Just like ageing athletes, older performance horses need additional and specialised care to ensure they remain at the peak of their powers for as long as possible.

From a veterinarian’s point of view, horses are considered geriatric between the ages of 15 and 20 years.

However, many still compete in events such as dressage and show jumping into their early 20s.

Identifying exactly when your horse qualifies as a “senior” can be tricky.

It’s based more on physical signs of decline and performance rather than an exact age.

Regular grooming and hoof care, access to clean water, safe shelter and keeping vaccinations up to date are all basic requirements of maintaining a horse’s health at any age.

But more frequent check-ups with your vet are vital to help identify, action and manage signs of ageing as soon as they present.

There are some key steps you can take along the way to help ensure your horse is given the best possible chance of remaining healthy and performing at a high level for as long as possible.

Nutrition for older horses

A horse’s nutritional needs change as they age.

Their intestines lose their digestive efficiency meaning they can’t absorb the nutrition in their food as easily as they once did.

This means that older horses are more likely to lose muscle mass and hence require additional amino acids (lysine and threonine) and up to 14 per cent more protein.

They may also need more calories to maintain their energy levels and peak condition.

Antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E to support their immune systems may also be considered.

Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy weight for senior horses who struggle to keep it on.

Glucosamine sulphate is excellent for maintaining healthy joints.

High quality forage is also critical – discuss with your vet whether your choice is appropriate for your horse.

To that end, it is also important to monitor whether your horse is able to finish his feed without interruption from other horses, ensuring they have a safe place to eat.

Even alpha horses may eventually find themselves distracted or bullied by younger horses as they age.

Dental health for older horses

Dental health is important to monitor at any age but especially for older horses.

If dental problems prevent a horse from chewing his food well enough, he may be unable to digest it.

He then misses out on its full nutritional value.

The older the horse, the more likely he is to have suffered broken or lost teeth.

This may lead to diastemata or the growing of space between a horse’s cheek teeth that can trap food and cause tooth decay.

Uneven wearing can also trigger the overgrowth of cheek teeth, leading to infection.

A dental exam at least twice a year for older horses is highly recommended.

If your horse is unable to adequately chew his food, you should consider more easily digestible alternatives.

Chopped forage, hay cubes and beet pulp all help in this regard.

General health maintenance for older horses

Just as you should carry out regular health checks more frequently as you age, so too should you do the same for your horse as he grows older.

The three most common areas of concern for older performance horses are:

Metabolic Health

It makes good sense to conduct regular screening for the onset of disease with a routine blood test that checks kidney and liver function.

Long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications can lead to a range of stomach and intestinal problems.

These include gastroduodenal ulceration, right dorsal colitis (RDC) and renal papillary necrosis.

Endocrine disorders, which involve dysfunction of how a horse secretes and responds to hormones, are also more prevalent in older animals.

This imbalance weakens a horse’s tendons and ligaments exposing them to potentially serious injury.

Cardiac Health

A horse becomes more susceptible to cardiac murmurs as he ages with up to 30 per cent developing problems.

They do not normally affecting the performance of younger horses.

But they can dramatically affect the output of older ones as the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute is compromised.

This in turn can lead to congestive heart failure.

Common symptoms include difficulty breathing, an increased respiratory rate, coughing and quickly tiring during exercise.

The risk of sudden death in horses over the age of 15 during cross country significantly increases.

Regular screening can help detect heart issues before they manifest.

Respiratory Health

Constant exposure to dust, pollen and mould can trip respiratory diseases in horses that initially present as a cough or reduced performance. 

These contaminants unfortunately accumulate over time.

Later in life, they may lead to heaves or RAO (Recurrent Airway Obstruction) which can develop after multiple inflammations of a horse’s airways.

Scarring of the airways hampers the horse’s ability to expel air and secretions from his lungs.

An endoscopy is usually required to diagnose the disease.

A change in environment to reduct the impact of the irritants the horse is exposed to is normally advised.

Treatment with corticosteroids is also a potential course of action.

Training older horses

Older horses should be given 90 days preparation for competition after a period of being idle.

That program should include riding five days a week with low-intensity warm-ups featuring lots of walking to ease their muscles and joints into gear.

Remember to mix up their training regimes, taking them outside the ring whenever possible to guard against boredom.

More strenuous training programs may need to be abandoned as your horse ages with a view to keeping them active in less taxing events.

It’s important to remain vigilant to look for whatever message your senior horse is trying to give you while training and react accordingly.

Contact us today

Many horses will continue to perform at a high level, well into their senior years.

They just require that little bit more care and attention to keep them in shape.

That includes preventative health care which is of the utmost importance to identify and manage age-related injuries and diseases before they take hold.

That’s why the importance of regular consultations with a qualified veterinarian cannot be overstated.

A horse’s recovery from work as he ages also takes longer and routine scans for older performance horses can prevent aggravating a minor muscle or joint injury, potentially turning it into a major one.

At Newmarket Equine, we provide a dedicated service to the thoroughbred racing industry, Australian polo and private horse owners.

Our practice has a long and proud history based around the excellence of our staff.

Our vets are experienced in all matters including medical, reproduction and quarantine procedures.

State-of-the-art equipment is provided including digital radiology, digital ultrasound, shock wave therapy, video endoscopy and IRAP processing. 

Contact us today to book an appointment.

The information contained in this article is general in nature and does not take into account your horse’s individual needs. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your horse’s needs, and seek professional advice from a qualified vet.

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