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The Geriatric Horse: Helping them along

Due to improvements in nutrition, management and health care our horses are living longer more useful lives. Our horses are now living well into there twenties and thirties and with proper care you can help to make these years happier and more productive. Many of the conditions we associate with "old age" such as lameness, dental abnormalities, weight loss, digestive disorders or poor shedding and coat condition may be treatable or even preventable.

While many areas of the geriatric horse's health care become more important and special attention is needed for various common medical conditions, some basic management practices become critical when managing an aged horse.  Proper nutrition is vital, as the horse ages their digestive system becomes less efficient and their ability to digest and absorb and utilize essential nutrients such as protein, phosphorus and fiber declines. The feed for your aged horse should be:


  • Highly palatable

  • Easy to chew and swallow

  • Clean and dust free

  • 10-16% protein (this varies based upon medical conditions)

  • Adequate in high quality fiber to aid in digestion

  • Inclusive of essential minerals including calcium and phosphorus at 1.5-2:1 ratio

  • High in all essential vitamins especially C and B-complex

  • Adequate in energy to maintain body weight


A high quality pasture or hay supplemented with one of the many quality complete senior horse feeds that are currently being marketed will also include an adequate amount of high quality vegetable fat to help promote healthy skin and hair, aid in digestion and supplement energy intake. Many of these feeds are formulated with beet pulp to provide a mixture of fiber types. Both Purina and Triple Crown formulate a high quality senior product and although they are not inexpensive feeds the efficiency of these products and improvement in weight and coat condition makes these products a value. Depending upon the condition of the horse these feeds may constitute anywhere from 20 to 80% of the animals diet. Lets also remember that when feeding older horses it may be beneficial to feed them away from the other horses to reduce competition for feed. Feed 3-4 times per day if possible. Wet the feed and make a slurry or a mash should they have severe dental problems or the propensity to choke.

In addition to proper nutrition it is essential that the geriatric horse have proper dental care so that they can utilize the feedstuffs provided and reduce the risk of choke. As the horse ages dental abnormalities and wear become a more severe issue. Cracked, missing abscessed and worn teeth are not uncommon and if grind surfaces are not maintained ramps and waves can develop. Most horses over the age of 20 require not one but two annual dental exams to maintain optimum grind surfaces. As regular management of the aged horse deworming becomes critical. Many of these horses have suppression of their immune systems and a stringent deworming and parasite control program is essential. Shelter from wind, rain, snow and the sun becomes increasingly important with age and adverse weather conditions can "drag" an older horse's condition down in a hurry so monitor them closely during periods of extreme weather.

Lameness in the older horse is not uncommon. After years of use, "wear and tear" contributes to many forms of lameness. It is quite common for the older horse to suffer from DJD, degenerative joint disease, otherwise known as arthritis. This condition might not only alter the horse's gait, but make shoeing or trimming of the feet difficult. Yet it is important to maintain proper foot care as overgrown and unbalanced feet may exacerbate the arthritis. For many of the geriatric population there are drugs and or supplements that can reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis. Older horses are also more prone to laminitis (founder) and hoof abscesses, there again requiring regular attention to their foot care by a farrier and periodic review of their medical condition so that conditions contributing to laminitis can be avoided or treated.

One of these medical conditions is endocrine disease. A large portion of the aged population develop a condition known as Equine Cushing's Disease, a disease caused by a pituitary adenoma, which is a benign tumor. In addition to this common medical cause for endocrine imbalance a condition known, as Peripheral Cushing's Syndrome also exists. A benign tumor of the thyroid gland can also cause problems in the older horse. Although these conditions are not curable, in many cases medical management combined with management of symptoms can provide the geriatric horse with years of active and close to normal life style.

The most common symptoms to watch for include: increased thirst and urination, weight loss (or obesity in the case of hypothyroidism due to a thyroid tumor), a heavy and curly hair coat that fails to shed in the summer, and recurrent mild incidents of laminitis. Should you notice any of these conditions in your aged horse veterinary evaluation and testing should be pursued.

With proper management and professional attention your geriatric horse will hopefully spend many senior years in a comfortable and potentially active lifestyle.