Caring for the Older Horse

As the caregiver for a 33.5 year old equine (who has been in my life since he was a mere lad of 16 years), I am frequently asked for insight or advice in terms of the care of the older horse.  I have to admit that in Carmel’s case, I think I have had the advantage of some good genetics—his dam was a maiden mare in her upper twenties, who was bred by a recently gelded youngster who jumped the fence.  Clearly there is something in these lines which is determined to survive!

That being said, I feel that Carmel’s longevity and good health can also be attributed to several critical care and management decisions along the way.  I have the unique advantage of basically knowing his whole life’s history, and I know that he has always been well taken care of.  With the ever improving quality in veterinary care and an increase in owner education, it stands to reason that more people will be finding themselves caring for aged horses who are still sound, happy and healthy members of the equine community.

Carmel at one of his last events at UNH, ca 2000.
Carmel at one of his last events at UNH, ca 2000.

For me, caring for an older horse has been a gift, but it has not been without its hard times too.  Once horses reach a certain age, it is a tough truth that as the steward of that animal’s well-being, you will be asked to make some hard decisions.  Horses are expensive to maintain, and it isn’t everyone’s reality that they can afford to keep a horse who doesn’t suit their personal needs anymore.  I feel quite strongly that if you make the commitment to keep a horse into their retirement years, you have an obligation to do right by that animal—which usually means that you will be doing more than just meeting the horse’s basic needs for shelter, feed and water.  It is important to know, going into it, just where your personal “bottom” is—knowing this will hopefully help ease the difficulty of making judgement calls when they come before you.

So with all that being said, here are five tips from my own personal experience caring for older horses.

Tip # 1:  Give them a job.  In my opinion, a horse which is used to competing, regular riding or even just weekly pleasure outings doesn’t do well in complete retirement.  Horses are creatures of habit and routine, and when they are used to a consistent program, it can actually increase mental stress and contribute to physical issues when their work is ceased, particularly when such a change is made abruptly.  Certainly as horses age, their job will change.  But this doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a niche to fill.  The term “schoolmaster” is frequently used to describe the experienced horse which teaches the novice.  While it is perhaps most appropriately used to describe horses trained to elite levels, I believe that the term is relative.  Carmel never competed above novice level in eventing but went on to give lessons to many beginners who learned to walk, trot, canter, and jump small fences on him, and he took several Pony Clubbers up to the D3 level, all after he “retired” at 20.  Even today at 33.5 years old, I take Carmel for twenty minute hacks a few times per week in order to provide him with some sort of structure and routine.

Tip # 2: Quit while you are ahead. A corollary note to tip # 1 is that in order for your older horse to have a job, they must retire mostly sound.  This means that it is imperative for you to be highly in tune with your horse and to fully consider the consequences of pushing them “just one more season” at a level which is becoming a physical challenge.  While we certainly can prolong the performance career of our horses through the judicious use of all means of sports medicine therapies, it is my opinion that the conscientious horse owner must always consider at what point enough is enough.  Horses which need extreme maintenance to perform at a given level should probably step it down a notch to where their job can be done without taking such lengths.  In my case, that time came when Carmel was twenty.  While he was still handling the height and width of novice fences at that point, I could tell that the effort was becoming greater and his recovery times longer. Instead of risking an injury which might result in permanent lameness, I opted to change his job.

Carmel at the age of 27, competing at the elementary level with his friend Olivia.
Carmel at the age of 27, competing at the elementary level with his friend Olivia.

Tip # 3:  Allow for plenty of turnout. We all know that horses are herd animals which are meant to travel up to one hundred miles per day or more, foraging along the way.  It is a reality in our increasingly developed and suburbanized world that our horses frequently must be kept stalled due to lack of appropriate turnout areas.  This is truly unfortunate and contributes to all manner of health and behavioral disorders.  I have been very fortunate that since owning Carmel, he has almost always been able to live in an in/out situation where he can come and go from a shelter at his own desire.  Barring that, he has lived at a facility that allowed him to be out about twelve hours per day and kept in only at night.  I really do believe that this living situation has allowed him to remain sounder in the long run, both in mind and body.  Arthritis never had a chance to really establish itself in his joints in a debilitating manner, and his lungs remain clear due to good air circulation.  My horses go out every day for at least a little bit, even in extreme weather –and what is funny is they almost always choose to go outside in spite of it.  I do not think that we do them any favors by locking them in for our benefit.  So long as they have an accessible shelter if they need it—let them be out!

Carmel enjoying some time outside after the Blizzard of 2015.
Carmel enjoying some time outside after the Blizzard of 2015.

Tip # 3:  Provide routine veterinary care. Older horses require the same regular veterinary care that any other horse receives—but having a good relationship with your veterinarian can help you to customize their care to suit your individual needs and situation.  For example, your older horse still needs to be vaccinated each year, but some of the risk based vaccines may no longer be a priority.  This is important if your horse is one who has had a history of mild or moderate reactions to vaccination.  Annual monitoring of your older horse’s bloodwork can give you a baseline from which to compare results if your horse begins to seem a bit “off”; it can also allow your vet to notice changes in the function of the body’s systems early.  Many older horses end up developing pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID (usually called Equine Cushing’s Disease), which often causes symptoms such as an extremely heavy hair coat that is slow to shed, a cresty neck, abnormal fat deposits and sometimes hoof abscesses and laminitis.  Confirmation of this disorder is done via blood test completed in winter, spring or summer.  For most horses, Cushing’s can be regulated through the use of diet modification, exercise and medication (pergolide)—but you will need to work closely with your vet.  Older horses also need routine dental care, but as they age and the available tooth decreases, they may not need regular floating—your vet or other qualified dental professional can advise you on your horse’s specific needs.

1998 or 1999.  I wish I could get his tail that long again!
1998 or 1999. I wish I could get his tail that long again!

Tip #4:   Give them a little attention every day. Just because you may not be riding your older horse as regularly doesn’t mean that daily attention isn’t important.  At a minimum, I always pick out feet every day and do a once over of Carmel’s entire body. In the winter, blankets come off at least every other day, but preferably daily, to check on body condition. (Blogger’s Note:  To blanket your older horse or not is a topic for another blog—I have chosen to blanket Carmel due to his tendency towards being a hard keeper and also because his PPID can cause thermoregulatory challenges.)   Even as Carmel’s activity level has decreased over the years, I have still religiously groomed him every day.  I think this is important for so many reasons—it is a way for me to keep my bond with him, and because I am in close contact with him, I notice the tiniest changes in his attitude or way of being.  Grooming promotes circulation and stimulates the oils of the skin to come to the surface, and for horses who are struggling to shed, regular grooming can help ease the process.

Tip # 5: Feed the right amount of a quality feed.  Older horses can be challenging to keep at an appropriate body condition.  Some are easy keepers and they need little to no grain to maintain a healthy weight.  Others, like Carmel, tend more towards being too thin and therefore careful feed management is necessary in order to keep them in good physical shape.   There are numerous senior feeds on the market which are formulated to meet the needs of an older equine.  They tend to be palatable, fortified, extruded and complete—meaning that if your horse struggles to chew forages, the senior feed can be used as a sole source of nutrition.  Most also dissolve easily in water to make a mash for those horses whose teeth are not up to the task of chewing.  Something I learned along the way is that senior feeds are meant to be fed at a much larger quantity than regular feeds.  We are so conditioned to feed “little and often” that it can be hard to understand that as much as five pounds of senior feed can be fed at one meal, with as much as fifteen pounds per day being totally reasonable and safe to feed.

Carmel snacking in 2012.
Carmel snacking in 2012.

Final Thoughts

The truth is that taking care of older horses is mostly about continuing to practice good horsemanship and to attend to their basic needs with the same level of attention to detail as for a competition horse.  Certainly the onset of age related conditions will require some modifications to their riding schedule and maintenance plan, but with quality care the older horse can remain a productive and happy equine citizen well into their golden years and beyond.

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