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    Additional Care Recommendations For Older Horses

    An older horse at a fence line outside
    Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

    Updated July 10, 2020

    Horses can live quite long lives by mammalian standards, with many domestically-kept horses living between 25 and 35 years of age or more! Due to the size of their bodies, and possible lingering health challenges in horses rescued from abusive situations, there are a number of areas where a sanctuary may have to make changes to help their older horse friends thrive at their forever home. It’s difficult to define when a horse should be considered a senior, as they tend to age at very individual rates. Generally, if they don’t seem to be thriving on the diet that they used to be fine eating, consider their age as a possible factor.

    As horses age, they may face more health challenges, so it’s especially important to be vigilant in monitoring their health through regular health and dental checkups, fecal examinations, and weigh-ins to effectively treat issues early on. Infections, parasites, and common ailments can be much harder to treat in senior horses, so it’s critical to be as proactive as you can be with their health!

    Special Food Recommendations For Older Horses

    It’s important to monitor an older horse’s weight as they age to ensure that they aren’t under-eating. There are a number of changing health considerations that may affect the digestive process of an older horse. Older horses can sometimes lose, break, or wear down some or many of their permanent teeth through the course of their long lives, affecting their ability to chew and effectively digest their food. Other factors include a loss of the ability for their gut to efficiently absorb nutrients, age-related health conditions, vitamin imbalances, and a decreased tolerance to environmental stress.

    If you are concerned about a horse’s food intake, have a veterinarian evaluate them, especially checking their oral health once a year (or twice a year if they have had teeth trouble in the past). Be sure to regularly evaluate the weight and food intake behavior of senior residents so you can make adjustments. If necessary, you can supplement their food with a natural commercial source or senior horse food that has a higher protein level to ensure they’re receiving enough macronutrients, or you can make your own special food by mashing soaked hay or hay cubes, or beet pulp, or soaking complete food before serving to give them an easier time absorbing the nutrients. Any changes should be made gradually to prevent colic and other digestive problems.

    While under-eating and low weight can be a challenge in older horses, it’s also important to ensure that they do not become overweight, which can occur in horses who continue to eat at the same pace as when they were younger but who are less mobile. If necessary, you may have to regulate an older horse’s food if they’re gaining too much weight, as obesity can lead to a number of health challenges and should not be ignored.

    Certain health conditions like Cushing’s disease, pituitary/thyroid issues, and liver or kidney dysfunction require a specialized diet. In fact, the food they previously thrived on could now be causing more harm than good, or they could be missing vital dietary components that can help manage symptoms. Talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist about the ideal diet for individual senior horses.

    Learn More About Feeding Senior Horses!

    To learn more about the dietary needs of many senior horses, check out our resource addressing the those needs in fuller detail!

    Grass Clippings Are Unsuitable For Horses!

    Grass clippings should not be fed to horses. Once fresh grass is cut, it begins fermenting quickly. Because they don’t have to chew the clippings due to their smaller size, clippings are swallowed without mixing with their saliva that typically aids in an equine digestive process. Once in the gut, the grass clippings will give off gas that can cause colic and ruptures.

    Senior Horses And Environmental Stress

    You may find that your senior residents don’t adapt to change as easily as they used to. Transport, changes in routines, moving to new living areas, big temperature changes, and changes to social groupings can all have an effect on the health of senior horses. Events such as these may affect their appetite, putting them off their food, and causing even more issues. Whenever possible, try to make changes gradually (including changes to diet!) and use calming techniques when applying these changes. Some calming techniques for horse residents include:

    • Taking lightly soiled straw from their current living area and putting it in their new area, or moving them next to the herd they will eventually be a part of, easing them into this transition.
    • Providing lavender scent during transport can lower heart rate.
    • In cases where you have little control, such as weather, be sure to tend to the extra needs an older horse may have during cold and hot weather by providing blankets when necessary, and designing proper living spaces that combat the effects of temperature stress.

    Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Horses

    It’s especially important to monitor older horses’ living spaces to make sure they offer enough traction. Be on the lookout for places where they could trip, as a fall could be devastating to an older resident. Older horses may need to have special bedding in order to make it easier for them to sleep and relax in their sleeping areas, especially to prevent pressure sores in horses who lay down more often than they used to or are bonier than they used to be. You should use shorter fibered straw or wood shavings for older horses who drag their legs and get stuck in the longer straw. If this isn’t feasible in the horse’s living space, you can also give them a regularly cleaned (naturally sourced only) sand-covered pen to sleep on rather than straw. If using sand, care should be taken to prevent residents from ingesting sand, which could cause an impaction. Hay should be placed up off the ground or in a clean area on the ground, and ideally, food should be placed in non-sandy areas of the living space.  Ground feeding or hanging nets lower can also prevent respiratory problems. Regardless of the specifics of the indoor space, always make sure that their food and water sources are close by!

    Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Horses

    If an older horse is having a harder time thriving on your pasture due to decreased mobility, it might be time to give them (and their closest companion) their own smaller-sized and flat pasture to graze on. A smaller pasture with close access to food, minerals, and water can give them the opportunity to get around easier and not have to compete with younger horses for resources like food and water. If you do provide the older horse with their own pasture, make sure they still have access to some type of shelter in case it’s necessary for your location’s climate. Older horses still need plenty of space to exercise throughout the day, so if you do decide to give them their own space, make sure they can still run if they feel the need!

    Social Recommendations For Older Horses

    Horses tend to form bonds with fellow horses if given the opportunity. As a result, horses living away from other horse residents are prone to depression. If you decide that it’s best to give the older horse their own special indoor or outdoor space, make sure to house them with one of their herd friends– their closest friend if possible! This can help them feel more at home and at peace with their new surroundings.

    Managing Arthritis In Older Horses

    All Arthritis Solutions MUST Be Discussed With Your Veterinarian!

    Below, we offer some anecdotal solutions suggested by sanctuaries for assistance in managing arthritis in horses. However, ANY time you wish to explore arthritis management options in horses, you MUST have a conversation with your veterinarian! Arthritis can be a complex issue, and individual horse health may complicate any one treatment, or certain treatments could cause significant health complications!

    Arthritis is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, especially horses, due to their large size. A horse might develop arthritis in any of their hooves, legs, or joints. Untreated, this could eventually manifest as debilitating chronic pain or could contribute to the development of laminitis. You might have to treat the older horse with horse joint supplements, glucosamine, and regular anti-inflammatory treatments or horse-approved NSAID pain relievers such as Phenylbutazone or Meloxicam. For a more long-term solution for arthritis, you can administer a Chondroprotective agent such as Adequan to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. Sanctuaries have also seen some success in treating arthritis pains with more natural remedies in conjunction with medication. These include Botswella (also known as Indian Frankincense) to successfully lower inflammation, as well as Turmeric and, anecdotally, CBD oil. Make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades or long walks to food or water if you can! Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a treatment plan for arthritis.

    Horse hooves can become more challenging to manage as they get older due to less effective nutrient absorption and changes in exercise patterns. Make sure that you are vigilant in monitoring a senior horse’s hooves and maintaining a high standard of hoof care so as not to exacerbate any arthritis or reluctance to move!


    Caring For The Older Horse | University Of Georgia

    The Benefits And Side Effects Of Adequan For Pet Arthritis

    Indian Frankincense | Arthritis Foundation

    Providing Care & Nutrition For The Aging Horse | Smart Pak (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Feeds And Supplements For Older Horses | The Horse (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?

    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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