Health issues change when managing senior horses

As horses age, their health needs change. Horses are considered senior citizens after the age of 20 or so.

Here is my list of top five health concerns for horses in the golden years of their lives.

  • Immunity — Life-long exposure to various infections and vaccinations should create a highly tuned army of immune cells. While this is typically the case, aging diminishes the immune system’s ability to respond to new infections and immunizations. This means that senior horses need special considerations when it comes to choosing vaccine and deworming strategies. It also means that they should be kept away from younger horses that are frequently travelling and competing, in case the young horses come home with an infection.
  • Teeth — Horses’ teeth grow continually throughout life until they reach old age. In the later years, there is no more tooth left to erupt. If tooth loss or excessive wear occurs unevenly in the mouth, the corresponding tooth may over grow, leading to steps and ridges. Annual or semi-annual preventive dental care can identify and treat these types of conditions early to prolong the life of remaining teeth. As teeth wear out, the wear surface for chewing is diminished. Chewing coarse hay and grass may become a challenge. Horses may require supplemental feeding, such as easily chewed, complete-feed pellets.
  • Nutrition — Some senior horses may be hard to keep at a healthy body weight. Some easily become too thin and have difficulty gaining weight, which can be caused by dental issues. Others gain weight too easily, making owners wonder if they get calories from just looking at grass. There are major health concerns related to horses being at either end of the body condition spectrum, ranging from an inability to regulate body temperature to lameness. Aging also increases the risk for metabolic syndrome and equine Cushing’s disease, both of which lead to weight gain and abnormal fat distribution.
  • Welfare — As seniors are retired from competition and intensive training, it is worthwhile to consider their social and mental well-being. Are they grouped with appropriate companion horses? Do they receive adequate exercise and stimulation? It may be worthwhile to employ some innovations to reduce boredom and provide stimulation. These include tasty hanging toys they can lick, toys that have to be moved around and manipulated for access to the food and slow-feed hay nets. Seniors are also excellent candidates for positive reinforcement training. This type of training is highly stimulating for the horse and can be accomplished with the structured use of food rewards. There are plenty of resources available to enter into this growing area of horse training and much of the work can be accomplished on the ground, which is a bonus for aging horses that can’t be ridden.
  • Lameness — Years of wear and tear may finally catch up to horses in their later years, leading to painful arthritis. Conformation faults and older injuries may also lead to various soundness issues. The chronic pain that leads to lameness can often be managed through a variety of methods, such as anti-inflammatory medication, joint injections and surgery (to remove a bone chip, for example). There may also be a place for massage and acupuncture therapies in the management of these conditions in seniors. At some point, a horse’s pain may become severe and unmanageable, so owners may want to determine a clear end-point. For instance, if a horse can no longer walk without limping or no longer improves with pain medication, that might be the point where you choose euthanasia.

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