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Caring for your senior horse

Quick facts

  • 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

Digestive tract

  • 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.

Immune system 

  • 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.

Respiratory system

  • 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.

Reproductive system

  • 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.

Cardiovascular system

Age-related changes may impact the heart or blood vessels. This can lead to heart failure or sudden death if a major vessel ruptures.

Nervous system

  • 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.

Endocrine system

Abnormal hormone production by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain results in Cushing's syndrome. 

Health care tips

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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.

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Julie Wilson, DVM and Lauren Bullock

Reviewed in 2020

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