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Make Your Horse's Golden Years Even Better

By Cynthia McFarland

It's not the years so much as the miles.

There's a lot of truth in that saying, especially when it comes to horses. For every horse who’s still being happily ridden well into his twenties, there are plenty of others who appear "elderly" much earlier.

The trusty old schoolmaster used for lessons and showing on a regular basis has a lot more miles on him than the backyard trail horse.

And just like humans, all horses don't age the same. Some are still used regularly into their twenties, while others are retired well before then.

Think back to Bucephalus, the high-strung yet beloved mount of Alexander the Great. The mighty stallion was ridden in battle after battle, covering thousands of miles over the years, and died in 326 BC at the age of 30.

Stroller might have only stood 14.1 hands, but his jumping talent earned him a spot on the British team at the 1968 Olympics. The gallant little horse was still winning competitions at the age of 20 and lived to be 36 years old.

The durable Thoroughbred racehorse John Henry got better as he got older. In a sport where six is considered "old," John Henry earned $6,591,860, winning 39 races — including a remarkable 16 Grade I stakes races — and was Horse of the Year at ages six and nine.

Aging Challenges

Most horses are considered "seniors" once they hit 15. Whether your horse is 15 or much older, it's important to know that horses face specific challenges as they age, such as:

  • Dental issues; difficulty chewing
  • Teeth wear down; may fall out
  • Reduced saliva due to less chewing

  • Stiffness due to prolonged exercise
  • Changes in hoof growth; hoof instability
  • May be more prone to allergies
  • Less efficient digestion of feed and absorption of nutrients
  • Decreased gastrointestinal function
  • Decreased mobility of joints due to prolonged exercise
  • Longer muscle recovery time after exercise
  • Lack of muscle tone
  • Changes in weight and body condition
  • Reduced coat quality

The good news is that despite these challenges, today’s horses are living longer, healthier lives, primarily because of advances in equine nutrition and veterinary medicine. 

And remember — even if you haven't swung a leg over his back for years, your older horse still needs routine health care: vaccinations, deworming, hoof care, dental exams, grooming and protection from insect pests.

What to Watch For

Monitor your older horse's body condition closely, noticing if he’s gaining or losing weight. If he's lost weight and condition, and/or his coat condition isn't what it should be, your veterinarian may want to draw blood for testing. Depending on blood test results, your veterinarian may recommend a feeding plan to meet your horse's specific needs.

If you haven't done so yet, you may want to talk with your veterinarian about changing your older horse to a senior feed, which is a commercial, balanced ration that is designed to meet the needs of older horses and is easily chewed and digested.

If your veterinarian rules out health issues, your older horse may just need to be on a senior feed, which is a commercial, balanced ration designed to meet the needs of older horses and is easily chewed and digested.

Even if you haven't swung a leg over his back for years, your older horse still needs routine health care: vaccinations, deworming, hoof care, dental exams, grooming and protection from insect pests.

You'll want to watch your horse eat and look for any changes. One sign your horse is having trouble chewing properly is "quidding," or dropping wads ("quids") of chewed hay or grass. Dropping grain while eating can also be a sign that dental attention is needed. 

When feedstuffs aren't chewed adequately, this can cause gastrointestinal upset.In addition, when the teeth can't grind and break down feed, digestibility decreases, and the horse may not be getting the nutrients that he should. 

Supplemental Help

Most senior horses would benefit from a supplement designed specifically for their unique requirements. With that in mind, Farnam recently created a new supplements designed specifically for this segment of the equine population: Farnam® Senior Health & Wellness.

Senior Health & Wellness was developed for senior horses who are fully retired or only used lightly or for occasional work.

"Some horses are on a senior feed, but can't be fed the recommended amounts because they would get too heavy, and this can shortchange them on vitamins and minerals they need," observes Richard G. Godbee, PhD, PAS, Dipl. ACAS. Godbee is Director of Technical Services – Equine for Farnam, Vita-Flex and Horse Health. 

"Senior Health & Wellness contains beneficial vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can help fill in any nutritional gaps and meet the requirements of senior horses," explains Godbee. "It also contains a yeast that serves as a prebiotic to aid in digestion. This helps promote healthy gut function and digestion of fiber the horse is eating, so it helps the horse get the most out of the forage he's eating."

Simply give the recommended amount of product with your horse's daily ration. The extruded nuggets are so palatable, horses eat them readily. The supplement can be fed year-round.

Tip #1: Don't Neglect Dental Care for Older Horses

Your senior horse still needs regular dental exams, even if he's no longer ridden or is only ridden on occasion. It's not unusual for an older horse to lose teeth and wear his remaining teeth down close to the gum line, making it tough to chew properly. When that happens, he's at risk of gastrointestinal upset and may not be able to absorb enough nutrients from his feed if the feedstuff isn't broken down by chewing. You may need to feed a complete senior feed that’s moistened to make it easy to chew. For roughage, you might want to offer hay cubes that have been soaked to form a “mash.” Maintain regular dental care and talk to your equine dentist and veterinarian to outline a feeding plan that’s best for your particular horse.

Tip #2: How Do Horses Age Compared to Us?

For the first three years of life, a horse ages approximately six and a half years for every human year. After the third year, the horse’s aging slows in comparison. A three-year-old horse is about the same as an 18-year-old human. A 10-year-old horse is similar to a 35-year-old person, while a 20-year-old horse is about the same as a 60-year-old person. If a horse lives to the ripe old age of 36, that is comparable to 100 years for a human. The longest-lived horse on record is "Old Billy," a barge horse in England who lived to the amazing age of 62. (That computes to approximately 190 human years!)

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