Statistics show that horses today on average live longer than they ever have in history. Modern disease prevention, parasite control, surgery and other advances mean that, with proper care, a horse has a good chance of living well into his 20s and perhaps beyond. But there are no guarantees. And it takes effort and forethought to help a horse stay active, healthy and happy as the years go by.
And now is the time to build a foundation for a long life. How you care for your horse today—whether he is 2, 7 or 15—can have a significant effect on his health and well-being in the years to come. In fact, the best time to make an investment in your horse’s future is well before he begins to show signs of aging.
“The most common contributors to death in older horses—poor mobility, the inability to chew food and founder—are all things that can be prevented through proper care when the horse is young,” says Robert Judd, DVM, of Hewitt, Texas.
If you acquire a horse when he’s already elderly, there’s no way to roll back the clock, of course, but if you have a younger horse, the actions you take now can make a significant difference down the road.
To increase your horse’s chances of living a long and productive life, focus on five specific management areas—dental care, weight control, fitness, pituitary health and nutrition. To be sure, these don’t encompass everything it takes to keep a horse healthy, but preventive care and vigilance in these areas pay the high-est dividends in terms of longevity down the line.
CARE FOR HIS TEETH
To discover one of the principle causes of precipitous decline in aging horses, look no farther than the teeth. “When a horse’s teeth go bad, things go downhill pretty quickly,” says Chris Robertson, DVM, of Blue Mountain Equine in Madison, Virginia. “If he can’t eat, he’s not going to be able to take in sufficient calories and nutrients to support any of his vital systems. Honestly, I think advances in dental care are one of the primary reasons we are seeing horses today live longer than ever.”
Missing or worn-down teeth can make it difficult for a horse to eat, but sometimes the source of trouble is hard to spot. “Any kind of inflammation can be a problem,” says Judd. “Even if horses still have all their teeth, they can develop abscesses, and that chronic pain will cause a horse to stop eating and lose weight. Then they get weak and go down and can’t get up again. I think that’s a pretty common situation for an older horse.”
Judd adds that seemingly unrelated health issues in older horses can often be traced back to dental problems. “You’ll hear that an old horse died because he colicked, but that colic may have been an impaction caused by his inability to chew stemmy forage. Ultimately, the culprit was the teeth.”
Judd recommends dental exams every six months for horses of all ages. “That doesn’t mean you have to get something done to your horse’s mouth every six months,” says Judd. “Just an exam is fine, to ensure everything is on track. I might float a horse’s teeth every year, maybe every two years, but I do want to look in his mouth every six months to catch problems early.”
In fact, says Judd, the earlier in a horse’s life that you begin to evaluate his teeth the better. “A lost tooth doesn’t happen overnight. That situation is years in the making,” he says. “You will find abnormalities in young horses—for example, all their teeth don’t erupt at the same time and the upper molars may not erupt as fully as the others. As a result, the opposing molars on the bottom may grow taller, putting excess pressure on the top teeth. This pressure is chronic and causes the upper teeth to ‘cup’ and weaken. This can lead to periodontal disease, sinus infections and tiny fractures that weaken the teeth over time. If this goes uncorrected, you’re looking at significant problems by the time that horse is 25.”
Robertson also makes a case for early intervention: “How often a horse needs to be floated depends a lot on the individual,” he says. “But if you take a look annually and start maintenance work before things get bad, you’ll make a huge difference in that horse’s long-term health.”
The alternative, he says, is to risk facing choices down the line that no one wants to make. “I get so many calls from people—and I really hate these calls—where they say, ‘My horse is 25 years old, he’s dropping hay and feed, and I think it’s time to get his teeth done.’ By that time it’s too late to do anything,” says Robertson. “If I had to advise someone on only one thing to keep their horse alive longer, I’d tell them to take care of his teeth.”
WATCH HIS WEIGHT
As important as it is for a horse to receive adequate nutrition throughout his life, it’s also important to keep him from getting fat. “If you want your horse to live a long time, don’t let him get too heavy at any point in his life,” says Robertson.
Obesity doesn’t stress a horse’s cardiac system as it can in people, but it presents another risk that is just as deadly. “Horses who are overweight, and especially those who stay that way, are at an increased risk of developing laminitis and founder,” says Judd.
Potentially devastating inflammation of the sensitive laminae of the hooves, laminitis is often triggered—through a variety of mechanisms—by diets that are too rich. Founder is an internal deformity of the foot that occurs when weakened laminae can no longer support the coffin bone, allowing it to descend and rotate within the hoof. “If there’s no rotation of the bone there’s a chance the horse can fully recover,” says Judd. “But when the laminae detach and the bone rotates, those attachments never fully heal. The horse is then prone to repeat episodes of founder for the rest of his life, oftentimes with less and less dietary triggers.”
But, says Judd, the lingering effects of a single episode of founder can spell trouble down the road. “If a horse foundered when he was younger, he may always have a certain level of discomfort. Then, as he gets older, that worsens. Throw arthritis on top of that and you’ve got an old horse who is in too much pain to move. It’s a common reason we end up putting older horses down.”
Beyond founder, excess weight takes a toll on a horse’s bones and joints. Over a lifetime, the wear and tear caused by carrying several hundred extra pounds can increase a horse’s susceptibility to arthritis and other chronic degenerative bone diseases.
But you can head off these problems. Familiarize yourself with the body condition scoring (BCS) system and talk to your veterinarian about what your horse’s ideal weight would be. And if he starts packing on the pounds, adjust his diet—you’ll need to supply him with fewer calories than he is burning. A hay-based diet and plenty of exercise—both as turnout as well as ridden work—are the key to equine weight loss. This may mean outfitting your horse with a grazing muzzle during the spring and summer months or arranging to have someone else ride him when your own schedule keeps you from the saddle.
A horse doesn’t have to be obviously obese to be at a high risk of laminitis, however. Those who have equine0 metabolic syndrome or insulin0 resistance are already at increased risk of laminitis because their bodies do not respond to insulin appropriately, leading to spikes in blood insulin levels after certain meals. Exactly how these spikes are related to laminitis is the subject of ongoing research.
Laboratory tests can identify horses with metabolic conditions definitively, but you may notice physical clues on your own. “These horses have fat deposits in very specific places, on the crest and over the tail, for instance,” says Judd. “The horse may not be fat all over, but it’s important to notice where they are fat.”
Researchers believe that secretions from fat cells in these specific deposits trigger metabolic and insulin imbalances. Diet and exercise are usually the key to reducing these potentially troublesome accumulations of fat. Work with your veterinarian when managing a horse with a metabolic condition. If a standard weight-loss regimen does not help, there are medications that might.
KEEP HIM ACTIVE
Even if he’s not overweight, a horse who is out of shape isn’t likely to live as long as one who has been kept in good condition.
“Fitness extends a horse’s life,” says Rachel Buchholz, DVM, of Northwest Equine Performance in Mulino, Oregon. “It helps to maintain muscle mass and, therefore, strength. And a horse is going to need that strength as he ages to be able to move around easily, access resources in a herd and even rise after he lies down.”
Fitness is much easier to maintain than achieve, adds Buchholz, which is important to remember well before a horse grows old. “If a horse spends his middle age years not doing much activity, and then when he’s 17, someone decides he needs to get fit, they are going to have a much longer and potentially difficult road than if that horse was always kept in condition. Older, unfit horses are more likely to injure themselves and those injuries can heal slower than in a younger horse. It’s far easier to just keep him in shape than to try and bring him back.”
Of course, a horse who is very active is more likely to be injured than a pasture potato, but those risks can be managed to minimize their effects into his older years. “If you have a significant bone injury in a young horse, yes, that could lead to arthritic changes even after it’s healed, which may be a management issue throughout the horse’s life,” says Buchholz. “But you can manage that with supplements, medications and even various joint injections when the time is right.”
Soft tissue injuries in an equine athlete may never fully heal, but they can become a driver of a natural, and even useful, progression of a horse’s career. “A horse who tears a suspensory, for instance, may not be able to go back to his previous level of work, but with the right rehabilitation program, he can return to a lower level of work and do well,” says Buchholz. “And that can be beneficial for everyone: That’s how we get kids’ horses and experienced school horses who introduce novices to a sport. And the horse benefits by maintaining some level of activity, rather than just hanging out in a field all day, losing all his muscle mass and strength.”
Buchholz emphasizes that “retirement” for a horse based purely on age or previous workload can have the opposite of the intended effect. “Turning a horse out after a busy career isn’t a way to reward him or extend his life. If you go to the doctor at age 50, he’s not going to tell you to just sit around on the couch from now on. It’s the same with horses. They need to stay active as long as they can.”
As for riding the older, healthy horse, “Go ahead and use him,” says Buchholz. “But keep an eye on him. Regular checkups with your veterinarian are critical to making sure your horse is still benefiting from the level of work he’s at.” During these checkups, your veterinarian may recommend management changes to help keep your horse active, including joint or pain medications or even specialized shoeing.
“Hoof care is very important throughout a horse’s life,” says Buchholz. “Long toes and low heels can put extra stresses on the deep digital flexor tendon and other structures of the lower limb. If you’re going to ride a horse throughout his life, you need to make sure his feet are kept in good shape.”
And don’t forget how much a horse benefits from being at liberty. “Turnout is a huge help to keeping all horses in good condition, but particularly the older guys,” says Buchholz. “They will move around at will and keep themselves somewhat warmed up. If you sit around for a while, you’re going to be stiff when you get up and start moving around. It’s the same for older horses: If they are in a stall all day, when they do get out, they are going to be stiff and achy. If they can move around, they can avoid some of that.”
WATCH FOR HORMONAL IMBALANCES
It’s an unusual horse over the age of 20 who doesn’t have some degree of pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, also called Cushing’s disease). PPID causes the pituitary gland to produce less dopamine, leading to excessive secretion of the hormone cortisol by the adrenal gland. This leads to a variety of physical changes, including a thick hair coat, abnormal sweating and increased thirst. Some of these, such as lowered immune function, muscle wasting and an increased risk of laminitis, can shorten a horse’s life.
But as with so many other conditions, it’s wise to consider the possibility of PPID well before old age sets in. “We think of Cushing’s as a disease of older horses, but you need to be on watch for it in a horse’s mid-teens,” says Judd. “Some horses develop it at 14 or 15, and the earlier you can catch it and control it, the better. Even if they don’t yet have an obviously thick coat, the condition is taking a toll on the horse, and you don’t want to wait until the horse founders to consider the possibility he might have Cushing’s.”
Judd starts asking owners questions specific to PPID when horses are about 13 years old to detect early signs of the condition: “During a routine visit I’ll ask if the horse is sweating strangely or how he’s shedding. Definitely by age 18, I’ll be asking this and paying close attention to the answers.”
Robertson agrees that early detection is key. “I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we need to test every 20-year-old horse for Cushing’s as a matter of routine, but we definitely need to be on the lookout for it as the horse enters his later teens.”
PPID can be diagnosed with laboratory tests, but they need to be carefully timed and interpreted depending on the season of the year. If a horse does have PPID, the drug pergolide (sold as Prascend) can control the condition by regulating the pituitary gland. Pergolide needs to be given daily for the duration of the horse’s life, and you’ll want to have regular veterinary visits to ensure the current dosage is still effective.
Controlling PPID goes beyond medication, however. Affected horses will also benefit from low-sugar and low-starch diets, regular dental and hoof care, and body clipping to keep their hair coat manageable.
ADJUST HIS DIET AS HIS NEEDS EVOLVE
Your horse’s nutritional needs will change as he ages and feeding him appropriately at each stage will keep him healthy in the moment while also laying the groundwork for a long life.
“The biggest challenge, I think, with equine nutrition is keeping them from getting too fat,” says Judd. “I rarely see thin horses these days, particularly when they are younger and middle-aged. Usually the problem is too much nutrition.”
Your horse doesn’t need to eat a lot to receive the necessary nutrients to keep him healthy. Commercial feed mixes formulated for each stage of a horse’s life will provide the necessary vitamins and minerals. Assuming he can chew it, picking the correct product and feeding it according to the label directions will ensure your horse gets the proper nutrition.
If he is such an easy keeper that grain provides too many calories even while he’s in active work, you may need to go to a forage-only diet, which may require some supplementation. “If your horse is on a hay- or grass-only diet it’s possible he’s missing a vitamin or mineral, and a supplement could help,” says Judd. “But you want to be sure before you start adding anything to his diet, so check with your veterinarian first.”
As your horse ages, even with a lifetime of proper dental care, he may gradually lose the ability to chew effectively. This can lead to weight loss and associated muscle wasting and weakness. In this situation, a senior feed can help keep him healthy.
“For horses who do lose some of their dental function and can’t chew hay, senior feeds are fantastic,” says Robertson. “Prior to the advent of senior feeds and dentistry becoming routine, the early demise of horses was usually when they could no longer eat hay. That’s when they began to decline; they would get thin and weak and that was the end of it. Senior feeds, however, along with pelletized alfalfa and beet pulp provide fiber in an easily chewed and digested form.”
Don’t look to the calendar to decide when to alter a horse’s diet with a senior feed or alternative form of fiber. “The time to do it is when you notice them dropping balls of hay or find unchewed feed in their manure,” says Robertson. “And certainly when you see their weight dropping off. This can happen in their early 20s, but it can also happen in their later teens.”
The later years of a horse’s life can be bittersweet. You treasure your old friend, but there’s always worry about when his health will decline to the point when hard decisions will need to be made. If you’ve taken steps throughout his life to preserve his health into old age, however, those golden years can be many, and much sweeter.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #461, February 2016.