Keeping Your Older Horse Healthy

By Wendy Talbot on 07 February 2017

Old Billy

The longest living horse on record is thought to be Old Billy, a barge horse from Manchester who died in 1822 at the astonishing age of 62.

Old Billy was a rarity back then, living way beyond the average equine life expectancy. 200 years ago, once they were put to work horses usually only survived for 3-4 years.

Today the average lifespan of a domestic horse is around 25-30 years old with growing numbers leading healthy, active lives well beyond this age. This is largely thanks to better management, nutrition and veterinary care, as well as increasing recognition by owners of the pleasures of keeping their horses in retirement.

Every horse is different but if you can spot the signs of ageing in good time and manage your horse’s needs to provide pain-free quality of life you should be able to enjoy your happy partnership for much longer.

What should I expect as my horse gets older?

Like people, horses often start to go grey, especially around the eyes, forehead and muzzle. Your horse may be a little slower and stiffer and may start to lose some muscle tone.

Signs of a potential problem may be loss of appetite, difficulty chewing, weight loss, struggling to get up and signs of disease such as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) or Cushing’s disease which can cause lethargy, hair growth and muscle wastage.

The good news is that with regular veterinary health checks and a little extra care, you can help your horse to grow old gracefully. With medical intervention, nutrition support and considerate management you can help keep some of the impediments of age at bay.

Teeth

Horses’ teeth start to wear out as they age making it more difficult for them to graze, grind and chew their food. Your horse may start to eat slowly and awkwardly. He may drop half-chewed mouthfuls of food, which is referred to as quidding. You may notice weight loss. It’s important to have your older horse’s teeth checked every six months.

Feed

It’s all about the individual. Some older horses may keep their curves on their usual diet while others may need some extra help. Providing easily digestible fibre in the form of good quality hay, haylage, chopped fibre or soaked fibre mash is a must, together with a good balance of vitamins and minerals.

If your horse needs extra calories look for good quality sources of protein and added oil to help build condition and feed little and often. Why not ring a reputable horse feed manufacturer’s helpline for some free nutrition advice.

Remember to supervise your horse’s dining arrangements if he is sharing a field with others, otherwise, greedy field companions are likely to steal all his grub while you’re not looking!

Exercise

Daily turnout is essential for every horse, not only for mobility and digestive health but also for mental stimulation. If your older horse is sound and healthy there’s no reason why you can’t carry on riding.

Regular exercise will help keep your horse toned and supple but make sure you limit your expectations – in the same way that you wouldn’t expect your Grandad to join the local football team nor should you expect your horse to compete with younger counterparts as the years advance!

Warmth and shelter

Good shelter and a waterproof rug in the winter will help your horse stay warm and preserve energy, which is especially important for those that tend to lose weight easily. Horses hate being too hot though so don’t be anthropomorphic and over-rug just because you feel cold.

Illness and disease

Older horses can be more susceptible to illness and disease because their immune system may not be as efficient as it once was. Make sure flu and tetanus vaccinations are up-to-date and stick to a good worm control programme.

Watch out for degenerative joint diseases, which usually manifest as stiffness or lameness and discuss treatment options with your vet. Keep your horse’s feet in order too, to help maintain good balance and movement and to keep the frog clean and free from infection.

Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) or Cushing’s disease, with an increased risk of laminitis is also more prevalent in older horses but it’s easy for your vet to test for it and provide treatment, which often controls symptoms very effectively.

Care for them!

It’s a privilege to own an older horse and it’s our duty to give them the care they need in their twilight years. Oldies tend to grow wiser and mellower with age making them perfect for children or those new to riding.

We are all as old as we feel and it’s in our hands to keep our horses feeling as young as possible.

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DR WENDY TALBOT BVSC CERT EM (INT MED) DECEIM MRCVS


Wendy graduated from Bristol University in 1999. She then went on to complete a residency at Liverpool University and holds a European Diploma in Equine Internal Medicine. After working in practice for 13 years, she joined Zoetis in 2012 as the National Equine Veterinary Manager.

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