An older horse is usually a treasured member of the barn. Keeping the geriatric horse healthy and happy is a labor of love. A horse is considered to be geriatric if it is over 20 years of age, but previous management can influence the overall health of the horse in its golden years.
Going back to the basics of horse health management is important with older horses. Nutrition, dental heath, parasitism, vaccination, and regular farrier visits are main categories to focus on with any horse but very important for geriatric horses.
- Feeding a good quality diet, tailored to the horse’s specific needs, is essential to maintain good body condition. An older horse fed a poor quality diet will have to eat more to maintain adequate weight and will often lose weight if not supplemented with a hay balancer or grain for added nutrients.
- An annual or semi-annual oral exam in geriatric horses can reveal dental abnormalities, such as missing/cracked/diseased teeth and uneven wear patterns, which are common in senior horses. These findings can help you and your veterinarian determine what type of diet to feed to minimize problems such as esophageal obstruction (choke) or impaction colics. If horses aren’t able to chew and break down long-stem hay, they cannot digest the food as well as those horses that can chew normally.
- Internal parasites can rob the geriatric horse of much needed nutrients. Performing a routine fecal float can help your veterinarian quantitate parasite burden and recommend a dewormer. Rotational deworming (rotating different dewormers every 8-12 weeks) is not recommended due to potentiating parasite resistance.
- The older horse’s immune system is not as good as it used to be. Keeping the senior horse current on vaccinations will help boost the immune system and prevent disease. Your veterinarian can recommend a specific vaccination schedule based on exposure levels and previous vaccination history.
- Regular visits from a farrier is extremely important for geriatric horses. Identifying problems in the feet is the best way to initiate early treatment to prevent debilitating footsoreness and chronic lameness. If the horse is able to exercise, consistent low-grade exercise is good for hoof health as well as maintenance of adequate body weight. Similar to humans and other species, arthritis is common in the aged population and consistent exercise is helpful for stiff joints.
Working closely with a veterinarian is an important aspect of senior horse care. Heart and lung abnormalities can be detected on physical exam, as well as skin masses and problems with vision. Routine blood work can reveal abnormalities in the liver and kidneys, as well as identifying chronic infections and anemia. More specialized blood work can screen for Cushing’s disease and insulin resistance, two common diseases seen in geriatric horses.
With a little effort and some help from a farrier and veterinarian, an older horse can continue to brighten the barn atmosphere and live into its golden years comfortable and happy.
Karina Cox, DVM
Prescott Animal Hospital Equine Center