coat and skin healthy. Grooming gives you the chance to check over the horse’s body to ensure its healthiness and to check for external wounds that may later fester. Grooming also aids healthy blood circulation and helps release natural oils that shield it from natural elements such as wind and rain. Smarten your old horses by tidying up their manes and by using horse trimmers. Grooming is vital to elderly horses as they develop much thicker coats and have tendencies for greasier coats.

  • Shelter and Bedding:

To add to the general well being of a horse, an established paddock with a good cover can make all the difference. A well covered horse will stay dry and consume less energy to stay warm. A geriatric horse needs moderate exercise and mobility which is good for its mental well-being and digestion. Thus, the paddock should be accommodating and spacious enough to facilitate this and to avoid stiff joints and puffiness in the limbs.

Bedding of an old horse is very essential. Finely shredded unwanted wood makes for comfortable bedding and is cost-effective. Bale of shavings can be scattered for extra support for horses suffering from laminitis.

  • Impending Illnesses:

Just like humans, old age brings a number of problems which cannot be fully cured but only be controlled to a certain extent. Various forms of joint pains and arthritis are the most common diseases which old horses are prone to. Cushing’s disease can be triggered if there is a problem in the functioning of the pituitary gland. These diseases to some can be treated although, they cannot be cured completely. Thus treatments are aimed at reducing the discomfort and the pain arising from it.

Take-home Message

A general understanding will help owners and caregivers to make thoughtful management decisions in caring for older horses. Understanding the reasons which may add to the discomfort in their twilight years will prepare you in dealing with the situation better. It is important to understand that while older horses may not be as productive and agile as they were in their youth, regular veterinary check-ups, hoof and dental care coupled with proper and balanced nutrition are fundamental to keep these horses healthy for the remainder of their lives.

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