Just as people age and eventually grow old, so do horses (see Horse Age for a mapping between horse years and human years). The symptoms of old age are much the same for both horses and people, such as: arthritis and stiff joints, decrease in strength and endurance, weaker vision and development of cataracts, reduced vision, hair loses shine and becomes gray, reduced muscle mass, weakening of internal organs, increased risk of disease of heart or lungs or other organs.
Although you cannot stop a horse from aging, you can influence how fast and how well it ages, which we discuss in our article Horse Aging Factors. However, even if you slow down the aging process, an old horse needs to be treated somewhat differently to a younger horse, partly due to the natural effects of aging and partly due to certain diseases and medical conditions which are more common in the senior horse. In particular:
- Temperature. Aged horses can easily become chilled in winter or overheat in summer. See 'Cold and Heat' below for actions to prevent this.
- Food. Malnutrition and excessive weight loss are very common in older horses, even though they can usually be prevented with appropriate care (see 'General Nutrition' below).
- Age related illnesses. As discussed below, there are a number of common diseases and problems common in older horses. While they cannot always be prevented, prompt attention can minimize the effects.
- Bullying. Horses are herd animals and require other horses (or horse substitutes) for their mental well being. At the same time, one needs to ensure that the older horse is not bullied by younger and stronger horses. For guidance on how to achieve these objectives, see Horse Stress.
Cold and Heat
Older horses are less able to cope with cold (especially when wet and windy) or extreme heat. As your horse ages, weather conditions which may have been acceptable in his younger years can be uncomfortable or even dangerous in his older years. Possible actions include:
- Shelter. Erect a simple shelter on the fields which will protect him from the wind and rain during the winter, and from the sun during the summer. A 3-sided structure facing away from the prevailing wind is quite beneficial. If one builds a 4-sided structure and there is more than one horse on the field, there should be a minimum of 2 doors so that a dominant horse will not trap another inside.
- Stable Access. If a horse can move freely between its stable and the pasture, it has the option to feed during the most comfortable times (e.g. daytime during the winter, night time during the summer) and can come in from the pasture to rest as required.
- Rug. During wet or cold weather, a horse rug can help the horse stay warm and dry.
- Warmed Water. During winter, horses can be chilled not only by the weather, but by drinking very cold water. Furthermore, horses drink more if the water is not too cold (a study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine determined that horses drink 40% if the water is warmed). Since colic can be caused by either the horse drinking insufficiently or by being chilled, warming the water reduces both risks.
- Winter Nutrition: During the winter, horses require additional energy to warm their bodies. At the same time, pasture grass looses much of its nutritional value, and is in more limited supply as well. Younger horses compensate by living off their physical reserves, in particular stored fat. However, older horses often have less fat, and in any case are less efficient at converting their body fat into heat. Consequently, their diet should have an additional supplement of high-energy foods (e.g. grain) during cold weather.
Older horses are often underweight or even starving. Common causes of this include:
- Bullying by other horses. If the horses are fed together (e.g. from a common hay feeder), younger and stronger horses may prevent the older horse from getting his share. This can simply be due to the younger horses eating it all first or due to bullying where the older horse is kept away from the feeding area.
- Dental Problems. Problems with the teeth or gums can make it difficult for the horse to eat enough (e.g. if the teeth are worn down excessively) or painful (e.g. if the teeth have 'spurs', making chewing painful).
- Jaw Joint. Like teeth, the joints in the jaw wear down over time and old horses may reduce the amount they eat due to pain in the jaw joints when they chew. The symptoms of this problem (e.g. weight loss, partly eaten hay balls) are similar to dental issues and joint problems are sometimes misdiagnosed (even by vets) as dental issues.
- Weakened digestive system. Even if a horse can eat sufficiently (none of the above issues), as it ages it becomes less able to break down food and absorb nutrients.
The solution obviously depends on the problem. If this issue it bullying, consideration should be given to putting it in a smaller herd or with other older horses. At the very least, it should be provided substantial food separately (e.g. in its box) so that it gets enough to eat.
Some dental issues can be resolved by a horse dentist (e.g. tooth spurs) while others have no solution (e.g. teeth worn down). Jaw joints which are simply worn down also have no solution. However, while one cannot solve the problem, one can treat it. Typically this is done by supplementing with high energy foods (such as grain) or foods that require less chewing (e.g. grass instead of hay or mash instead of grass). In mild cases one need to provide only a small amount of supplemental food, while in more severe cases the horse may need to get most of its input from high energy or low chew food. However, even in severe cases where the horse is unable to obtain much from hay or grass, they should still be provided as much hay and grass as they can eat, as the fiber is important to physical health and chewing is an important part of the horse's daily mental stimulation.
Mares have been bred successfully into their 20s and even their 30s, giving birth to healthy foals without any apparent health problems for either mare and foal. However, from the teens onwards, the ability of a mare to conceive decreases, while the risk of health issues to both mare and foal (including terminated pregnancy or birthing a dead foal) increase. Consequently, one needs to consider carefully the risks when breeding with an older mare.
When breeding with an older mare, if the mare has had foals before, the risk of complications is lower than if the older mare is having its first foal. The main exception to this are mares which have previously had breeding issues or which have been damaged (including scaring of the uterus or birth canal) by previous pregnancies or births.
In the case of a stallion, health risks are minimal in the case of artificial insemination or assisted mating. Field mating can be more risky when an old stallion is paired with a younger and healthier mare, as the mare may damage him directly (e.g. an older stallion may not be as quick on his feet when avoiding kicks) or the stallion may chase her to the point of exhaustion (risk of heart attack or bleeding in lungs).
Common Aging issues
Like people, the signs and symptoms of aging can take many forms. Some of the more common indications are:
- Vision. Eyesight declines with old age and in particular night vision. So, be careful when riding or walking an old horse as it can run into trees, walls or other items. Cataracts are also common (indicated by a milky white appearance in the eyes).
- Hearing. Older horses may not hear as clearly and consequently may not respond as before to verbal instructions. You may need to speak a bit louder and be more patient.
- Weight. Some loss of muscle is common with age. As horses become less active with age, they may also put on weight. Alternatively (see 'General Nutrition' above), they may lose excessive amounts of weight due to problems with chewing or digesting food.
- Lethargy. Older horses become less active and tire more easily. If this happens gradually, no special action needs to be taken aside from taking care to match the horse's activity level to its ability.
- Joint Problems. Stiffness or pain in joints is common with elderly horses, which can be caused by 'wear and tear' or can be caused by arthritis. If the horse is still being worked, the level of work needs to be reduced to the point where the horse is comfortable and joints are not subject to excessive strain.
- Hormones. Hormone production can be too high (e.g. due to tumors on the hormone glands) or too low (e.g. due to glands becoming less productive with age). This can result in excessive lethargy or to specific diseases (e.g. Cushings Disease). Depending on the exact problem, a number of treatments are available (discuss with a veterinarian specializing in horses).
- Internal Organs. Internal organs can become weaker and function less effectively. The most common problem spots are lungs, heart, liver and kidney. If you detect a general decline in the horse's health or energy, consult a horse veterinarian about possible causes and treatments.
To some extent, these problems are a normal part of aging and must be accepted. After all, a 30 year old horse is not going to be the same as a 10 year old. However, one should carefully watch and monitor your horses's behavior and health to detect the early stages of any problems, as the severity can often be moderated by appropriate treatment.
In the event that the horse reaches the point that it is in excessive pain or life has become a burden, the responsible and caring owner will consider euthanasia, taking the difficult decision when the time is appropriate. As hard as this may be, true love is thinking of what is right for the animal no matter how hard it is to part from it.
Caring for Senior Horses
The basics for a senior horse are much the same as for any other horse. These include good quality bedding and hay, worming, contact with other horses and so on (see our Top Ten tips). The above discussion indicates areas that of particular concern. Having cared for many older horses, my top suggestions would be:
- Maintain Correct Weight. One should also watch the horse's weight closely. A bit of excess weight in a younger horse is not so bad but too much excess weight in an older horse puts unnecessary stress on joints and spine. On the other hand, one should monitor closely and react quickly if the horse starts losing weight. Firstly since weight loss may be the first indication of a problem which needs to be resolved. Secondly because it can be very difficult for an old horse to regain muscle and weight so it is important that the horse does not become underweight as this could leave it in a weakened state in the event of a subsequent problem. It is not uncommon for otherwise healthy older horses to starve to death simply because they are given food which is too difficult for them to eat or digest (see 'General Nutrition' above).
- Moderate Exercise. Another common issue with senior horses is too much exercise or too little. Some owners continue to ride horses even when they are too old (a particular issue with 'school horses', where business considerations can prevail over the horse's welfare). The opposite issue is too little exercise, where the 'retired' horse is simply left in a box. Even old horses need moderate exercise (even if it is just walking about a large pasture); if they are simply left in a stall their muscles will atrophy and their joints become stiff.
- Regular Checkups and Observation. Keep a close eye on the horse and have a complete checkup (including blood tests) at least once a year. Problems which are found in the early stages are more easily managed.