by Marilyn Munzert
With the right management, you can still create lots of memories with your senior horse. Having a vet available for any health concerns as the horse transitions from working performance horse to backyard pleasure is the first priority.
Have your vet complete a comprehensive investigation before committing to a continued riding schedule; you need to make sure that your horse is physically sound enough to work. The vet should listen to the heart and look for any kind of cardiomyopathy (heart problems). He should make sure he’s moving freely with no lameness. He should check the feet to make sure there is no low-grade laminitis. Laminitis is secondary to any disease or metabolic process, so if something is out of whack, like Cushing’s disease or insulin resistance, sometimes the first thing you’ll notice is sore-footedness. That’s a big concern in older horses.
Before the exam, think about what you would like to do with your older horse. Are you hoping to keep him in competition shape, or are you just looking for a quiet trail partner? Make sure your vet understands what your plans are so that he or she can determine if your horse is sound enough for your riding goals.
Just like humans, some horses will gain weight as they age and their activity level decreases. Others will have trouble maintaining weight. But weight problems are not inevitable, and in most cases you can manage your horse’s health and diet to keep him in good condition.
Weight maintenance comes down to the individual. The average geriatric Thoroughbred is underweight, but an average geriatric Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse or Tennessee Walker is often overweight. Wearing a grazing muzzle in the spring and early summer can help reduce the risk of weight-related problems like laminitis.
For overweight horses, the first place to look is the teeth. If a horse can no longer effectively grind his feed, he won’t be able to absorb nutrients, leading to weight loss and poor health. A horse’s teeth continually erupt throughout his life, but once they run out of growth, that’s it; the teeth can fall out.
Healthy teeth won’t do your horse much good if he’s not getting the right feed. Assuming there are no dental problems, your senior horse should continue to have a forage-based diet of primarily pasture grass or hay. Supplementing with commercial feed can be helpful in ensuring your horse is getting all the nutrition he needs. Most feed brands offer a senior feed. These are usually more readily absorbed through the horse’s intestines. As long as you’re feeding the recommended amounts, you don’t have to do much more than that.
When it comes to nutrition, the proof is in the pudding. If your horse is maintaining his weight and has good muscling and a healthy coat, your nutrition program is probably serving him well. If he starts to look dull or gets thin, then something is unbalanced and you should consult your vet to help you pin down the problem.
For horses that can no longer chew regular forage, consider adding what is referred to as “oatmeal.” Mix the recommended amount of forage-based feed, such as hay cubes or pellets, with warm water and let it soak until you have a mash. Chewing is the first step in digestion, and when your horse can no longer chew, soaking his feed takes the place of the first step. It requires a little extra work for caretakers, but horses can do very well on this regimen, even when they no longer have a full set of teeth.
For most horses, the ideal living situation is to spend as much time outside as possible. This reduces respiratory problems and allows older horses to move around all day for better joint health.
An overweight horse sitting in the pasture is not a healthy horse. Unless a horse has a chronic lameness or breathing issue, he ought to continue to exercise. As horses age, they don’t recover as well after exercise. A horse that’s ridden once a month might be more sore than a horse that’s ridden twice a week. Proceed with caution and keep the rides slow and easy.
With a little extra care and attention to your senior horse’s well being, he may be able to be your trusty riding partner throughout his golden years. Simply keeping a spot open for riding can improve his quality of life and yours.