Caring for old horses

horse, equine, senior
horse, equine, senior

As horses grow older, the way we care and feed them needs to change. Similar to people, older horses will experience more health problems but, luckily, with adequate care, their lives grow longer. To prevent as many health issues as possible, we bring you useful tips and tricks that will help you give your horses exactly what they need.

Let’s go through key takeaways on how to take care of older horses.


Arthritis is certainly not something that affects only older horses but it gets worse with age, so it requires adequate care. An older horse will also lose muscle mass and be more prone to weakness in the ligaments and tendons. Not to mention that older horses are less active which can cause several health issues, and arthritis is one of them. Years of stress, injuries and general wear and tear can result in painful and crippling arthritic changes in older horses.

Arthritis is a combination of inflammation and degeneration of the tissues associated with a joint which make flexion and/or weight bearing painful. The right way to deal with it is to think ahead and have a plan to make your horse feel as comfortable as possible. Following are some of the ideas on how to deal with your horse’s arthritis:

  • Consult your farrier or veterinarian regarding optimal way to trim or shoe a horse.
  • Use anti-inflammatory drugs or other remedies recommended by your vet if a horse is in chronic pain.
  • If possible, try to avoid steroidal or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, which can have side effects.
  • Try to use natural supplements with anti-inflammatory and pain reducing properties for long term use (MSM and glucosamine).
  • Don’t let horse become obese since the extra weight will increase stress on its legs and contribute to other metabolic problems (laminitis).
  • Do not confine horse to a stall unless it’s absolutely necessary for medical reasons.
  • A more older horse can move freely, less stiff it will be.
  • Have a compatible horse or pony for company.

Weight Loss & Poor Condition

Most common causes of weight loss in aged horses are caused by failure to keep up with:

  • De-worming schedules (if required)
  • Debilitating diseases
  • And/or poor dentition

If an older horse is failing to maintain adequate body weight, despite good de-worming schedules, normal appetite and adequate rations, its teeth should be checked carefully, using a full mouth speculum. If teeth are normal, a horse should be carefully checked for disease by having a vet perform a thorough physical exam. Also, get a blood sample to check for chronic infections and liver or kidney dysfunction. If no other abnormalities are found, the horse may be suffering from mal-absorption of its nutrients and/or other alterations in digestion.

In such horses, a “senior” type ration may help. Rations should provide at least 12-16% protein, with restricted calcium (<1.0%) and slightly increased phosphorus (0.3-0.5%) in the total ration. When talking about hay’s or chaffs, crude fibre (CF) content should be above 7%. CF should be above 10%, especially if the feed was designed to be fed without hay. Digestibility of the concentrates should be maximized by processing (extrusion, micronized, pelleting or “pre-digestion”).

A typical ration for a 500kg horse might consist of:

  • Free access to top quality hay, preferably a straight grass or grass/lucerne mix or pasture.
  • 1 to 2 kg of a feed designed for old horses as it will increase levels of minerals, particularly copper and zinc. Vitamins, especially antioxidant B’s, C and E may also be required in higher proportions due to the fact that aged digestive systems don’t function as well as in their younger days.
  • Free choice water and salt.

You should avoid straight lucerne because its calcium content is high and may exacerbate failing kidney function. Yeast culture products have been reported to improve digestion of feed in horses and may be of benefit in the failing, aged horse’s rations. However, it’s crucial that, when making any dietary changes, you do it slowly for 14 to 21 days. When introducing the new supplements, do it also gradually over the course of 7 to 14 days.

Joint supplements containing glucosamine and methyl sulphonyl methane may also be helpful as well as Vitamin B an C. Be careful if your horse has IR (insulin resistance) or PIPD (pituary pars intermedia dysfunction or Cushing’s syndrome) as in some trials with humans glucosamine supplements have been shown to increase IR.

Older horses are more sensitive to severe weather. They often suffer weight loss when temperature fluctuations are extreme. It is essential that adequate shade is available in summer, and that shelter from wind and precipitation is provided in winter. In most cases, 3-sided “run-in” sheds will be adequate. In winter, higher energy needs can be met by providing increased feed in more highly digestible forms (high-fat pelleted or extruded feeds).

Ensuring free access to clean, fresh water can reduce constipation or impaction problems, which are most common in winter. If a horse doesn’t drink well, feeding water-soaked feeds (3.7-7.5l of water per feeding) will help increase fluid intake feeds. Addition of 30g to 60g (1 to 2 tbs) of salt to feed may also encourage increased water intake. This should be done only if your horse has unlimited access to water.

Inadequate Dentition & Tooth Loss

All horses should have regular tooth care. Horses’ teeth frequently form sharp points on the outside of upper molars and inside of lower molars, especially if fed only dry hay and grains. These points make it painful to chew and cause a horse to dribble feed or partially chewed boluses of hay from its mouth (“quidding”). Tooth loss, especially molars or premolars, also reduces the ability to adequately chew feed.

If a molar or premolar tooth is missing, the opposing tooth will grow down into space (wave mouth), making it difficult to chew. Abnormal dentition predisposes the horse to weight loss and/or “choke” (impaction of inadequately chewed/dry feed in the oesophagus).


Veterans with Tooth Loss

Older horses, especially those known to have missing molars, should have their teeth checked at least twice a year. If chewing is difficult, “soups” of soaked hay cubes or beet pulp plus pelleted or extruded feeds designed for old horses should be offered. Sufficient water should be added to make a soupy consistency (at least 1l of water per 500g of feed) to prevent choke.

Soaked feeds can easily ferment (summer) or freeze (winter), so they should only be offered in amounts that the horse will consume easily in a single meal. It also may require that horse be fed more than three times a day to meet its nutritional needs.

Hay can still be fed if choking is not a problem, even if most of it is wasted. Access to good pasture is highly desirable. If front teeth (incisors) are missing or badly aligned, do not rely on pasture for nutrition. These horses must be fed complete feeds or loose hay and/or hay cubes since they can not graze effectively. Soaking feeds is necessary only if they have a tendency to “choke” on their feeds.

While older horses require more care and attention than younger ones, many of the health problems such as arthritis or issues related to weight loss can be managed if you act properly and on time. Giving your older horse the love he needs and deserves will bring you two a lot of beautiful moments!

Key takeaways:

The way you care for your horse needs to change as he or she gets older.

  • Years of stress and injuries can result in painful and crippling arthritic changes in older horses. To help your horse with arthritis, consult a veterinarian and make nutritional changes.
  • Weight loss in aged horses is caused by failure to keep up with de-worming schedules (if required), debilitating diseases and/or poor dentition. Also, weight loss can be caused by mal-absorption of its nutrients and/or other alterations in digestion.
  • Check regularly your horse’s teeth and get a blood sample.
  • When making any dietary changes or introducing the new supplements, you need to do it gradually over the course of two to three weeks.
  • If a horse doesn’t drink well, feeding water-soaked feeds (3.7-7.5l of water per feeding) will help increase fluid intake feeds.
  • If your horse has a problem with chewing, “soups” of soaked hay cubes or beet pulp plus pelleted or extruded feeds designed for old horses should be provided.

Feed & Supplement options for older horses

Hygain Tru Care

HYGAIN TRU CARE® provides a balanced diet of highly digestible fibre, fat and carbohydrates along with essential vitamins and minerals specifically developed to meet the nutritional requirements of mature horse/pony (6 yo +) when in work, at rest or enjoying retirement.

Speedi Beet

Speedi-Beet is the unmollassed product which is prepared and ready to use in less than 10 minutes. It’s an excellent source of pectins, betaine and non-structural glucose. Also, this product is an ideal fibre source for horses prone to laminitis.

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