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Horse care: Senior horses require additional monitoring

As horses age, they need to be more closely monitored for health issues, according to an equine veterinarian with the Center of Veterinary Health Services with Oklahoma State University. 

“For many people, their aged horse is like a family member,” Dianne McFarlane explained during a recent webinar on senior horse care. “Many times, it is a horse they’ve had for years. It may be one that taught their children how to ride. These are usually the horses with the greatest investment in training and are still a safe mount for children.”

“The goal for the care of the aged horse is to keep it performing at its original job for as long as possible and keep it performing at a lower level,” she continued, “while maximizing its quality of life.” 

Changes in aging horses

To accomplish this goal, McFarlane said it is important for owners to understand what changes will occur as the horse ages. 

“Owners need to be able to tell the difference between what is normal aging and what is disease. Horses become more susceptible to disease as they age,” she explained.

McFarlane warned owners they should start thinking about their horses aging when the horse is in its teens. 

“Aging is characterized by the progressive loss of function over time and an inability to adapt to stress or challenge,” she explained. “Aging in horses is as individual as in people and is dependent upon not only chronological age, but physiological age.”

Monitoring

McFarlane shared with owners the OLDIE system for monitoring the care of older horses. 

The system consists of owner observation, which means being in tune with what is normal for the horse; logging observations entails recording observations regarding the horse; DVM diagnosis is working with a veterinarian to diagnose any potential disease; and intervention and evaluating response. 

As horses age and develop health issues, one of the first visual signs of a problem can be weight loss. The veterinarian recommended using a weight tape when the horse is at a healthy weight to establish an estimate of what the horse weighs. Then the owner should body condition score the horse regularly and take digital photos of the horse to monitor subtle changes. 

“Aging is a slow process,” she explained. “I would recommend starting to keep records when the horse is in its teens.” 

Start with every other month when its in its teens, then every month in its 20s, and every two weeks when its in its 30s.

Body condition scores

McFarlane said some conditions in an old horse can cause them to lose weight quite rapidly. 

“You need to be able to recognize this and respond rapidly,” she explained while encouraging owners to learn how to body condition score their horses. 

There are six key areas that should be evaluated visually and by touch, including the fat over the neck, the withers, the crease in the back, the tailhead, ribs and behind the shoulders at the girth. Each area is scored one to nine, with one being thin and nine being obese. These scores are then averaged together to determine an overall body condition score, she explained. The average body condition score is between four and five.

“Having an obese horse is equally as dangerous as having a horse that is extremely thin,” she continued. “It is even worse when the horse is obese at a young age because it puts tremendous stress on the joints and organs.”

When horses get older, they can lose weight for a variety of reasons including diet, social pressure, teeth, parasites, chronic pain, age-related muscle loss and disease. 

Feed considerations

McFarlane said owners may need to feed a senior concentrate in a safe environment to help the horse maintain a healthy weight. A senior concentrate provides the horse with the nutrients it needs like fiber, fat, carbohydrates and protein. 

“It is formulated in a fashion that helps with absorption and slows down transit time so they get the most out of the feed,” she explained. “By the time they are 30, the senior concentrate will provide all the nutrition for the horse, because they will be able to get very little nutrition from their forage.”

McFarlane also encouraged owners to feed aged horses by themselves, because if they are fed with younger or more aggressive horses, they may not have time to finish their meal. 

“It is important to provide them with a safe environment where they aren’t worried about other horses and have adequate time to finish their meal,” she said.

Horses also need routine dental care, including a full mouth speculum every six months. 

“Loose teeth can make it very difficult for the horse to chew its food,” she said. “Once it’s pulled, the horse will immediately start eating better and will gain weight back.” 

Signs of dental disease can include quidding, which is chewing on food and then dropping it; slow eating, foul odor of breath or nasal discharge, masses or lumps on the jaw and weight loss.

Older horses should also be monitored for parasites, and receive vaccinations for West Nile virus and influenza, which they can be more susceptible to.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..