More horses are living into their 20s and 30s, and some into their 40s. Many horses age gracefully, but this shouldn’t be taken for granted. With proper preventative care, you can make the most out of your equine friend’s golden years. Responding to aging changes early generally makes them more manageable than waiting to try and tackle them once they are full-blown issues.
A good starting point is establishing a baseline. Know what your horse’s normal temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate are at rest. Get an idea of what their weight is by using a weight tape and learn how to assess their body condition score. It is also helpful to take pictures from several angles you can refer to. Most age-related changes are gradual and may not be noticed easily when you see the animals daily. Annual veterinary wellness exams including oral exams are recommended. Blood work to check organ function or to check for certain diseases may also be a good idea.
Good dental care is important in all horses, but even more so in senior horses. As horses age, they becomes less efficient at using the nutrients in their food. If they have problems chewing or grinding their feed, this makes matters worse. Senior horses are prone to loose or missing teeth and developing irregular chewing surfaces. Catching and dealing with these issues early can prevent oral infections, pain, weight loss, some forms of colic, and certain episodes of choke. Some senior horses may need semi-annual or even more frequent oral exams and dental floating to keep their teeth at their best.
Maintaining a healthy weight is also important for senior horses. Thin horses can indicate dental issues, a parasite burden, or inappropriate diet. The best diet option for horses with good teeth and that are not at risk for laminitis is good grass pasture. In the Peace, that window of time is narrow – so when pasture is not available, good quality grass hay is recommended. Soaked beet pulp and special senior feed may also be necessary.
While many people take action when they feel their horses are too thin, it is just as important to ensure they do not become overweight. Excess weight can put your horse at increased of risk for many health issues such as laminitis (AKA founder), and can worsen conditions like arthritis. Body wear and tear goes hand in hand with the aging process, but is more obvious in certain individuals. Arthritis is common in senior horses, and a big goal is keeping them serviceably sound. Regular mild exercise is actually better than being confined. There are also a range of joint supplements available. Choosing which ones are right for your horse is something to discuss with your veterinarian. Prudent use of anti-inflammatory pain medications may also be helpful.
Aging is a natural process, but it comes with its own challenges. By taking preventative measures, you can help your senior horse live the later portion of their lives to the fullest.
Dr. Kim Jones joined the North Peace Veterinary Clinic care team in 2009 after graduating with distinction from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Originally from Kelowna BC, Dr. Jones is an active member of the Fort St. John Community and enjoys life in northern BC.