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Your Aging Horse | Fall 2005 Out Here Magazine

Hay cubes soaked in water are easier on older horses' teeth, which may wear down significantly, making long-stem hay more difficult to eat.

Senior equines require extra nurturing

By Renee Elder

Photography by Donnie Beauchamp

Horses, like humans, are living longer and healthier lives — Sarah Ralston's Arabian, Charlie, lived to be 31 — but aging takes its toll on four-legged companions, too.

That means they may need a little extra tender, loving care in their senior years, says Ralston, a veterinarian and associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

A 16-year-old equine once was considered geriatric, but about one-fifth of the horses in the United States today are more than 20 years old and some, like Charlie, live beyond 30, thanks to improved vaccines, enhanced nutrition, and better dental care.

While many of these older horses remain remarkably healthy, digestion, metabolism, or oral health — the effects of aging — may require a change in diet, Ralston says.

"With these horses, you have to worry about limiting sugar and starch intake and providing higher fat and protein levels," Ralston says. "There are senior feeds available that are more digestible."

Owners should pay special attention to the teeth, which may wear down significantly or develop painful root abscesses. They discourage vigorous chewing, which may lead to nutritional deficiencies and other health problems, Ralston says.

"My old guy had virtually no teeth left, so I replaced his long-stem hay with hay cubes soaked in water," she adds. "It made a lovely mush that he could slurp up."

Continue regular vaccination and parasite control schedules. Vet checkups twice a year can reveal health problems before they become severe. A key warning sign is weight loss, which can indicate nutritional problems as well as other serious health concerns.

But sometimes clues to declining health are less obvious.

A horse that stays unusually clean may have arthritis, Ralston says. "If they're having trouble getting up and down, they may try to stay on their feet," she explains. "They can doze but not go into a deep sleep without falling."

A soft surface underfoot can cushion a fall and provide better traction for getting up and down, she suggests. "A tight stall is not appropriate. If they were to fall, they can't get back up again."

Ideally, older horses should remain outside the stall as much as possible, preferably with the companionship of a compatible horse or pony, she recommends. This freedom of movement decreases stiffness and discourages weight gain that can cause additional wear and tear on joints.

It's wise to be aware of your horse's emotional temperature, too.

When Ralston discovered her horse, Charlie, had a heart murmur, she stopped riding him. "He was really upset by that," she says. "Whenever I'd go out to catch my younger horse for a ride, Charlie would follow me around and try to put his head in the halter."

Charlie began losing weight, and his typical fun-loving nature gave way to depression. Fearing that his heart condition was worsening, Ralston had a specialist examine Charlie.

"I was told his heart murmur wasn't life threatening and that it was okay to ride him," Ralston says. "After that, he picked up weight, became happier, and lived another 10 years."

Renee Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC.

Figure Your Horse's Equine Age

Beginning at birth, horses age 6½ years for each human year until they reach puberty at age 4. Then, that aging rate slows to 2½ years for each human year.