So many of us have one of these among our pets, no more so than with our horses. The older horse who has been a part of someone’s life for 20+ years is a blessing and a treasure. I count myself lucky every time I get to be a part of one of these special relationships. These days I am seeing many of my patients cruising through their twenties and enjoying life in their thirties. As this becomes more common, I find myself answering more questions about what special care may be required to keep these horses happy. Here are some insights into issues older horses may face.
Arthritis to some degree is something with which many older horses have to deal. This is most often mild and may be noticed only as stiffness when first getting out of the stall after a night’s rest. Occasionally it is more significant and may be localized to a particular area and cause obvious lameness and reluctance to move as much as they used to do. Loss of muscle mass can also be seen as a result of decreased activity associated with arthritis. Treatment for arthritis may be as simple as keeping horses turned out for the mildest of cases or daily treatment with joint supplements or pain relievers such as phenylbutazone or firocoxib (Equioxx) for those that need it. If tolerated, slow and steady regular exercise can help keep these horses active and healthy.
As horses age, they often have trouble maintaining their weight. There are several factors that can contribute to this. First, decreased exercise will cause muscles to atrophy especially along the topline, making horses appear skinnier and often sway backed. Those horses that are able to be ridden lightly will maintain a topline better than those that are sidelined for one reason or another. Secondly, older horses may have dental problems associated with coming to the end of their teeth. Horses’ teeth continue to erupt throughout their lifetime but as horses live longer they will run out of tooth root and teeth will begin to fall out. Proper dental care can ease discomfort by removing excessively loose teeth and smoothing any sharp points or transitions in the remaining teeth. With missing teeth or poor dentition it is likely that these horses will need special feed and may even need it soaked so that they can get all the nutrients that they need. Thirdly, the g.i. system becomes much less capable of digesting feeds with age and more of what you feed is wasted and simply passes through the system. The best way to help our older friends through this is with senior feeds that are designed to be more digestible so nutrients are readily available for absorption through the intestines.
Another issue with which our senior horses can be faced is an endocrine disease commonly referred to as equine Cushing’s disease, caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. While this is a tumor, it is usually slow growing and doesn’t seem to spread to other places in the body. What it does cause are a number of changes in the body associated with excessive hormone production by the affected tissue in the pituitary gland. Outwardly, what you can see is long hair that often doesn’t shed and they can look skinny but have abnormal deposits of fat especially near the tail. These horses also tend to drink more, are more prone to infections, and more susceptible to laminitis. There is a blood test that can help diagnose this problem and medication to help control it (Prascend).
Finally, vision and muscle coordination can sometimes diminish with age. Horses can get cataracts associated with age similar to people. In horses it is called lenticular sclerosis and usually doesn’t lead to blindness but can certainly make it harder to see detail especially in low light. Coordination can diminish for many reasons and most of the time it can be difficult to determine the exact cause, but closer examination may reveal some clues as to whether it is arthritis or infection or something else.
Knowing all this may make some folks wonder why anyone would ever want to have an older horse. But anyone who has had the privilege of caring for that special horse that has taken care of them for so many years will tell you how profound a relationship develops between horse and rider. The joy they get out of seeing that horse respond to them every day when they arrive to take care of all that they need is worth every bit of trouble.