August 12, 2022 16 min read
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.
But first, let’s tackle a question that even experienced horsepeople don’t always agree on: what exactly is an “old” horse, anyway?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Loss of condition refers to a general decrease in weight and muscle mass.
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.
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