Nowadays, more and more of our horses and ponies are living longer due to better health care and owners who are happy to keep retirees. However, with old age comes further health challenges that need special care and attention.
A horse is classed as ‘aged’ once they show several signs of ageing, rather than when they reach a specific age, because health and the ageing process vary widely between individual horses.
As horses become older, they may have specific health challenges:
- Loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia)
- Increased risk of PPID (Cushing’s Syndrome) which usually requires long-term medication
- Increased risk of colic, eye conditions and infections
- Reduced ability to digest food, and potential increase in certain nutrient requirements
- Reduced efficiency in internal vitamin C production, therefore requiring supplementation
- Increased likelihood of musculoskeletal problems including arthritis and joint stiffness and/or pain
- Reduced immune system function and increased insulin resistance
- Reduced dental efficiency, with loss of grinding surface and/or loss of teeth, eventually requiring replacement of normal forage
Specialist Care and Management
Owners do not always recognise health conditions in their older horses and ponies, with dental problems and lameness being two issues that were under-reported according to a recent UK survey of horses and ponies over the age of 30 . Aged horses are less able to thermoregulate, so they require more protection from extremes of temperature. Hence, it is important to monitor your aged horse and consult your vet about treatments to increase their quality of life.
Dental issues are common in older horses and ponies, and can cause severe weight loss. Regular dental care is often not enough to ensure good chewing ability because the teeth surfaces can wear smooth and the teeth eventually grow out of the gums. Most older horses and ponies will need their long forage (hay, haylage) gradually replaced with short chop, then eventually, ground fibrous alternatives. At this point, they will benefit from digestive support e.g. Equestrizone ZoneBiotics.
Advancing age is associated with stiffness and an increased risk of lameness. One survey of 200 animals over the age of 15 years showed 83.5% had a reduced range of motion in at least one joint. In the same survey, half of the horse cases were lame in trot. Musculoskeletal problems are the most common health condition in ageing horses. Strategic use of oral joint supplements to support cartilage and joint health can help to support a healthy musculoskeletal system. Oral joint supplements need to be fed long term in order to be effective in veterans. Products that contain herbal support as well as nutraceuticals can be particularly useful for veterans e.g. Equestrizone Fleximover.
How to keep your veteran full of vitality:
- Monitor signs of health twice daily
- Keep on top of hoof care with regular trimming if unshod (age-related stiffness means that balanced hooves are important in older age)
- Implement regular veterinary checks to assess health, especially dental and musculoskeletal health
- Consider clipping for PPID cases
- Replace long forage (hay, haylage) with more easily chewed alternatives if there are any signs of dental insufficiency e.g. weight loss (especially in winter), quidding and reduced consumption of forage
- Feed a good quality diet but do not overfeed energy to maintain a slim body condition
- Feed a joint supplement long term to support mobility
- Use supplements strategically, including those to support joints (e.g. Equestrizone Fleximover), PPID (Equestrizone Cushy-VX and Vitamin C) and dental issues (e.g. Equestrizone ZoneBiotics)
 National Research Council (NRC) (2007) Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th ed. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.  Ralston, S. L. & Harris, P. A. (2013) Nutritional Considerations for aged horses. In Geor, R. J., Harris, P. A. & Coenen, M. (Eds) Equine Applied and Clinical Nutrition. Saunders Elsevier, Edinburgh.  Ireland, J. L et al (2012) A survey of health care and disease in geriatric horses aged 30 years and older. Veterinary Journal, 192(1): 57-64.  McGowan, C. (2011) Welfare of Aged Horses. Animals, 1(4): 366-376  Ireland, J.L. et al (2012) Disease prevalence in geriatric horses in the United Kingdom: veterinary clinical assessment of 200 cases. Equine Veterinary Journal, 44(1): 101-106.  Van Weeren, P. R. & Back, W. (2016) Musculoskeletal Disease in Aged Horses and Its Management. Veterinary Clinics of North America Equine Practice, 32(2): 229-247.