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Basic care for the senior horse

Quick facts

  • Schedule routine dental and physical exams with your veterinarian to detect any problems early.

  • Make sure your saddle fits properly as your senior horse’s topline changes.

  • Make sure your horse has a high quality diet that meets all their nutrient needs including vitamins and minerals.

  • Watch for early signs of cancer or Cushing’s syndrome for best treatment outcomes.

  • Keep senior horses up-to-date on vaccines and deworming to prevent infection.

Many horses and ponies can live into their 20s or 30s with good health care. These horses play many important roles including:

  • Providing trustworthy mounts for new riders, children and riders with special needs.

  • Being companions for other horses or their owners.

As horses age, their health needs change. Thus, you should change your care to meet your senior horse’s developing needs.

Changes in an aging horse’s body

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Health care tips

Schedule routine exams

Work with your veterinarian to make a proactive plan for your horse. Detect problems early by scheduling annual or semiannual physical exams. The exam should include:

  • A dental check

  • Bodyweight estimation and body condition score

  • Soundness check

  • Vaccine planning

Routine blood screening and urine tests can detect more subtle signs of age-related internal organ problems.

You and your veterinarian can then use all of these exam findings to plan health care and nutrition for the next 6 to 12 months.

Watch for early signs of cancer

Gray horses often develop lumps, melanomas, under the skin. Monitor these for size during each exam.

Check white skin in areas with little or no hair coat for reddened or raised spots. These areas include around the:

  • Eyes

  • Muzzle

  • Vulva

  • Penis

If you detect cancer early, local treatment is often successful.

Have your saddle fit

If you still ride your senior horse or pony, check their saddle fit. Senior horses often have less back muscle, which is more prone to saddle sores.

Worn out teeth
Worn out teeth from a horse in their 20s.

Feeding

Senior horses should have at least a yearly dental check.

Make sure your senior horse has a high quality diet. Most major feed companies make “senior” diets. These are often pelleted, easy to chew and have more energy than other concentrates. Palatability may vary between brands. If your horse doesn’t like one, try another.

Always follow feed instructions carefully and make sure the horse gets enough vitamins and minerals.

A senior diet with hay or pasture can improve a senior horse’s body condition if they can’t keep on bodyweight and don’t have an apparent health problem. You can feed senior pellets in larger volumes as the sole feed for a horse, particularly if its teeth are too worn to effectively chew hay.

Soundness

Horses need regular feet trimming throughout their lives. Good hoof balance promotes even weight bearing and less stress on the joints. Joint friendly supplements like glucosamine with chondroitin sulfate may help some arthritic horses get around. Some horses may need a low dose of anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone to keep them comfortable.

Daily light exercise or turn-out as well as longer warm-up and cool down will also help maintain the horse's usefulness. Some horses may need specific joint therapy if they are lame.

Vaccinations and deworming

As the immune system wanes, senior horses become more prone to microbial diseases and parasites. Routine health care should continue past retirement. Senior horses that are kept active with show horses may need more frequent vaccinations, particularly against respiratory diseases such as:

  • Strangles

  • Herpes

  • Influenza

Julie Wilson, DVM formerly with the University of Minnesota

Reviewed by: Harland Anderson, DVM; Ron Genrick, Assurance Feeds; Abby Neu, poultry Extension educator; and Brenda Postels, former Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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