How to care for geriatric horses

Almost all horse owners will face the challenge of caring for an aging horse at some point.  It’s inevitable if we choose to provide our animals a home beyond their useful or competitive life.  A 2010 Animal Horse Publication survey showed that the average horse owner has two horses older than 15 years and that care of aging horses was a significant concern in the horse industry. 

JOINT HEALTH

As the horse ages, damage to joints can become extensive and more painful.

The first option for management of joint health is joint supplements. Chondroitin, glucosamine and hyaluronic acid are all examples that are frequently used in an effort to combat joint inflammation. Supplementation remains controversial due to conflicting research, but many horse owners find that the potential reward is worth the additional expense.  Your veterinarian can help you find the right supplement for your horse and its particular needs.

Another option for the arthritic horse is NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.  The most common NSAID is bute, or phenylbutazone.  Other examples are flunixin meglumine and the newer drug, firocoxib. While all of these drugs are useful in reducing the pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, none of them are without side-effects.  Prolonged use of NSAIDs can lead to ulcers or potentially life-threatening intestinal problems.  The newer drugs are less likely to cause these digestive problems, but their increased cost limits their use in most geriatric horses.  Many horse owners find that using NSAIDs as needed during particularly difficult times, such as winter, is the best strategy for their animals.

Your veterinarian may also recommend joint injection with compounds to lubricate and reduce inflammation in the joint. Joint injections can provide significant relief from painful joint trauma in some horses, but severely affected animals may not see complete improvement after an injection. 

Work with your veterinarian to determine the best combination of treatments.

DIET

Weight loss can be caused by a variety of factors—from dental problems to more serious health concerns—and should never be ignored.  Your veterinarian will be able to help you diagnose the cause of weight loss. But before calling your veterinarian, get a good idea of how quickly your horse eats, how much food it drops, how it chews and if it has difficulty swallowing.  All these things can help your veterinarian develop a strategy for helping your horse gain weight in conjunction with their health exam.

Obesity is a problem in older horses as they experience both decreased exercise and hormonal changes.  Remember, it’s as important for your horse to have a regular exercise regimen as it is for you. Your older horse may not be able to endure a day long trail ride once a month, but a daily walk for 10-15 minutes will be tolerable to most. Not only will the exercise be good for your horse, but the frequent contact makes it easier for you to monitor the horse’s condition.

Weight gain may also be caused by development of hormonal issues, such as Cushing’s disease or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS).  Horses developing a pot-bellied appearance, cresty neck and poor hair coat are typical of Cushing’s horses.  Cushing’s horses usually have a benign tumor in their pituitary gland and will require lifelong treatment to manage the disease.

Horses developing significant fat deposits and gaining weight even when on a restricted diet are typical of metabolic syndrome horses.  Metabolic syndrome horses should be of particular concern because they are at high risk for development of laminitis.  Metabolic syndrome can be managed by proper dietary changes and possibly with medication. Hormone testing by your veterinarian is needed to fully diagnose the disorders and develop a proper treatment plan.

Keep in mind that you may not be best caring for your geriatric by feeding it the same as your other horses.  Older horses fed in group settings may not get adequate time or opportunity to eat to their needs, so consider feeding them separately from the more active youngsters in your herd.

HEALTH

Always isolate your older horses from sick animals and be sure to take seriously any cough or nasal discharge. A minor infection that younger horses combat and recover from quickly can easily become a serious lingering health problem for your geriatric. Monitor your older horse’s health frequently to ensure that you don’t miss early changes. Treatment early in the course of a disease is usually more productive and less expensive than combating a long-standing infection.

While some preventable diseases are less likely in older horses with less exposure to other animals, older horses are more susceptible to diseases like West Nile and botulism.  Skimping on vaccinations may seem like good money sense, but you open the possibility of having your horse contract a devastating and costly disease.  It’s best to invest in prevention for horses of all ages.

INTERACTING WITH YOUR OLDER HORSE

It’s as important for you as for your horse to get frequent interaction with them. Even regular grooming, stretching exercises or teaching a new trick may be all it takes for you to remember how important that horse is to you and maintain the bond with your companion. Your horse and you will value the time spent together, and it will keep you from feeling like your geriatric horse is a burden you must bear.

Don’t forget that your older horse may be exactly what somebody else wants; the horse could be the perfect educator for a younger, novice rider. Just because your horse is no longer suitable for you, doesn’t mean it’s no longer suitable for anyone.

by Joseph Lyman, DVM, MS | Professional Services Veterinarian

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