By: Darlene M. Cox
Along with today's increase in recreational horse ownership also comes an increase in the number of geriatric-aged horses who now easily live well into their 30's. This increase in aged equine longevity can be attributed to the better knowledge of horse health management that responsible horse owners have obtained and applied through their many years of horse ownership. Good health care and nutrition keeps many of our equine senior citizens happy and productive through much of their elderly lives.
The importance of good health care and appropriate nutrition for geriatric horses is greatly evident based upon the natural time-factored breakdown of a horse's system as they reach geriatric age (15+ years). Older horses are more greatly susceptible to problems from parasitic infestations, infectious diseases (Cushings), colic, enteroliths (stones in the intestinal track), choke, laminitis, founder, tooth problems (extensive wear, breakage, abscesses, or tooth loss), weight gain/loss, decreased digestive ability, cardiovascular illness, arthritis, and stress. Routine bi-annual veterinarian examinations are prudent for geriatric horses and should encompass a complete blood work-up, body scoring, fecal parasite count, dental exam, evaluation of the gastrointestinal track, lungs, eyes, feet, legs, joints, inspection of the body for melanoma tumors or other suspicious growths.
Good nutrition is of utmost importance when caring for the geriatric horse, as many of the above-listed problems can be tied directly to nutrition. As in the geriatric populations of many species, the horse has a problem with digestion and requires an easily digestible food that is also highly nutritious and meets the needs of his aging body. Senior horses require feeds that are softer and easier to chew, yet are higher in protein and easily digestible carbohydrates low in starch. Probiotic supplementation will aid in preventive measures to ward off the development of health problems. Laxatives can aid in keeping the intestinal track moving; however, it is important that the laxative used not upset the intestinal water concentration in the hind gut. You don't want to induce diarrhea, which will lead to intestinal complications and weight loss.
A geriatric horse's health can deteriorate rapidly; therefore, it is a good measure to be diligently attentive to her daily appearance and behavior, making notes of any little changes you might see (listlessness, not eating/drinking, posturing, etc.) This may assist your vet in determining a problem if a call must be made for a farm visit. One of the biggest problems with geriatric horse health involves their teeth. Always be attentive to your older horse's mouth, especially if you notice her not eating or if she has really bad breath, which will be indicative of an abscess infection.
Exercise is a very important factor in keeping your geriatric horse in good health. Keeping her on a regular and routine exercise plan will naturally aid her ability to stave off any arbitrary health conditions attributable to inactivity.
Being ever vigilant and knowledgeable about the care your senior horse requires will prevent life threatening illness and keep her in your barn and heart for years to come.