Keeping Your Geriatric Horse Healthy

The geriatric horse has a special place in many people’s hearts.  They are generally well-trained, calm, not likely to spook, and often have been part of the family for a long time. Along with their special qualities, the older equines have special health care needs. This article contains some recommendations to help keep a geriatric equine going strong.

Maintaining appropriate weight in a geriatric horse is the foundation of good health. Therefore, a nutritionally based feed program will provide the basis of a geriatric maintenance plan.

General guidelines include good quality grass hay such as orchard/timothy, or an up to 50 percent alfalfa mix for forage. Pure alfalfa has too much calcium and can affect the kidneys in a geriatric horse.

Alfalfa also has too much protein.   An adequate equine diet has a protein content of just 12-14 percent, whereas alfalfa can contain 20-22 percent protein. Adding a quality supplement with minerals, vitamins, as well as a fat (such as rice bran or whole/cold soaked flax seed) can complete the diet.

Frequent bran mashes are not recommended in the geriatric horse due to the high phosphorous content, which can negatively affect the kidneys. Soaking hay pellets with a senior feed offers a nutritional alternative for the geriatric horse that is unable to chew food adequately.

It is a good idea to avoid high sugar/high starch feeds in all horses, but especially our geriatric friends.  Read the labels of what is fed. If the feed looks like molasses and is sticky like molasses, it contains too much sugar. 

Finally, taking note of body condition changes is key to maintaining good health. Sudden or even gradual weight loss or weight gain can be an important signal to an underlying disease process. If either occurs, a veterinary exam is recommended.

Maintaining healthy feet and managing lameness problems are an important part of a geriatric management plan. The old adage, “no feet, no horse,” is correct.  Keeping up with farrier appointments will promote healthy feet and allow the farrier to identify any possible problems. 

Lameness issues should be identified and treated by a veterinarian.  The veterinarian is able to stop the cycle of chronic pain, or to offer a rest and rehabilitation program for new injuries. Chronic pain and unsoundness leads to weight loss, and general malaise. Conversely, in some patients, chronic pain leads to weight gain. 

Some geriatric horses end up with skin problems. Maintaining a good healthy coat starts with a good diet.  Supplementing with a fat such as an omega-3-fatty-acid promotes a healthy, shiny coat. Performing regular grooming sessions allows the owner to pick up on skin problems early. 

Grooming removes the sweat and dirt that clogs pores and provides a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria. Grooming alerts the owner to excessive weight loss or weight gain, even during the winter months when it can be difficult to visually assess the horse’s body condition.  Lastly, grooming can pick up small, but dangerous, deep wounds.

Elderly horses, like elderly people, need a moderate exercise program to keep the muscles and maintain flexibility in the body. Most geriatric horses have an element of arthritis in their joints. The best treatment for painful arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD) is movement.

Maintaining an exercise program tailored to the needs of the individual is important. If the older horse is an athlete, then by all means keep up the more rigorous exercise program. Be aware that the aging athlete may slow down over time. If the older horse is a true geriatric, giving adequate turnout and quiet trail rides may be all that is needed.

Finally, (my favorite subject) maintaining good health in a geriatric horse is of utmost importance.  Since the aging body does not leave much room for error, now is the time when every health management aspect should be employed.  This includes regular annual to semi annual veterinary exams.

Have the veterinarian take care of any dental issues that arise. Keep up with vaccinations. Maintain a consistent and effective worming program by worming every two months and rotating the products (look at the active ingredients). 

Include an annual blood panel to identify health issues early.  Cushing’s disease and insulin resistance tend to affect older horses, and both of these syndromes have medications and nutriceuticals that can help avoid their more serious symptoms. 

Lastly, when the geriatric horse has a medical problem, call the veterinarian and treat it quickly.

Horses are living longer than they ever have before. The main reason for this longevity is better nutrition, worming programs, and dental health. However, our geriatric horses will benefit even more from an all-around geriatric maintenance program. The goal is for our equine friends to enjoy the best health possible and a longer life.

Corine Selders, DMV, owns Cedar Creek Equine Veterinary Practice Inc. She lives in Ramona with her husband Todd and their two daughters. She may be contacted at 760-484-4426 or dr.selders@cedarcreekequine.com.

   
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