Tips on Caring for Older Horses
It’s no fun seeing your horses age. I’m sure many of you can attest to that. My oldest horse, Kady, is around twenty-five and has struggled to stay healthy over the last several years. I spend more money and time on her, but she deserves it. After all, she patiently carried my mom, kids in riding lessons, and my own children on her back for many years.
Like any animal under our care, horses have more needs when they reach a certain age or level of deteriorating health. So I’ve put together some tips on caring for older horses. I hope you’ll find them useful.
Tip #1–Feed & Forage
Due to dental issues, many older horses have trouble eating hay and sometimes concentrates. You may need to go with a hay alternative and/or a complete feed. This is what I had to resort to last winter. I know beet pulp is controversial in some circles, but I’ve had good luck with it for keeping weight on older horses who can’t eat much hay. If you do buy beet pulp, get the molasses-free kind if you can find it. If you can’t, rinse, soak, and rinse molasses beet pulp to get most of the sugar out. (Always feed beet pulp soaked with water to avoid choke.)
Other things that can be fed are soaked hay pellets or cubes, and sometimes, chopped hay. If you go with a complete feed, try to find one low in NSC’s such as Triple Crown Senior. Soaking feed to soften it is always a good idea when you have horses with missing teeth or other dental problems.
Tip #2–Summer Fly Control
You may notice that your older horse has more trouble keeping flies and other biting insects at bay. This has certainly been the case with Kady the last few summers. You’ll probably need to take some extra measures to help protect your older horse. Every morning, I spray Kady down with a natural fly spray and put on her fly mask. I usually spray her down in the afternoon if I can and then again in the evening. Pay special attention to the underside of your horse’s belly–flies love to congregate there. I also recently ordered a fly sheet and fly boots for her as well.
Tip #3–Don’t forget the Hooves
Even though you may not be riding your older horse much (or at all), don’t neglect their feet. Long toes create more stress on the joints, which may already be plagued by arthritis. Keep your older horse on the same trimming schedule as your younger horses. And find someone who will be patient with your older horse. I’ve learned to work around certain issues by trimming the hoof from a different position or letting the horse rest their leg more frequently.
Tip #4–Watch Herd Dynamics
If your older horse is kept with other horses, this is great. But you may need to keep an eye on the herd dynamics–especially around feeding time. I’ve noticed that Kady is always the last one in the barn when I feed. She watches to see which stall the other horses go in first before entering the empty stall. She knows the other horses will run her out if she goes in first. You may also need to feed your older horse separately to ensure he/she is able to eat all of the feed.
Also, make sure your other horses aren’t putting the older horse in danger out in the pasture or paddock. They may be chasing or picking on the older horse. If so, you may need to think about moving your older horse to another pasture or paddock to keep him safe.
By the same token, I know some of us may want to protect our older horses by keeping them separated from the herd or keeping them stalled, but they need movement just as much as any horse. Movement is actually beneficial for arthritic joints. Standing around is not. Find a way to let your older horses move around as much as possible, even if you have to put them in a separate pasture with a buddy.
Have your older horse’s teeth checked on a regular basis. They may not be susceptible to the sharp edges and points that younger horses get, but periodontal disease is a risk. They also may have diseased teeth that need to be removed. Keeping the mouth healthy is often key to keeping weight on the horse.
Tip #7–Joint Care
Just like aging people, aging horses are more susceptible to arthritis and degenerative joints. Rather than giving bute on a regular basis, I would suggest giving your horse something like Devil’s Claw or turmeric to reduce inflammation in the joints and keep them comfortable.
(See more alternatives to bute in this post.)
Tip #8–Immune System Support
Older horses are more prone to illness for a variety of reasons, so supporting a healthy immune system is important. There are several ways you can do this. Here are a few examples:
- Regular body work such as massage, acupuncture and/or acupressure;
- Using immune-supportive herbs such as spirulina, echinacea, turmeric, or ginseng; and
- Supplementing antioxidants.
If you have any suggestions or tips for keeping older horses healthy, feel free to share in the comments section!