Thanks to better nutrition, management, and veterinary care, horses are living a much longer and in many cases productive life than their forefathers just a decade or so ago. In some disciplines, horses are not considered to be “finished” or “peak” until they are in their teens and often compete well into their early 20’s. In 2005, there were 7.6% of horses in the US 20 years old compared to 5.6% in 1998. Horses mature rapidly compared to people; a 6 mo old foal is equivalent to a 6 year old child and a horse at 2 is equivalent to an 16-17 year old person. After 2, the age of a horse is equivalent physiologically to about 3 years of human life. A 20 year old horse is equivalent to a 60 year old person. Ageing may be looked in both chronological, years of age from birth, and physiological age. While there are no set standards as to when a horse enters “old age” it is generally thought to be 20 years of age. Like people, as horses age individuality has a large role in determining age.
As horses age, their needs change, they have more health issues, and may have physical changes that impact their health. Changes in nutrition, vision, mobility, immunity, and hormonal activity are commonly encountered. It is important to understand not all older horses have problems nor do they require special changes to the management, but many do.
Some common signs of ageing include:
- Graying of the hair.
- Increased sinking of the hollows above the eye.
- Greater swaying of the back.
- Decreased mobility due to osteoarthritis.
- Loss of muscle mass over the top line.
- Difficulty in maintaining body condition.
- Increased incidence of metabolic issues.
In summary, taking care of the senior horse does not have to be overly complicated. Some things to keep in mind include:
- Maintain routine dental and hoof care.
- Maintain routine vaccination and deworming schedules.
- Monitor weight and body condition on a monthly basis.
- Insure the horse is consuming sufficient amounts of water on a daily basis.
- Feed high quality, clean, hays. If there are digestive issues, look for soluble fiber sources, such as beet pulp.
- Use feeds formulated for the senior horse.
- Use supplements formulated for senior horses to add quality protein, minerals, and vitamins as needed.
- The addition of a joint supplement may well pay dividends in improving the mobility and comfort of these horses.
- Separating the senior from other horses at feeding may be helpful. Older horses may not be as physically capable to compete for feed.
- When needed insure the dietary needs are being met, consult an equine nutritionist or veterinarian knowledgeable in nutrition.
- Remember, every horse is an individual; there is no set of practices that will fit everyone.
With proper care, daily observation, and good management, our senior horses can live very good, productive lives.