Caring for your senior horse
Schedule routine dental and physical exams with your veterinarian to detect problems early.
Make sure your saddle fits properly as your senior horse’s topline changes.
Feed your horse a high quality diet that meets all their nutrient needs.
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.
Managing weight, keeping horses in light work, and stretching are all good ways to help manage arthritis.
Many horses and ponies can live into their 20s or 30s with good health care. Senior horses provide trustworthy mounts for new riders, children and riders with special needs. And they are great companions for other horses and their owners.
As horses age, their health needs change. So change your care to meet your senior horse’s developing needs.
Changes in the aging horse
Dental issues arise as a horse wears out or loses teeth.
Weight loss or loose manure can occur as the gut is less able to absorb nutrients.
Senior horses have a higher chance of some types of colic such as a blocked small intestine from fat tumors. These cases require prompt attention.
Muscles and joints
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.
- Cushing’s syndrome causes high blood levels of cortisol, 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.
- Pregnancy is more difficult to achieve and sustain in senior horses.
Sperm quality and quantity may limit conception rates.
In mares, there is age-related progressive degeneration of the uterine lining.
The eggs produced by the ovaries are less fertile.
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 lack of coordination.
Abnormal hormone production by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain results in Cushing's syndrome.
Health care tips
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.
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.
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 body weight 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.
As the immune system ages, senior horses become more prone to microbial diseases and parasites. Routine health care should continue past retirement.
Senior horses that are kept active along with show horses may need more frequent vaccinations, particularly against diseases such as strangles, herpes and influenza.
Soundness and arthritis
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.
Arthritis is a common degenerative joint disease in horses caused by wear and tear damage to the joints that’s not repaired. Arthritis is often painful and can result in reduced performance, lameness and immobility. Treating arthritis can be difficult but there are several ways to help manage arthritis in your horse.
Signs of arthritis vary with severity and location but can include:
- Swelling around the affected joint
- Stiff gait
- Limited range of motion
If you recognize these signs, consult with your veterinarian to rule out any other problems that may present similar signs such as a strain.
Understanding the joint and arthritis
A joint is composed of cartilage, synovial membrane and synovial fluid. Cartilage is the flexible, connective tissue that covers the end of the bones and absorbs shock. The synovial membrane (soft tissue) and synovial fluid help the joint move smoothly without friction.
Arthritis can develop when a horse's cartilage is damaged. Cartilage damage can result in bone exposure. Pain stems from pressure on the bone’s nerves and from inflammatory agents in the synovial fluid and damaged cartilage. Unfortunately, these inflammatory agents create more cartilage damage, which leads to a vicious cycle.
Managing arthritis in horses
It’s hard and often impossible to treat arthritis. As a result, arthritis in horses will continue to progress over time. Managing arthritis involves reducing the pain and optimizing joint health. Approaches will vary with the affected joint and with the horse’s use. Work with your veterinarian to create a management plan that best meets the needs of your horse. Your veterinarian may prescribe a combination of the following:
- Joint protectants such as glucosamine or chondroitin.
- Pain relief such as phenylbutazone or firocoxib.
- Joint injections such as corticosteroids or hyaluronan.
When providing pain relief, remember the horse’s pain level may be lower but their condition remains unchanged. As a result, even if the horse appears better, additional stress or work on their joints can worsen their condition overall.
Aside from supportive therapy, you can help manage arthritis by:
- Monitoring weight: extra weight can put added stress on joints.
- Evaluating farrier work: how a horse bears weight on their hooves can affect joint alignment and wear.
- Adjusting exercise levels: overworking can put added stress on joints, but no work can result in reduced joint mobility.
- Trying a rehabilitation program.
- Stretching your horse: routine stretches can help your horse maintain and improve their range of motion.
When dealing with arthritis, evaluate each of these practices to decide if a change to one or more could help your horse. Be sure to reevaluate these practices on a regular basis. How you manage arthritis may depend on the time of year or how your horse responds to the care.
Reviewed by Harland Anderson, DVM; Ron Genrick; Abby Neu, Extension educator; and Brenda Postels
Reviewed in 2020