The Older Horse
The Basic Care and Management
What is considered old? Some older animals that are sound and still being ridden will seem younger than a horse retired and turned out, or one that has some injury or arthritic condition or metabolic disorder. These signs, in conjunction with having reached the later teenage years; will help define the condition “old” and therefore they are in need of a change in care and nutrition.
The older horse definitely needs a different type of care and nourishment. Firstly good observation; most older horses are retired and turned out so it isn’t so obvious that something may be wrong. When you are riding or working with a horse on a regular basis it is much easier to pick up on issues as they start. For example unevenness, weight loss, chewing, breathing sounds, attitude. Even with an older horse doing some work it is important to pick up when the horse changes in appearance, ability to perform, willingness to work. Horses are individuals so defining old by birth date alone isn’t appropriate.
Even though the horse may be having a regular dental check, take the time to run your fingers up inside the mouth alongside (not in-between!) the molars to feel for any sharp edges or cheek lacerations. Also smell the inside of the mouth in case of any abscesses that have been missed, keep a visual check on missing or overly worn teeth as the feed may have to be adjusted accordingly as the ability to chew is reduced. Eventually the older horse will be turned out to pasture and retired from work. They still need the same attention to detail of dental and hoof care, regular worming and grooming and cover changes and a regular check on condition. They will change shape so covers that always fitted may then slip and rub. They are more sensitive to changes in temperature too hot or too cold and that can result in not only discomfort but also weight loss. Shelter from wind and sun, changes in the covers as appropriate, electrolytes in warm conditions are all vital. They still need your special connection. Horses do have a special relationship with humans so withdrawing on them will have a negative effect. They will also need equine company but better over the fence, as younger horses in a herd situation may become bullies and may run the older horse around.
Care of the Joints of the Older Horse
Keeping an ageing horse in some form of work definitely keeps them younger and puts off the onset of the negatives of aging, especially flexible movement – muscular condition – attitude. It is important therefore to reduce the effect of age on the joints, and this is easy to do by providing a fully formulated joint nutraceutical supplement with glucosamine, chondroitin, collagen type II and manganese.
The cartilage in joints is like a sponge and is a cushion that keeps spongy because it retains water. The ability to do that simply put, relies on glucosamine. Glucosamine is converted to something called GAGS and this is the key natural chemical that creates the result. As a horse ages his natural levels are reduced and so the cartilage dries out and becomes hardened – just like the kitchen sponge. By increasing glucosamine levels the cushion effect will return. A good joint supplement will provide more than just glucosamine, chondroitin has been shown to assist the joints and a full formula will have other ingredients that will assist the glucosamine to bypass digestive extraction and increase availability for the joints. A newly discovered therapeutically beneficial option for joints is denatured collagen type II- also scientifically proven to offset the degeneration of joints. Gelatin is also proven to assist the synthesis of cartilage.
Flex Equine Plus can really help as it contains all the recommended levels of glucosamine, chondroitin, denatured collagen gelatin, with organic zinc and copper and manganese ascorbate to create the conversion of the glucosamine to GAGS.
Feeding the Older Horse
The most important requirement is correct nutrition and providing feedstuffs that are going to compensate for the changes in the digestive process and the ability to chew and process the feed. Even the best pasture will not be sufficient for all their needs.
Not all older horses lose condition and with the stopping of work, may actually be too fat. Overweight is as unhealthy as underweight and does have implications for stress on joints and metabolic disorders. So don’t assume a retired horse needs lush pasture, check the condition under the rug and if appropriate put in a poorer grassed area, it is important to still supplement with minerals and the joint support nutraceutical, but with only a handful of feed as part of the normal daily routine. Primarily an older horse will not be processing the protein at the same rate as a younger animal. The key amino acids in protein – that’s Lysine and threonine – are reduced. These are vital for the inherent structure and uptake of the complete digestible protein and no matter how much protein you feed, unless these levels are brought up to balance, – the horse will lose cellular integrity and this is where the muscular-skeletal structure is diminished. The visual definition of the topline can be seen reducing, but importantly the inherent internal health is also reduced. A Lysine-Threonine supplement has been proved to be the most effective and economic solution, 50 gm per day is the requirement.
Then the horse will take up all the available protein in the pasture and feed. Science has proved that overfeeding protein itself is not a good option. See our article ‘Protein –what, why, how’.
Due to excessive wear and loss of teeth, the feed itself needs to be easier to process through the mouth and gullet, so a soft moist feed with processed grain and high fat content is more ideal. For example boiled or micronised extruded barley, a meal such as soyabean or copra with a rice bran supplement and soft short fibre such as fibre mix is a good combination. Minerals are a must with a correct formula and a correct calcium – phosphorous ratio. The calcium needs to be higher than the phosphorus – ideal 2:1. The retired horse does not need the same quantities of minerals as a performing horse, so a more economic formula such as Everyday minerals will be correct.
Bran is a useful addition and will create a soft mushy feed easily digestible but it does lower the calcium level so a mineral mix is a must. Horses on reasonable pasture and or given green feed will not need vitamins, it would be beneficial to have the covers removed on warmer days so they can convert their own vitamin D. There are several premix feeds on the market for the older horse, check the ingredients, if it contains supplements and lysine then check the levels and if in doubt add a supplement. Read the label of premixed feeds claiming to be especially for the older horse, you may be surprised to find they could be mainly flaked barley etc. Most importantly for the premix feed to do the job you need to feed the recommended amount, the odd dipper will mean an underdone horse and incorrectly balanced minerals etc. Always weigh the feed so you know exactly what you are feeding. If hay is needed, make sure it is good quality and not too mature when it was cut, wash it and feed slightly damp. For the horse with missing teeth the hay cubes that are soaked will be more easily processed.
Potential Health Complications of the Older Horse
Old horses may develop metabolic disorders connected with insulin and glycaemic response. An example would be Cushing’s disease which in itself may lead to many complications such as laminitis, muscle atrophy, lethargy, slow healing and excessive hair growth. The nutrition of such an animal needs to be discussed with a veterinarian and often a low GI feed is needed. That is no or little carbohydrates with the emphasis on fat and fibre. Horses that may have kidney problems should not be fed too high a protein level so low protein percentage (e.g. no Lucerne, beet pulp or protein supplements), some lysine –threonine instead, with low protein feeds, e.g. copra meal (ideal), selected premix, rice bran mix, oat chaff dampened.
Horses with liver problems will not tolerate high fat so this is a challenge for the older horse needing weight gain, boiled grain, fibre mix or short Lucerne chaff will need to compensate. As they need lower calcium too, adding bran to the mix may assist. In order to get these balances correct it would be wise to have a blood test and check the status of kidneys and liver with your veterinarian. Another health issue for the older horse concerns the respiratory tract, with disorders like COPD and IAD. Older horses will develop noisy breathing and are susceptible to a dusty environment. So it is important to keep them dust free, mould free in a healthy airy environment, preferably outside and fed dampened feed and washed hay at ground level. Better outside with warm covers than in a stable with poor ventilation. The hard breathing horse may be assisted with a nasal dilator like Vetpro Nasal-Eze which can also trap spores and dust particle before they pass up the airway.
Although the older horse may have a regular (but not coloured) nasal discharge, be quick to notice any change in that discharge in terms of thickening or changing colour or having an odour. Keep warm and out of severe weather conditions, give an expectorant like Virex to break down thick mucus and therefore be expelled. If the condition persists after a week ask your veterinarian to check for a respiratory infection as a virus can often move to an infection.
No reason why your older horse cannot enjoy a well-earned retirement but out of work is not out of mind and they still need your care and attention and companionship.