5 essential ways to ensure your geriatric horse remains in good health

Preventative health care for the older horse

Thanks to good nutrition, health and veterinary care, domestic horses can live far longer than would be possible in the wild. It would be relatively common place for horses to live well into their twenties and even into their thirties and there are some horses than have enjoyed life even into their 50’s and 60’s!

We all want to give our horses the best care possible and when it comes to looking after the senior horse, a little extra care and attention is needed. While the basic principles of good horse care remain, there are several areas of ongoing management to prioritise to help ensure your older (technically termed ‘geriatric’) horse remains fit and healthy well into his or her golden years. Our equine veterinary expert Nikki Walshe explains…

  1. Get a baseline:

Establish what is normal on your horse

This allows you to monitor them closely and notice subtle changes that could result in important early intervention. Body condition score is particularly important. If your horse loses weight due to poor nutrition, dentation or Equine Cushing Syndrome, early intervention is crucial. Conversely a decrease in exercise and a change from muscle to fat can lead to increase BCS and associated disease such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

  1. Veterinary Check-ups

Annual checks (often coinciding with vaccination) are recommended.

Just like an older car, the older the horse, the more often it should be checked for problems. I recommend an annual full check-up for older horses. But make sure you know your horse and what is normal and if there are any changes from baseline, contact your vet.

  1. Regular dental and farrier work

Dental care is crucial in all older horses.

Horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout their lifetime and can become deformed. As a result, an older horse may not be able to pick up food or chew it properly, which will result in poor nutritional intake. This can often go unnoticed, due to the insidious onset of weight loss. So, observe your older horse eating, monitor for “quidding” (dropping food out of the mouth) and be sure to schedule routine dental checks.

dental-care-in-horses

Regular dental work is crucial for senior horses.

Regular visits by the farrier can help decrease risk and allow for effective monitoring of laminitis, foot abscessation and hoof cracks.

As mentioned above, Cushing syndrome is very common in our geriatrics and will predispose them to laminitis. Even low grade laminitis can result in hoof cracks and foot abscessation. If you have any suspicion of laminitis, veterinary consultation and X-rays can be taken to confirm its presence and, in conjunction with your farrier, paring adjusted accordingly.

lamintic-xray

An x-ray of a senior horse with laminitis, showing rotation of the pedal bone.

  1. Nutrition

The key to good nutrition is tailoring the diet to the individual.

Older horses can have teeth problems, can be suffering from Equine Cushings Syndrome or can have decreased exercise due to arthritis. Therefore, the diet must be tailored to maintain a healthy body weight. If your older horse is healthy and has good teeth, then grass or a normal hay based diet is adequate. However, if the carbohydrate level in the diet needs to be reduced, or if your horse is not thriving, he or she will benefit from being fed a good quality feed balancer to maintain nutritional requirements. A balancer mixed with un-sweetened and properly soaked beet pulp is ideal for the older horse.

As stressed above, if your senior horse has poor dentation and is quidding, he may not be able to adequately digest food, which can lead to poor nutrition and increased risk of choke. There are several brands of “senior” pelleted food on the market that are more easily digested, or you could simply soak your horse’s balancer in warm water to make it into an easy to eat gruel. However don’t forget the fibre; this is the foundation of every horse’s diet and it is always necessary for good health and must be maintained in the diet.

  1. Control of infections

Older horses, just like people, have a decrease in immunity.

Horses generally have a good immunity to parasites. However, they can become immunocompromised if suffering from Cushings disease and thus become more susceptible to disease associated with worms. To combat this, it is important to conduct regular faecal egg counts to monitor their worm burden and administer anthelminthics accordingly.

Geriatrics are also at an increased risk of picking up secondary bacterial infections and have decreased healing ability. Small cuts or even mud rash can develop into more serious problems. Therefore, prompt treatment and diligent monitoring for skin infections is important.

cellulits-in-horses

Cellulitis in horses

Our horses bring so much to our lives over the many years we’re lucky enough to own them and with a little extra care and attention, our senior horses can live long, healthy and active lives. We owe them that.


Please note that our veterinary articles are written to give you insights and understanding of common equine veterinary problems and are not intended to take the place of a veterinary examination by your own vet. If in doubt, always call your own vet should your horse require attention. 

Nikki Walshe MVB is a resident vet at Greenmount Equine Hospital, Limerick

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