Feed, Feet, Teeth, Preventative Care, and TLC
Gail M. Staines, Ph.D.
Founder, The Senior Horse
We all want our horses to live long, active, and healthy lives. Essentially this boils down to 5 basic, and necessary, things that we must do as caretakers of senior equines: feed, feet, teeth, preventative care, and TLC.
FEED: As a horse ages, their digestive system changes. According to the AAEP (n.d.), as a horse gets older, their digestive system becomes less efficient.
“Hormonal and metabolic changes affect or interfere with their ability to digest, absorb and utilize essential nutrients in their feed, especially protein, phosphorus and fiber.” – AAEP
Roughage remains the basis of a horse’s diet. Consider nutritional options that are easier to both chew and swallow with enough high-quality fiber to help the horse digest its food. Before making any changes to your horse’s diet, check with your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist.
FEET: Older horses’ hooves still grow! Sometimes the toe may grow faster than the heel, but your senior equine will still require expert hoof care. It may be difficult for a senior horse to stand to have all four feet done at one time. KER (2017) recommends having the farrier trim two hooves, give the horse a rest (maybe by having the farrier do another horse), then finish the other two hooves. Cleaning out the hooves daily allows us to inspect each foot for anything that looks out of the ordinary.
TEETH: One of the more dramatic changes that a senior horse may experience is changes in their teeth. Due to advances in equine nutrition, horses are almost wearing out their teeth before they pass away. Over the life of the equine, the top of the teeth wear down due to chewing (grinding) their food. The teeth continually erupt, replacing the top part of the tooth. As a horse ages, the horse runs out of tooth to erupt. As a result, the senior equine may lose teeth, break teeth, and be prone to difficult infections (such as an abscessed tooth). (Thomas, 2020) Your older horse should have its teeth examined by an equine dentist at least once per year.
PREVENTATIVE CARE: Horses that have regular preventative care provided by an equine veterinarian can help to keep your senior equine healthy for a longer period of time. This means regular vaccinations and regular de-worming, both based on your horse’s geographic location. There have been significant changes in de-worming schedules and products to use in the past few years.
“Traditional parasite control programs feature rotational use of dewormers at regular intervals. This strategy is 40 years old and was designed to eliminate highly pathogenic large strongyles. This strategy was very successful and disease from large strongyles is now very rare.” – Penn State Extension
Even though large strongyles may not be an issue, small strongyles and other parasites remain a significant equine health problem. Before de-worming your horse, ask your veterinarian to perform a FEC (fecal egg count) and provide recommendations for the type of de-wormer to use. This should be followed-up with a second FEC after de-worming.
TLC: It goes without saying that all horses, especially older ones, need a lot of TLC – tender loving care. Even if your horse is no longer able to be ridden, you can provide them with much love and care. If your horse is able, hand walking for 30 minutes daily is a good goal. This keeps your horse’s muscles and joints moving and the circulation system pumping. One day a week, give your horse a spa day. Even if it is too cold to bathe, you can do a complete grooming. Just take your time and make it a relaxing experience – for both of you!
“Horses vary greatly from individual to individual, and there are no hard and fast rules for caring for horses, geriatric or otherwise. Comprehending the underlying reasons for difficulties that might arise in aging horses will help owners and caregivers to make educated management decisions in older horse care.” – Johnson, Duberstein, & Shuffitt (2019)
We all want the best for our senior horses and it is difficult to watch them decline as they age. Staying diligent by monitoring their feed, providing regular hoof and dental care, continuing with preventative care, and a lot of TLC will great assist in ensuring that your horse leads a good quality of life.
AAEP. (n.d.). Older Horses: Special Care & Nutrition. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/older-horse-special-care-nutrition#
Foulk, D. (2017). Parasite Management: Fecal Egg Count Test Considerations and Protocols. Penn State Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/parasite-management-fecal-egg-count-test-considerations-and-protocols
Johnson, E., Duberstein, K., & Shuffitt, M. Caring for the Older Horse: Common Problems and Solutions. University of Florida. IFAS Extension. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/an253
KER. (2017). Don’t Neglect Hoof Care for Senior Horses. EquiNews Nutrition & Health Daily. https://ker.com/equinews/dont-neglect-hoof-care-senior-horses/
Thomas, H. (2020). Senior Horse Dental Health. The Horse. https://thehorse.com/113745/senior-horse-dental-health/