August 12, 2022 16 min read

Everything You Need to Know About Caring for the Senior Horse

08/10/2022

 

There’s something special about senior horses.

Whether it’s the “been there, done that” attitude of a seasoned show mount, the steadfast stoicism of a high-mileage trail horse, or the no-nonsense nature of a mare who’s had her share of foals – senior horses are special.

And so is the care they need to stay healthy, happy, and mobile well into their golden years. In this ode to the aged equine, we’ll take a look at what this special care may include.

We’ll cover health problems that may present around old age, and special nutritional, veterinary and caretaking actions you can take to make sure your senior horse gets as much out of his later years as he gave you in his younger years.

aged palomino mare laying in a pile of hay is kissed on the nose by her handler
Image by Veronika Bykovic on Pexels

But first, let’s tackle a question that even experienced horsepeople don’t always agree on: what exactly is an “old” horse, anyway? 

What is a Senior Horse?

What makes an “old” equine “old” is, in many cases, a matter of opinion and circumstance. 

For a Thoroughbred racehorse, for instance, a 5-year-old may be considered a senior and ready for retirement. But for a school horse, 5 years is too young even to be considered by many stables.

It was once generally accepted that a “senior” horse was any horse aged 15 or over. But with advancements in veterinary medicine and care, many horses can live well into their 30s, and can still work and compete into their 20s. 

Some older horses may never require a senior feed, never develop joint problems, or even require much in the way of special care. Conversely, some horses in their early teens need a special diet, supplements, joint injections, or other ‘maintenance’ to continue to work comfortably. 

An old black horse with a grey face wears a red halter while eating hay
Image by Ivabalk on Pixabay

But generally speaking, it’s safe to call a horse 20 years or over a “senior”, especially if their body is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Let’s look at some common age-related issues that horses can begin to develop in their late teens and early 20s. 

Common Health Problems in Senior Horses

Lameness

Lameness is a concern for every horse owner, but for senior horses, the concern is even greater, both in terms of the frequency and type of lameness. As a horse gets older, increased or persistent (chronic) lameness will often be the first sign of aging.

While the possibility of lameness due to injury is ever-present in horses of any age, the most common cause of lameness due to aging is arthritis.

Arthritis in Senior Horses

Arthritis is, generally speaking, inflammation or swelling of the joints. There are several different types of arthritis, but the one that affects most horses is osteoarthritis – the gradual deterioration of a joint’s cartilage, causing reduced range of motion, stiffness, and swelling. 

Ringbone, a type of arthritis that involves additional bone growth in response to stress, is also common. There are two types of ringbone – “high ringbone” (near the top of the pastern, around the fetlock joint), and “low ringbone” (at the bottom of the pastern, near the coffin bone). 

Arthritis is considered a “wear and tear” disease and will eventually affect just about any animal (humans included!) that lives and works long enough to get it, or it can start as a result of injury or trauma to a joint. Horses in hard work (like jumpers and eventers) and horses with certain conformation faults are at the greatest risk for degenerative joint problems, like arthritis.  

Conformation

Horses with poor leg conformation are more likely to develop arthritis, as unbalanced legs put additional pressure on joints. 

Horses who are knock-kneed (knee joints point inwards), bow-legged (knee joints point outwards), back at the knee, or forward at the knee are at greatest risk for arthritis in the knees, but arthritis can strike any joint. 

 

Ringbone occurs exclusively in the coffin and pastern joints and typically begins to develop around middle age. Horses with upright pasterns (meaning there is little slope from the hoof to the fetlock joint) and horses who are toed-in (their front toes point inwards, or towards one another) are most likely to develop ringbone. 

Signs of Arthritis in Horses

Arthritis symptoms (including ringbone) include pain, swelling, decreased range of motion, and stiffness. If your horse shows signs of discomfort, like balking, ear pinning, bucking, or rearing, he could be in pain.

A warm, swollen joint is a sure sign to call a vet. When grooming, practice running your hands down the front and back of all 4 legs, stopping to feel each joint. If a joint feels hot or swollen, suspect either an injury or arthritis.

Ringbone can be evidenced by tell-tale bumps or ridges around the pastern. These may be visible from either the front or the side, depending on the location of the ringbone.

Other signs to look for include a shortened or otherwise uneven stride or a new head nod. If your horse “just feels different” when you’re riding, it’s a good idea to call a vet or speak to your farrier at their next visit.

Treating Arthritis

Once arthritis has started, there’s little you can do to stop it. However, you can slow it down.

The first thing to do is adjust the horse’s workload. For maximum longevity, reduce or eliminate hard work like jumping and galloping. Lowering jump height, reducing or eliminating jumping, less canter or gallop work, etc. can help make work easier for an older horse.

Corrective trimming or shoeing is also important for helping a horse manage arthritis. Your farrier can use several different strategies to reduce or limit forces on the lower leg joints.

Joint supplements abound on the market and can be easily added to his grain ration. Many horse owners use supplements as a preventative measure before arthritis even develops. To find the right supplement for your horse, it’s best to speak to your veterinarian for a recommendation.

For horses whose condition is advancing, joint injections are an option. Products like Legend and Adequan can be injected directly into the joint, providing relief exactly where it’s needed. Beware, though – depending on where you live, these can get pricey and will require a vet visit to administer.

Alternative treatments like chiropractic and acupuncture have proven effective for decreasing the likelihood of arthritis and helping to keep an already arthritic horse more comfortable. Shockwave therapy (a non-invasive therapy that uses a small handheld device to generate and pulse pressure or “shock” waves at the site of injury to reduce inflammation and encourage blood flow) is also commonly used to treat arthritis and ringbone.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDS or “pain medication”), like Bute, should only be used for short-term relief. Prolonged use increases the likelihood of colic.  

It can be a tough decision, but you may want to consider selling your arthritic horse to a novice or pleasure rider who can offer him an easier, less physically intense job. While some gentle exercise can be beneficial for keeping the joints moving, too much hard work will exacerbate arthritis. 

young girl in a white dress rides an old white horse bareback through an orchard
Image by Katerina Hartlova on Pixabay

Loss of Condition in Senior Horses

“Loss of condition” is a pretty general term, and it can have a ton of different causes. 

In some cases, severe and sudden loss of condition can indicate a serious illness (like cancer), endocrine disorders (like PPID or Cushings), parasites (like intestinal worms), or tooth problems. In many cases, though, a gradual loss of condition is part of the aging process. 

What is Loss of Condition in Older Horses?

Loss of condition refers to a general decrease in weight and muscle mass. 

a skinny chestnut horse with grey hairs and sunken eyes looks at the camera
Image by Rodolfo Quiros on Pexels

Many owners notice distinctive “hollows” start to appear above the eyes (although this can happen to some horses at any age), the withers appear more bony and less round, some ribs may become more visible, individual spinal vertebrae can be seen, hip joints become more prominent, and the croup appears more angular and less round.  

If you notice your older equine gradually losing condition, it may be tempting to put more hay in front of him. While this isn’t necessarily a bad idea, it’s important first to rule out other, not strictly age-related causes for his decline. 

Three of the most common causes for loss of condition in senior horses include dental problems, parasites, and Cushing’s disease. 

Dental Problems 

funny closeup of a horse yawning and sticking out her tongue
Image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Many older horses develop dental problems as they age, like loose or missing teeth or sharp edges. Loose teeth are more susceptible to bacterial infection, which can result in pain, swelling, abscesses, and eventual tooth loss.

Horses chew in a slightly side-to-side motion. This means that over time, horses can develop sharp edges along the outer edges of their teeth. Eventually, these edges can become so sharp that they cut the horse’s tongue or inside of his mouth.

If he has an infected, loose, or broken tooth, or has developed sharp edges that cut when he chews, he won’t be able to eat properly and will lose condition.

Signs of Dental Problems in Horses

In the stall, you’ll notice things like more leftover grain, or your normally clean horse becomes a messy eater, dropping partially chewed grain out of his feed pan. You may also notice more uneaten hay or increased hay and grain in the water bucket. 

Check his manure – seeing whole grains or large pieces of hay is a sure sign that he’s not fully chewing his food before swallowing.

Under saddle, tooth problems may look like a horse being suddenly unwilling to accept the bit while tacking, or exhibiting undesirable behaviors like avoiding bit contact, head tossing, or rearing.

Treating Dental Problems in Senior Horses

The only way to conclusively diagnose and treat dental problems is to call your veterinarian or a trained equine dentist. Note that not all veterinarians are equine dentists, and not all equine dentists are veterinarians. Start by asking your regular vet, who may either do the work herself or refer you to a specialist in equine dentistry. 

Sharp edges can easily be filed down to give your horse a level, edge-free eating surface. In the case of loose or damaged teeth, extraction is usually the best option for senior horses. 

Once the acute issues have been addressed, your senior horse’s diet may need some extra preparation to ensure he can continue to eat comfortably with fewer teeth. Soaking hay cubes or feed, feeding steamed hay or silage, or feeding grain as a “hot mash” (with added warm water, sort of like horsey porridge) are all options that can make eating easier. As always, check with your vet for recommendations for your specific horse.

Equine dentist wearing glasses inspects a paint horse's mouth
Image by 3194556 on Pixabay

Parasites 

Parasites can affect horses of any age, but older horses who may already be losing condition will feel the effects of intestinal parasites more acutely than younger, healthy horses. 

Traditionally, horses were dewormed every 2 months, with worming medications rotated each treatment. However, recent research and increasing knowledge about drug-resistant worms is changing this. 

Rather than trying to kill every parasite in the horse’s body (which encourages overuse of medication, resulting in drug-resistant worms), the focus of modern deworming is to reduce environmental re-infection – reducing worm shedding in the pasture and killing worms in the larvae stage before they even get to your horse. 

Most owners now deworm twice a year—in Spring and Fall—and use a product containing Ivermectin, which has the lowest incidence of resistance.   

Some owners of “closed herds” (meaning the horses do not leave the property, there are no new horses added to the herd, and there are no equine visitors) who have already successfully eliminated parasites from their herd don’t deworm at all. 

Signs of Parasite Overload

Signs of parasitic worm burden in horses can include a number of symptoms often associated with aging, or other illnesses. They include:

  • weight loss
  • colic
  • respiratory problems, like cough or nasal discharge
  • diarrhea or constipation. Worms may be visible in the manure.
  • rough, dull coat
  • ”hay belly” – a large, distended-looking stomach as the horse is losing condition elsewhere
Treating Parasites 

Good news – parasites and intestinal worms are generally pretty easy to treat. Your vet will recommend the best deworming paste to use based on your horse and parasites common in your region. 

Your vet will probably perform a fecal egg count before making a recommendation. A fecal egg count is exactly what it sounds like – they’ll send a manure sample to a lab to see how much & what types of worm eggs are present. 

If the loss of condition isn’t ruled out by teeth or parasite problem or accompanied by a change in coat or signs of laminitis, he may be suffering from Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID, commonly known as “Cushing’s disease”). 

an old horse with swollen joints stands in a field as the sun sets behind it
Image by Bas Masseus on Pexels

Cushing’s Disease 

Cushing’s Disease (or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction, to your vet) is an endocrine disorder that suppresses the immune systems of over 20% of aged equines, so spotting and managing it is a real concern for owners of senior horses.

Cushing’s causes the Pituitary gland (a part in the brain that manufactures certain hormones) to work overtime, resulting in physical changes and damage to the horse. 

It’s typically seen on horses starting at age 15; it almost never occurs in younger animals (under 10 years old). It can strike any equine of any breed. Ponies, horses, and donkeys are all equally susceptible. 

Signs of Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s can be hard to spot at first, as some owners dismiss the early signs as “normal aging.” But as it develops, the signs become harder to miss. 

Look out for:

  • muscle wasting, especially along the topline (top of the neck, back, and hindquarters)
  • a winter coat that takes longer to shed or seems longer or more wavy than usual
  • coat may be very dry and brittle, or the horse could sweat more than normal
  • weight loss
  • behavior changes, such as becoming more sullen or withdrawn
  • lethargy and lack of energy
  • increased thirst and urination
  • frequent infections, like sinus and skin infections, that take longer to clear up
  • laminitis (a debilitatingly painful foot disease)  To further complicate the condition, 80-90% of horses who develop Cushing’s also have Insulin Dysregulation, also called Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). This can cause abnormal fat deposits over the tail, shoulders, and crest of the neck, despite the horse losing weight. Horses with Insulin Dysregulation accompanying Cushing’s are at a greatly increased risk for laminitis, as well. 
Treating Cushing’s Disease

If your horse is one of the 20% of senior horses that develop Cushing’s, he’ll need special treatment for the rest of his life.

There is no cure for Cushing’s, but there are some treatment options available. Your vet may prescribe Prascend, which comes in tablet form and can help reduce shedding problems and muscle wasting. 

Most treatments involve how you manage the senior horse’s day-to-day care. For example, a horse who can’t shed his coat may need to be clipped. A horse who has trouble keeping weight on may need dental care or to be fed soaked hay cubes instead of hay. Horses with Cushing’s may also require a diet change, such as switching to a senior feed. 

Overweight horses with Cushing’s, especially if they have Equine Metabolic Syndrome, need the most immediate treatment as the likelihood of developing laminitis is very, very high. Grain should be eliminated, and access to pasture should be restricted and closely monitored, especially during spring and summer. An overweight horse should also be given more exercise to help him drop some weight. 

If the horse has developed laminitis as a result of Cushing’s, he’ll also need therapeutic farrier care to minimize stress on his feet and lower legs. Laminitis may not be as obvious in an older horse who isn’t being ridden much, whereas foot changes in a more active horse may be caught sooner – a good reason to keep your senior horse moderately active for as long as he’s comfortable. 

Respiratory Problems

Generally speaking, there are two types of respiratory problems in horses – those that are caused by viruses (such as when every horse in a barn catches a cough) and those that are not caused by viruses. 

While senior horses are just as likely to catch a virus if it’s circulating in their barn, they’re also at increased risk for non-viral respiratory problems as a result of their age, which is what we’ll focus on here. It’s also important to remember that some horses are predisposed to respiratory problems, the same way some humans get asthma. 

Whether or not your horse will contend with respiratory problems as a senior has a lot to do with how he was cared for in his younger years.

For example, if he spent most of his life in a poorly-ventilated barn, eating dusty hay and working in a sandy, dusty ring, it’s quite likely that he will have already developed problems by the time he’s 10, let alone 20. But if he spent most of his life at grass and was fed a good quality, dust-free, soaked hay, he may reach 40 without even a cough.  

The most common respiratory problem older horses face is Reactive Airway Disease, commonly known as “heaves” (and to your non-horsey friends, “horse asthma”). 

Signs of Respiratory Problems in Senior Horses

Signs of respiratory problems in horses are similar to those found in humans, and may include:

  • chronic cough
  • labored breathing, at rest and especially after exercise
  • wheezing
  • exercise intolerance 
  • flaring nostrils
  • nasal discharge
  • weight loss
  • increased breaths per minute (respiratory rate)
  • abnormal lung sounds 

Heaves can be exacerbated by exercise, or even just being outside on a hot, humid day (a condition called Summer Pasture-Associated Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or SPAOPD).

 

Left untreated and unmanaged, heaves can eventually progress into emphysema and permanent lung damage. Horses with heaves are also more likely to get pneumonia due to bacteria getting trapped in their airway.

Treating Respiratory Problems in Senior Horses

Horses with respiratory problems need the very best ventilation possible. And the very best ventilation is outdoors. 

Giving your asthmatic senior plenty of turnout has lots of other benefits, too – the constant gentle exercise of walking and grazing will help keep him functionally fit and ease those sore muscles and stiff joints. Grass is virtually no-dust and, unless he’s at risk for laminitis due to Cushing’s and EMS, about the healthiest thing you can feed a horse.

If your asthmatic senior absolutely must be kept in a stall, opt for shavings instead of straw bedding, as straw is more likely to contain dust or mold. 

Move him to a stall with the best ventilation, such as near a door or breezeway. If your barn has an indoor arena attached to the shedrow, try to move him far away from the arena so he won’t be bothered by the dust or sand particles from the footing. 

Don’t sweep near him (which stirs up dust particles), and moisten stall floors throughout the day with a light sprinkling of water to keep the dust down. 

A stabled horse enjoys good ventilation in an open stall and stall guard

 

Keep all windows and doors open as much as you can. This might involve purchasing a stall guard so you can keep his stall door open, or adding an extra stable blanket or fleece blanket liner to keep him warm in the winter. 

 

For more advanced cases, you’ll need more proactive medical treatment, in addition to these daily changes.

Your vet may recommend oral medications like corticosteroids (medications to help reduce airway inflammation) or bronchodilators (medications that open up the passageways from the lungs to the windpipe). These will usually be in pill form, which you can administer yourself. In the case of severe heaves, your vet may prescribe these medications as inhalants (a puffer, similar to puffers used for human asthma sufferers).

Your vet might also prescribe expectorants (medications that help the horse expel mucus from his lungs), or even antibiotics if he has developed a bacterial infection that is worsening his heaves. 

If you’re still showing your heav-ey horse, be aware that some of these medications may be banned by certain competition organizations.

Feeding the Senior Horse with Heaves

If your heav-ey horse needs grain, switch to a low-dust option like pelleted or extruded feeds. 

You can also moisten or soak some pellets before feeding, which will further reduce dust (and is great for older horses with dental issues). 

When it comes to hay, try to switch to soaked hay cubes if you can. If hay cubes are out of your budget, opt for steamed or soaked hay, which will cut down on the dust. Soak hay by dunking it in a bucket of water, or pour water over the top of the hay before feeding. 

If your senior horse is on round bales, consider switching to smaller square bales, which are less likely to mold or contain dust.

Feed hay chest-high and off the ground, which will reduce his exposure to dust. 

If you can’t find or afford square bales, you can still feed round bales, but just take a few extra precautions – avoid feeding from the outer roll (which has come into the most contact with the elements and is likely to mold or collect dust. Use it on your garden instead). Roll out hay, and “fluff” it with a pitchfork to inspect it for mold and release dust spores before putting it in front of your horse. 

Soaking or steaming hay will also reduce dust and has the added advantage of making it more digestible and adding a bit of extra hydration to his diet. At the very least, shake hay before you feed it to your horse to release as much dust as possible. 

artistic photo of an old grey horse standing in front of a hay manger
Image by Peggychouchair on Pixabay

Foot Care for Senior Horses 

Some owners make the mistake of assuming that an older horse who’s not in regular work doesn’t need the same regular hoof care that he did when he was young. But the old adage “no foot, no horse” applies at any age, especially the senior ones. 

Why Foot Care for Senior Horses is Important 

It may be fine to pull those shoes off and let him spend more of his days at pasture and giving the occasional pony ride to young kids, but hoof growth continues throughout all stages of a horse’s life (although it does slow down in senior years). 

Hooves grow more quickly around the toes, meaning going too long between trims can actually change the hoof/ pastern angle and increase strain on the horse’s joints and tendons. 

If you notice your horse getting stiff, or have recently acquired a senior horse, tell your farrier. Most farriers are excellent horsepeople who care deeply about the well-being of the animals in their care. They can take some precautions to keep your horse more comfortable during visits, like picking up feet slowly on a stiff horse or giving the horse a break part way through trimming. 

Senior Health Concerns That Affect Hoof Care 

If your horse has Cushing’s and/or EMR, or is taking certain medications for heaves, he will be at an increased risk for laminitis. Regular expert checkups with your farrier will ensure he’s not starting to suffer from this debilitating disease. And if he’s in the early stages, regular treatment from your farrier can make the difference between early euthanasia and staying happy and comfortable for years to come. 

If your horse has developed joint problems like ringbone or arthritis, tell your farrier immediately (although they’ll probably be one of the first people to notice!). They can offer a range of therapeutic shoeing and trimming options that can help the senior horse stay comfortable and mobile, without the use of pain medication or drugs. 

farrier rasps a hind foot using a Hoofjack to support an arthritic horse
Image by IndiOdyssey on Pixabay

Weakening Hoof Walls

Even with regular farrier care, check your horse’s feet daily for changes. Aging horses may have weakening hoof walls, which might need to be addressed. Signs of weakening hoof walls include cracking, splitting, or chipping, especially around the quarters (the lateral sides of each foot). 

If you notice increased cracking or chipping, talk to your farrier and veterinarian. You’ll want to ensure that this isn’t a sign of another underlying problem, like a nutritional deficiency or a too-wet or too-dry environment (both of which can wreak havoc on a horse’s feet). 

If he doesn’t have any underlying problems, supplementing with biotin (a B7 vitamin that supports healthy hair and hooves), certain fats to increase pliability (like Omega 3 Fatty Acids), Methionine (closely related to keratin, which supports healthy hair and hooves), or Zinc and Copper (to support cellular health) may help restore hoof quality. Most commercially-available supplements, like Farrier’s Formula, will contain these ingredients. 

As always, speak with your vet before adding supplements to your horse’s diet. 

Golden Years

Senior horses are special animals. In many cases, they’ve given the best years of their lives to their humans. While the care and attention they receive while young will have the greatest impact on how they handle aging, there’s still plenty you can do to help your aging horse make the most of his golden years. 

Don’t skimp on regular veterinary and farrier care, and keep an eye on his day-to-day condition. With a little extra care and attention, there’s no reason your healthy senior horse can’t continue to be a great friend, teacher, and partner until the very end. 

 

 

Maggie Robbins
Maggie Robbins


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