What things should I be looking out for to keep my older horse happy and comfortable?
Older horses, just like older people, can have wonderful athletic lives if we pay attention, take extra care, and practice good preventiative measures. Many things that you would check on a younger horse apply here also, and we'll throw in a few more for good measure that can really help the older guys out:
- Take your horse's temperature every day. Many horses can have a fever without showing signs (like lethargy and loss of appetite). This will alert you to possible problems and allow you plenty of time for isolation procedures.
- Inspect and touch legs every day, sometimes more than once. You are looking for scabs, scratches, cuts, inflammation, wind puffs, really anything that wasn't there yesterday. Older horses may take longer to heal and recover from injury, so catching even the smallest abnormality early helps.
- Run your hands over every inch of your horse. Older horses can develop growths in the mane, under tails, around sheaths and udders, and really just about anywhere. Check daily.
Old and spunky!
- Routinely check teeth and inside of the cheeks. For older horses, make sure you notice how they eat their hay, pasture, and grain. Horses that drop their food, have weird smells coming from their mouths or nostrils, or resist eating the thicker strands of hay often have tooth issues. Your Veterinarian should inpsect your older horse's mouth at least twice a year and perform any floating or corrections as needed.
- Expect that they will become "harder keepers". Monitor weight with a tape on a regular basis. Use your fingers to feel for ribs. The number of holes on the girth is not accurate - you may use different saddle pads, and leather stretches. The underlying causes of a horse being a "hard keeper" are many, and outlined here. You can also read this gem for tips on helping the hard keeper.
- Keep your older horse moving. The saying "use it or lose it" applies. Exercise will help your older horse stay loose, keep muscle tone, and have some valuable brain stimulus. Try and avoid your older horse becoming a weekend warrior, a little bit of exercise every day is better than marathon sessions on the weekend.
Taking the old gents for a spin!
- Be conscious of his blanketing needs in winter. Does he need a neck piece for some more warmth?
- Monitor him for signs of metabolic issues. Fat deposits, hair growth (or loss), cresty necks, etc. Be sure to talk to your Veterinarian about how to spot early signs. Many Veterinarians routinely perform blood tests to check for metabolic issues - long before signs show up.
- Understand that his warm up and cool down may take longer. Take more walk breaks if you need to when exercising. Consult with your Veterinarian and Trainer about appropriate levels of fitness and exercise for your older guy.
I personally have an older horse, he will be 25 this year. He exercises 6 days a week, and still has the moves. I have added the following things into his life just to be on the safe side.
- A set of hoof x-rays to make sure his shoeing job is on target, about every 6 months. (a good idea for any horse, really.)
- Basic blood work and urinalysis done about every 6 months, just to check.
- Check ups with the Veterinarian for some flexions, even if I don't feel like he's "off". I'd rather catch it early than when some arthritis makes him really "off".
- Preventative maintance with joint supplements.
- Ice treatments after an exercise session (also a good idea for everyone!). Rubdowns, poultice, liniments, and extra care for his legs often. Massages!
- I allow him, and encourage him, to be a horse. Lots of rolling for his back and neck. I'll deal with the dirt.
- Extra (low sugar) treats. Just because.
Noticing changes over time - like hoof health and hair coat - are hard to do, but critical for the health of your older dude. Or dudette.
For any horse in your care, regardless of age, it's up to you as the caretaker to work with your group of Equine Professionals to determine the program and monitor for changes.
Did I miss anything? What's your best tip for caring for the older horse?