How to keep your older horse young at heart

How to keep your older horse young at heart

Just like us, our horses’ bodies start to show signs of wear and tear as they age. From changes in muscle tone, to dental issues, or Cushing’s Disease, our golden oldies can suffer from a few different health issues. But deciding how to support your senior equine can feel like a minefield. The good news is, there’s plenty you can do to help them feel their best.

Veteran horse care guide

When deciding how to care for your senior horse, the first things to consider are their workload and lifestyle. A 20-year-old horse who still competes in veteran horse showing classes will need different support to a 15-year-old who lives at grass and goes on the occasional hack.

One of the best things you can do to support your senior horse is to keep their horse insurance up to date. As long as your horse is insured with Petplan Equine before their 20th birthday , we continue to provide cover for veterinary fees for illness and injury until they’re 25 years old.

Check your rugs

Older horses can feel the cold more easily, especially if they’re a little underweight. ‘If your horse is old or thin, he’ll use up much-needed energy keeping warm, so it’s always preferable to rug him,’ explains Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley. If you’re not sure what weight of rug to choose, read our guide on when and how much to rug your horse .

With an older horse, it’s even more important to keep a close eye on the temperature and adjust their rugs accordingly to prevent your horse from overheating, sweating and developing a chill. This is relevant year-round but especially between seasons when weather can be unpredictable, like in spring and autumn.

Carry out frequent worm counts

As horses age, they can be prone to having higher worm burdens and you may find that they don’t respond to their usual wormers like they used to. This can be due to a weakened immune system or your horse having worms that have developed a resistance to the active ingredients found in common worming products. We recommend carrying out regular worm counts to check that your worming programme is still working effectively.

Maintain regular hoof care

Whether your horse is barefoot or shod, scheduling regular hoof care appointments will keep their hooves in the best condition. If your horse is out at grass, don’t be tempted to skip appointments as long toes can lead to cracks or abscesses.

Get the dentist twice a year

Veteran horses can have dental issues including missing teeth, fractures or smooth dental surfaces. Any of these can lead to them being unable to chew their food properly, resulting in weight loss. Booking dental checks twice per year can help you stay on top of any issues as they arise.

Keep up with regular vet checks

Even if your veteran horse is in light or no work, regular vet checks can help you nip potential issues in the bud before they become a problem.

Common conditions for older horses

There are a few health conditions that can affect older horses, and your vet will be able to advise you on how best to manage these.

1. Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s is a metabolic condition that is caused by a benign tumour on the pituitary gland. It leads to too much of the hormone cortisol being produced, resulting in a weakened immune system. Symptoms include laminitis, lethargy, a long and sometimes curly coat, delayed shedding or horses ‘hanging on’ to their winter coat and increased drinking and urinating. Treatment options for Cushing’s Disease depend on the severity of the case and can range from modifying your horse’s diet to treating them with a vet-prescribed drug such as pergolide.

2. Liver disease

Common in older horses, symptoms of liver disease include loss of appetite, jaundice, photosensitivity and lethargy. Your vet will run some diagnostic tests and treatment can include vitamin supplements, corticosteroids or antibiotics.

3. Arthritis

This is most common in the hocks, knees and lower leg joints. Your horse may appear stiff in the morning, when it’s cold, or when they stand up after lying down. Joint supplements and oral anti-inflammatories can help, as can increasing movement by keeping your horse turned out instead of stabled, or using a track system in your paddock if they already live out.

Finding the right veteran horse feed

If your older horse is looking well and maintaining condition, there’s no need to change their diet. But as horses age, a less efficient digestive system, combined with ageing teeth, can lead to them losing weight. You can help them maintain their calorie intake by providing plenty of grazing or ad-lib forage, like hay or haylage. If your horse does start to drop weight, you could try complementing this with an easily-digestible forage option, like chopped chaff, along with a hard feed.

According to recent equine nutrition research, the live yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae may be a key ingredient in the best veteran horse feeds. It helps to support the digestive system and maintain optimum hindgut function. The best feeds may also contain higher protein levels, plus antioxidants including vitamin E and C, beta-carotene and trace minerals.

Most feed companies have veteran horse options and usually offer a free nutritionist service to help you find the right feed.

Top tips for caring for your older horse

  • Check rugs are in good condition, and the right weight for the weather, temperature and your horse’s condition.
  • Book annual or bi-annual vet checks, and keep their vaccinations and worming programme up to date.
  • Maintain regular hoof care, even if your horse is unshod.
  • Book dental checks twice a year.
  • Book an annual or bi-annual vet check.
  • Watch out for signs that they’re struggling to eat or chew food properly.
  • Check their weight regularly, provide ad-lib forage and adjust feed if necessary.

Ticking off our top tips will help keep your veteran horse fighting fit and feeling their best.

There are plenty of small steps you can take to help your older horse thrive over this winter and beyond. We would love to see some photos of your veteran horses, so please share them with us on our Facebook page!