There is no set point in a horse’s life when it becomes elderly. Usually, a horse coming up on age 20 can be considered geriatric. If a horse is well-cared for throughout its life, it will suffer fewer infirmities.
But if parasite control, teeth issues, vaccines, nutrition or hoof care are neglected, the horse will age quicker. A lifetime grand total of environmental stresses will dictate a biological age rather that actual years.
A lot of horses that have lived in harsh environs will look older that they actually are. Their teeth and mouth will appear hard, while a horse that has lived in nice fields and consumed nice quality hay will have a younger, softer mouth.
Most old horses have some degree of arthritis or other osteo issues in the musculoskeletal system. There are many products on the market available in catalogs to help joints and bones, and there is still good, old Bute, though it should not be used long-term.
Changes in teeth cause the inability to grind grain or course hay, and the results are poor digestion of feed, increased risk of colic and weight loss.
Sometimes a horse has worn down the front incisors and can no longer graze on grass. Points on the molars near the cheek are a major concern. If it hurts the horse to eat it will simply quit, with resulting weight loss.
Always have the Vet rasp or “float” the teeth once or twice a year. Some old horses need their teeth done every 3 months. Check for broken or rotten teeth, too. A quick kiss on his nose can give you a hint of trouble if his breath isn’t hay-sweet.
For your older horse, choose a nice second cutting for the hay along with a “complete feed.”
Complete feeds are supposed to replace hay, with vitamins and minerals added, and since they are pelleted, they are easier to chew for an old guy. They can also be wet down with warm water, to make a mash, and this is recommended since the pellets are dry and old horses do not produce much saliva. The mash can help prevent choke.
A top-dress of corn oil will supplement fat intake; again, consult your Vet.
Barring injury or disease, did you know vision and hearing in older horses doesn’t decline with age? However, they do experience loss of taste.
Make sure he has access to plenty of good, fresh water, and clean or scrub the bucket or tub daily.
During cold weather, a safe water heater may be added, to keep water from freezing. If you have troublemakers like mine, who like to play, fuss or pull on things, then a water heater is out.
You will have to carry hot water to mix into the water buckets, at least twice a day. Horses don’t like to drink freezing water.
Don’t be lazy about breaking ice and emptying buckets to clean them. Ever go to a restaurant or bar and take a nice, long pull of a beverage, only to discover a cruddy glass?
Everyone likes a nice drink from a clean receptacle.
Snow is never acceptable in place of good water, since the horse must waste energy heating the cold snow, which is then internalized.
The idea of managing a geriatric horse is to help him maintain a good weight level, and snow will never help do that when he has to waste energy trying to stay warm.
Talk to a good Horseman about blanketing. Blankets help conserve energy, but there are things to know about fitting and denier/fiber fills so as to insure he is like Goldilocks, and not too hot and not too cold; this one’s just right. Remove it at least once or twice a week for some heavy currying and grooming. Check for sores or tight spots.
An old horse may become low-man of the totem pole and no longer have a dominant status in the hierarchy. Young, aggressive horses run the geriatric individual off from hay piles, even harass, thus causing stress.
It is obvious that the old horse should be removed from the situation and fed separately. Everyone should be allowed to eat in peace, don’t you think? I do.
Many an old horse can live quite comfortably if given just a little extra attention.
Additional bedding in the stall or shelter can really help the comfort level for old bones; you have a nice, soft, warm bed to sleep in every night, don’t you?
Be kind to your horse is his old age, as he has toiled hard for you or shown his heart out in the ring for you. Let him retire to a nice field with grass, check on him often and give him a soft bed to sleep on at night.
Take time to give him a touch on the cheek or speak a kind word in his ear; you never when he’ll be gone for good .
Allow him to move slow; he may have arthritis, and someday your knees might be done for and you’ll wish you had taken care of them. - To next page
Forgive his indiscretions, as there may come a time when he is no longer around that you may wish he was there pulling one of them on you.
Be patient with him and think twice before shuffling him along to the sale while you line up your next champion.
You, too, will be ancient and elderly someday; may you always be cared for with good food and water, something to ease your pain, a soft place to sleep and a kind word from someone who cares.
They say old horses never die...
Sometimes the sun sets before we know it. So long, folks, for this week.
Look ahead to my interview with local horseman and Park Pony Track legend, Don Weyel.
He has had ponies longer that I’ve even been alive and he told me once that some of them have lived into their 50's and even into their 60's.
Be thankful; it is a good time of year to acknowledge our blessings. Enjoy the good summer picnic food, and go for a jaunt through the fields before settling in to watch baseball.
Closing for now with the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”
The aforementioned article is meant as a guideline and not Veterinary analysis. Always consult a qualified Vet for a program of feeding, caring and management of geriatric horses.