Care For Your Older Horse Without Breaking The Bank

Tightening finances can force us to face some hard decisions. Difficult as it might be, wondering whether you can justify maintaining an old, retired, equine friend may be one of them.

Seniors have special needs that must be met. Making cuts that result in inferior care is not the way to go. However, you can cut expenses without sacrificing quality.


Seniors often have waning resistance to parasites, which can lead to high parasite burdens if not effectively dewormed. High burdens lead to weight loss and even colic. Now that we know the question of small stronglye ”resistance” to ivermectin is actually due to maturation of immature forms not removed (see page 23), generic ivermectin is the most economical choice of dewormers.

For horses on crowded pastures or rotating through paddocks other horses use, deworm monthly from May through the first freeze with ivermectin and use an ivermectin-praziquantel combination (Zimecterin Gold or Equimax) at the end of the gazing season. Ivermectin is an effective broad-based deworming drug, while praziquantel will also remove any tapes. This targeted schedule (see October 2008) should get you a maximum benefit for $65 to $75 per year.

If your horse is at lower exposure risk (no crowded fields, no horse traffic in and out of the facility) and you use a less-intensive deworming schedule or rotate using dewormers that are known to have high risk of resistance problems (most drugs other than ivermectin and moxidectin), plan on at least a once yearly fecal exam (after first freeze makes sense for timing) to make sure your horse is adequately dewormed. The cost of this can be slashed if you collect the sample yourself and take it to your vet’s office.

Hoof Care

Forget skimping on the frequency of farrier visits. It’ll just cost you more in the long run, plus you risk lameness (definitely costlier!). But, if your senior is shod, consider going barefoot.

The advantages include more than the obvious trims cost less than shoeing. A barefoot horse is also freer to move in the most comfortable way for them and wear their feet accordingly. If barefoot won’t work, consider boots. This one-time investment can get the same results and pay for itself in shoeing costs quickly. With the wide variety of boot and padding choices available today, there’s a solution for virtually any horse. Our favorite is the Easyboot Epic (see October 2006), which is available through EasyCare (, 800-447-8836) and costs $65-$75 a pair. What we like best about this boot is that its attached gaiter helps ensure that the boot stays on and adds stability. Even our Houdini test horse couldn’t get them off. They’re also lightweight and easy to apply and remove.


Immunity does wane with age, and so does the horse’s ability to respond strongly to vaccines. Limiting exposure to infectious organisms becomes important for the older horse. If your senior is in a high-traffic barn, give some thought to moving to a location that is more closed off to horses coming and going. Lowering exposure risk will reduce the number of vaccines your horse needs to get (e.g. respiratory diseases and strangles).

Many people are reducing the frequency of tetanus and rabies vaccinations in their senior horses, especially if they are having problems with vaccine reactions. After a lifetime of yearly vaccinations, they believe protection should be strong enough to warrant stretching out boosters of these two effective and normally long-lasting (in other species) vaccines. This approach remains controversial as there’s no horse-research data to back it up, so this is an issue you need to discuss with your own veterinarian. Both are fatal, and rabies will cause you huge problems if your horse comes into contact with rabies.

Finally, question the use of vaccines that don’t have a strong track history of actually working, like the Potomac horse fever vaccine. Ask your vet to help decide if your horse is really at risk for this disease.


Chances are your older horse may need to begin wearing a blanket when he never did before. Layering may be the way to go here; instead of buying a $200+ heavyweight turnout blanket, plus a stable blanket, plus a liner. All the blankets you choose should be billed as ”breathable,” which means it allows moisture from the horse’s own body heat to escape without condensing and making him wet and chilled under the blanket. The outer blanket must be waterproof, too. A blanket billed as water-resistant will hold up in a short shower or light drizzle, but it will likely leak in a downpour.

Many newer fitted fleece blankets are reasonably priced at well under $100 and are perfect for use as liners. They’re warm but also breathe and dry quickly. Adjust the blanket type and weight to the weather and horse’s coat. If it’s just the cold rain/snow that bothers him, you may find a rain sheet the right answer. If it’s also the cold temperature and wind, it may be time for a real turnout blanket. (For information on turnout blankets, see our September 2008 issue.)

Health Screening

Know your horse’s normal temperature, pulse and respiratory rate at various times of the day and seasons of the year. If you pay attention to these things, you’ll be more likely to notice when something is amiss, hopefully before a major problem develops in the horse.

Learn what feels normal for your horse (ears on a horse not running a fever are cool to the touch) and make it a habit to just quickly run your hand over the ears to check for increased temperature.

It’s also a good idea to weight tape your horse once a month, and pay attention to how much fat covering there is on the ribs. Many health issues that cause weight loss do so gradually and it’s easy to overlook — especially under all that winter hair.

Pay attention to the quantity and consistency of manure and report any changes to your vet. Check the body and legs for cuts or swellings, and always inspect the soles and frogs for injuries or punctures. Early detection and treatment keeps minor problems from becoming major issues.

Be alert to any change in how active your senior is, or even a minor lameness. Arthritis is much more responsive to joint nutraceuticals if you catch it early. Even a horse that was sound its entire career can develop arthritis later in life because they gradually lose resiliency in their cartilage.

Unexplained fall laminitis can be the first symptom of Cushing’s disease for some horses, occurring years before they develop the classical coat changes or any other symptoms. Cushing’s may also start as rapid weight/muscle loss and topline sag, both easily blamed on other things including age alone. Not all Cushing’s horses are fat. Pergolide treatment for Cushing’s disease is inexpensive, and the condition is easier to control if caught early.

Drug Costs

If you’re buying a prescription drug for your horse, be sure you’re getting the generic form if available. Many brand-name drugs, like Banamine and Lasix, have less expensive generic alternatives. You may also find that you can ask your veterinarian for a prescription for refills, so you can tackle the Internet and price hunt a little for discount pharmacies. Few veterinarians will object to this, but it is wise to buy the first dose from your vet so that treatment begins immediately. Sometimes, there are alternative drugs that can be used in place of pricier equine drugs (see July 2008 for additional information on drug options and cost).


There’s no question that the likelihood of dental problems of various types increases as the horse ages. Regular exams are a must. However, these sessions are stressful, involve heavy sedation and leave many seniors reluctant to eat well for a considerable time afterward. Basic dental care to keep the horse free from pain while eating coupled with dietary adjustments will keep the weight on your older horse.

Article by Dr. Eleanor Kellon.

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