Care of the older horse

We love our golden oldies at Redwings and we are passionate about their care. If you have an older horse, here are a few things to bear in mind; remember, what some consider to be signs of aging may actually be signs of disease. 

PPID
Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), also known as equine Cushings disease, is a common condition affecting older horses and ponies. It is related to problems in the functioning of the pituitary gland, which is found just beneath the brain. This gland plays a vital part in the production and regulation of hormones.

The signs of PPID include: a single episode or recurring episodes of laminitis, weight loss, sweating, increased drinking and urination, a thick coat, or increased susceptibility to infections. Watch this video to find out more:

Arthritis (also known as Osteoarthritis or Degenerative Joint Disease)
Osteoarthritis is where cartilage in the joints starts to break down. It is normally caused by just general wear and tear, which means it is quite hard to prevent.

It is a massive cause of lameness in older horses. In one survey, nearly 50% of horses over the age of 20 were suffering with some degree of lameness – some without their owners being aware. Lameness can quite often be the only sign of the onset of osteoarthritis. If you think your horse is lame, consult your vet for advice.

Sadly, osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but it can be managed so your horse can live a comfortable life. Your vet may recommend pain relief and simple changes to your horse’s lifestyle will help to keep him happy. Your horse may struggle to graze or eat from the floor if his forelimbs or neck are painful. Raising his feed bucket will help him feel more comfortable and will prevent weight loss. Choose flat paddocks as sloping or poached fields are difficult to walk on. Book regular foot trims because your horse will have to flex his limbs more if his toes are too long.

If your horse has osteoarthritis, make sure your horse has access to a cosy shelter and has a warm rug in the winter. Very gentle exercise can be helpful too. Let your horse potter around the paddock rather than cooped up in a stable. However, be guided by your vet, as your horse may need box rest at some point. 

Teeth care
Every horse should have a dental examination at least once a year. Some older horses may need one more regularly.  

Younger horses’ teeth can form sharp points on them as the teeth grind against each other. Vets can easily remove these by rasping them down. An older horse’s teeth can form sharp points too, but they also start to loosen and some fall out. This leaves gaps between the teeth where food can easily get stuck, leading to gum disease. If teeth are missing, the opposing tooth will have nothing to grind against and will form a sharp point more quickly. These horses should have a dental exam every six months.

A painful mouth is a common cause of weight loss in older horses. Other signs of dental problems include bad breath, quidding (dropping food from the mouth), loose droppings, food in the teeth or a snotty nose.

Weight control
It is important to keep an eye on your horse’s weight by body condition scoring and using a weigh tape every week. 

Being overweight can add to the pain of arthritis as well as reduce the body’s immunity to disease. It can also predispose a horse to inflammatory diseases such as osteoarthritis. See our latest Field Notes, "Lightening the load" for more advice and information.

Being underweight is common in older horses and is often accepted as normal. However it should never be accepted as normal. An underweight horse is either not being given the correct diet or has an underlying condition causing weight loss. 

If your horse is underweight despite adequate feeding, get your horse’s teeth checked and get a worm egg count done. If a worm burden or bad teeth are not the cause and the problem continues, consult your vet. 

Diet
Take your horse’s teeth and their physical condition into consideration when it comes to your horse’s diet. If your horse has liver or kidney disease or PPID your vet will advise you on a specialist diet. 

If your horse has lost a few teeth or is ‘smooth-mouthed’ (where the enamel grinding ridges on the molar teeth have worn away), they may not be able to chew hay very well. This can lead to weight loss, choke or even colic. Chopped forage or high fibre cubes (which can be soaked in warm water if it makes it easier for the horse to chew) are good alternatives. Remember to feed the horse little and often to mimic ‘ad-lib’ hay feeding. 

Vegetable oil or corn oil can be used to help with weight gain. They are high in calories and easy to digest. However, introduce them slowly as they can be unpalatable at first and too much can lead to a digestive upset. Feeds high in rice bran are also high in fat and may taste nicer! 

Many older horses benefit from increased protein levels in their feed, similar to that of a growing youngster. Many feeds designed for older horses often contain 14 to 16% protein. However, high protein feed should not be fed to those with liver disease. Consult your vet for a specialist diet.
 
Vaccinations
Contrary to popular belief, older horses should still have regular vaccinations. Older horses may have lowered immunity and should be kept fully protected against equine influenza and tetanus as they may be less able to fight disease and recover. 
 
Exercise
Your horse will tell you how much exercise he needs! If they enjoy it and are not suffering with lameness, then you can carry on with their normal activities! Even retired horses will benefit from hand-walking to keep muscles and ligaments toned. 

For more information, please email us at welfare@redwings.co.uk or call 01508 481008.

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