Basic care for the senior horse
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
Dental issues arise as a horse wears out or loses teeth.
Weight loss or loose manure can occur with reduced absorbing ability of the gut.
Senior horses have a higher chance of some types of colic such as a blocked small intestine from a fat tumor. These cases require prompt attention.
Arthritis in multiple joints may cause stiffness or limit the range of motion with exercise.
Laminitis (founder) may occur if the horse develops Cushing's syndrome.
Muscle wasting may develop, particularly over the horse's topline.
Senior horses are at more risk to infection. If the horse develops Cushing’s syndrome, they are at even greater risk. This syndrome causes high blood levels of cortisol, which is a hormone that decreases the immune system’s responsiveness.
Recurrent airway obstruction (heaves), the horse equivalent of asthma, tends to progress with time. Affected horses may need more active medical and environmental management as they age.
Fertility in both mares and stallions declines.
Sperm quality and quantity may limit conception rates.
In mares, there is age-related progressive degeneration of the uterine lining, which is responsible for the exchange of nutrients from mare to fetus.
The eggs produced by the ovaries are less fertile.
For these reasons, pregnancy is more difficult to achieve and sustain in senior horses.
Age-related changes may impact the heart or blood vessels. This can lead to heart failure or sudden death if a major vessel ruptures.
Slightly decreased coordination in older horses can reduce agility. Arthritic changes in the neck or break-down of the spinal cord can result in progressive incoordination.
Abnormal hormone production by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain results in Cushing's syndrome. See Cushing’s section below.
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
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:
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.
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.
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:
Reviewed in 2018