Care of the Geriatric Horse
The old gray mare ain't what she used to be ... but with today's
advanced technology and superior feeds, horses in their late
twenties and thirties are more common than ever.
It is estimated that about 20% of the horse population in the
United State's are horses over 15 years old. Most of these equine
senior citizens can remain productive and useful for most of
their lifespan with proper diet and lifestyle.
One year of a horse's life is equal to an average of three years
of a human's life; thus a 15-year-old horse is equivalent to a
If either regular health care or a nutritious diet are lacking,
serious problems may occur in the older horse. As they age,
horses become more susceptible to infectious diseases, climatic
changes, and the detrimental effects of parasitism. Body systems
function less effectively, teeth wear out or are lost, and
aging-related disorders begin to occur. The old horse needs
regular attention to prevent stress and minimize these effects.
Loss of body condition is one of the most common causes of
complaint from owners of older horses, particularly of the
harder-keeping breeds, such as Thoroughbreds. Aged horses cannot
readily replace weight losses and become more susceptible to
stress and disease.
On the other hand, the older horse should not be allowed to
become too fat, as obesity can aggravate arthritis, lead to
laminitis (founder), and stress the cardiovascular system.
Causes of Loss of Condition
The two main causes of loss of condition are poor teeth and
reduced digestive ability. These two factors are linked, as the
horse must be able to thoroughly chew his feed for proper
digestion to proceed in the intestinal tract. An examination of
the manure will tell you if your horse has a digestive problem;
the presence of noticeable amounts of grain and much unchewed hay
in manure is a clue that much of the horse's feed is passing
As the horse ages, his teeth become progressively worn, and once
the hard enamel wears off, the softer dentin inside the teeth
erodes faster and more unevenly. Teeth will be lost as the rooted
portions become shorter and weakened from years of grinding feed.
Broken teeth and root abscesses are also more common in older
Older horses should have their teeth checked regularly -- every 6
to 12 months-by a veterinarian competent in dental care. The cost
of good dental care is easily recouped in improved health and
savings in feed costs.
Nutrition is the key factor in maintaining the health of the aged
horse. As mentioned before, it is linked to the ability to chew
and digest, but the older horse is also prone to decreased
digestive efficiency in the intestinal tract. One needs to choose
feeds that are easy to chew, highly digestible and made with
There are few geriatric commercial feeds available, but one can
select from the many readily available products to prepare a
ration which meets the needs of the aged horse. It is extremely
important that the best quality of feeds be used, saving a few
cents on each bag of feed is false economy as more of the proper
product will have to be fed to meet nutritional needs.
Older horses require a higher amount and a higher quality of
protein. Also, a readily digestible source of energy that does
not overload their hindgut with too much starch, and slightly
higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals are also needed.
One can readily meet these needs by feeding the concentrate part
of the ration in the form of broodmare or growth feeds. The other
half can be made up of pelleted concentrates of "complete feeds,"
or beef-pulp added feeds. Beet pulp is a good source of energy
and protein, but should not make up more than 30% of the total
Three additives useful to the older horse ration are
water-retention laxatives, probiotic digestive enhancer and corn oil.
Bran and psyllium seed are two feed products which help retain
water in the large intestine and these facilitate the proper flow
of feed through the gut. If the fluid balance in the hindgut is
not maintained, the gut contents dry out and can cause impaction,
resulting in life-threatening colic. Feeding bran mashes, adding
a pound of bran to daily feed or feeding psyllium seed (one
teaspoon daily), will help prevent impactions, especially in the
winter when horses often drink less water.
Probiotic digestive enhancers include various products which
contain lactobacillus or other "digestive" bacterial cultures,
yeast cultures, or digestive enzymes. These enhance the
intestines' ability to digest feeds,, often improving weight
gain, reducing feed intake and making the horse more energetic.
Corn oil has 2.225 times the energy of an equivalent weight of
corn. Oil is almost totally digestible from the small intestine,
so it does not promote colic or make the horse "high" as heavy
grain diets can do. One cup of corn oil can replace two pounds of
sweet feed in a ration, and horses generally find it very
palatable. It also puts a gloss on the horse's coat.
To formulate a proper ration for your aged horse, consult with
your feed nutritionist or your veterinarian. Every horse is an
individual and needs an individual ration plan.
Good care of your aging horse will ensure many more years of
active companionship and reward him for all the years and miles
already given you.
Dr. N. Lee Newman has been involved with horses for over 30
years. She received her veterinarian degree from the University
of Georgia in 1976, then practiced for 12 years on the Hopi
Indians Reservation and in ranching country in Northern Arizona.
She returned to Virginia in 1988 to practice equine medicine and
teach equine science at Lord Halifax Community College, two
months of which are geriatrics.
Needs of the Older Horse
Adequate shelter from weather.
Regular deworming every 60 days.
Supply of fresh, clean water.
Access to hay.
Freedom from stress.
Annual health exam by veterinarian.
Regular examination hoof trimming and care.
Daily examination and love.
Signs of teeth problems are when the horse:
holds head sideways while chewing
drops feed from the mouth
hay wads drop from mouth
exhibits pain when drinking cold water
has foul odor from mouth
develops "bit-fighting" head-tossing or other behavioral