by Judy Van Put
Many horse owners can recall having a special “older” horse, one that has reached the age of about 20, at some point in their lives; in many cases it may have been their very first, one that was tried and true, and a perfect match for an inexperienced youngster to learn on. That was the case during my childhood, and is again, some 40-years (and many horses) later.
Older horses bring with them a wisdom gained from their experiences, and can be delightful companions and riding horses, although perhaps not as limber as they once were or having limitations to what they can still comfortably do. Keeping these special horses healthy and comfortable requires a bit more diligence in care, feeding, time and attention. But many who have had horses that reached their “sunset years” will agree that it is well worth the efforts spent.
The old adage “you are what you eat” certainly applies to horses, and what you feed your aged horses will effect their overall health and longevity. You should feed the best quality food possible — if possible, free-choice, good grass and clean, green-colored hay that is free of mold, overgrown weeds and dust; and to a lesser extent, some concentrated feed. As horses age, their nutritional requirements change, but with most horses, the level of activity will dictate how much you need to feed your horse. Certainly during the cold winter months, more food will be needed in order for your horse to keep warm. Ideally, this will come in the form of hay — as it is the metabolism of the hay that keeps the horse warm, not the amount of concentrated feed she is given.
Some horses will have difficulty in chewing and processing hay and so, in order to provide your aged horse with a sufficient supplement that she can eat more easily and gain the benefit of the fiber content, there are a number of products that are made for this purpose — hay cubes, grass pellets, and beet pulp are among the most popular. All are fed by soaking first. Beet pulp, for example, comes in shredded form as well as pelleted form and you’ll want to discuss with your veterinarian what might work best for your horse. Be aware that some products such as beet pulp shreds contain molasses or sweeteners and when we were feeding soaked beet pulp we were careful not to use those products, as the extra carbohydrates in the sweeteners were not needed or wanted in our horse’s case.
Many older horses cannot break down fibrous foods as easily, nor can their digestive systems absorb proteins and other nutrients as readily as when they were younger. Older horses will require feed that is higher in protein and fat (unless your horse is overweight). Fortunately, there are a number of “senior feeds” on the market, as well as feeds in different forms, such as “extruded” feeds, which is in essence an extra processing step in making the feed easier for the horse’s digestive system to process. Our older mare gets very itchy during the winter months with her long haircoat and I find that adding oil to her food (corn, sunflower or safflower oil) is very helpful in keeping her comfortable as well as giving her a bit more fat in her diet. Starting with a tablespoon of oil mixed in with the feed, you can increase the amount gradually. Our mare gets about three tablespoons per feeding, morning and night.
Regular dental care is of the essence with older horses. All horses should have their teeth checked annually, but older horses will benefit from twice-yearly checkups. As horses age, their teeth continue to grow and are kept worn by chewing grass, hay and feed. It is important to be sure they are wearing evenly as the horse chews; teeth that are not worn evenly will develop sharp points or ridges that will cut the cheeks and tongue. This can result in your horse not eating enough food, and losing weight, which is difficult to remedy as your horse ages or swallowing food that has not been chewed properly, which can cause the horse to choke or colic. It’s not uncommon for older horses to develop abscesses or “bad” teeth that need to be pulled. A tooth that abscesses is infected and can have dire results if not taken care of right away.
Hand in hand with regular dental care are general healthcare and vet checks. You should have your horse on a regular schedule for these checks, which should include fecal egg counts for parasites, especially if turned out with other horses or in a small paddock or pasture. Parasites can cause a general long-term affect on your horse’s overall condition, in some cases, colic, and even death. By having fecal egg counts done regularly, you may reduce the use of dewormers if they are not necessary, but you’ll know how effective your parasite control program is and whether you need to step up your efforts.
Exercise and turnout is especially important for older horses. We found that our mare would be achey and stiff in the mornings when we closed her in her stall at night; leaving her “loose” and having the ability to move around freely has greatly improved her stiffness and keeps those joints lubricated. Muscle tone will also be improved if your horse is turned out and even in winter (except on the coldest/windiest days) a run-in shelter to keep out of the elements is preferred to having your horse confined to a stall. Muscles that are not used can become weak and atrophy. Turnout is also important for your horse’s mental health and well-being. Fresh air is critical in keeping your horse’s lungs and respiratory system healthy, especially in winter when horses are exposed to extra dust from hay and bedding. If riding or turnout is not possible, consider walking your horse on a lead rope to keep her moving and out in the fresh air.
Lastly, consider your horse’s feet. Even those that are not shod will require regular trims to keep those hooves worn evenly. Horses whose feet are too long or worn unevenly can develop leg problems and muscle cramps, or become unsteady on their feet and at risk of tripping or falling.
By thinking ahead and being very aware of your horse and her habits and condition, you will both enjoy her older years and benefit from that special long-term relationship.
Caring for the Older Horse
by Judy Van Put