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Understanding The Needs of The Senior Horse: Environment

For this third part in my senior horse series I am going to cover some environmental factors that may negatively impact your senior horses.  Unfortunately these are often stressors that have been handled perfectly well in the past and your first indication that they have not handled it well is loss of condition.  Therefore knowing ahead of time that these sources of stress can be an issue for older horses can help you take precautions to lessen the risk.

When I get called to assist with a senior horse that is losing condition I find that the answer sometimes lies in changes that have occurred completely unrelated to diet. Senior horses do not always handle changes of environment as well. Relocation to new barns and adjusting to new schedules, diets, herd members etc can be very stressful.

As a child I remember my mother having to retire her previously active 24 year old horse due to an injury he sustained.  She moved him to a pasture situation with upwards of 10 other horses.  He had always been out in pasture with other horses but only 2 or 3.  Slowly, despite copious feed he faded away.  Whether it was the change in routine, no more riding, or having to compete with a larger group of horses he was clearly not happy.

Retirement can be a hard change of pace and some horses really miss having a job.  If you have to retire your senior horse try to make sure they know they are still special.  Take them on hand walks, give them long grooming sessions, perhaps find a lower level rider who can give them a job, all be it less stressful.

Pain, even low grade pain results in stress and an elevated metabolic rate that causes more calories to be burned and therefore fewer calories available to maintain weight.  Additionally, horses suffering from pain may be less apt to fight for their place in the pecking order resulting in them being at the bottom of the pile and less competitive in shared feeding situations.  Arthritis pain may reduce desire to move long distances to reach food.

Removing horses from shared feeding situations in order to feed supplemental feed may be necessary. Or putting your senior horse in a smaller enclosed space over night in order to eat forage in peace can be beneficial. When senior horses are retired it may be tempting to stop expensive joint support practices but discuss this decision with your vet to determine whether this is the best decision for your horse.  You may also need to maintain them on a low level of pain medication like Equioxx, something else to discuss with your vet.

Another area that is tempting to cut back on is hoof care.  Many senior horses have their shoes pulled especially if they are no longer working.  However removing shoes may not be the best option.  Whether shod or barefoot it is important to maintain a regular schedule of hoof care which will insure that your horse is maintaining an adequate base of support.

Winter is the time of year when owners tend to report the most noticeable loss of condition in their senior and geriatric horses.  Seniors do not have the same ability to handle cold weather as their younger counter parts.  This may be due to having less fat coverage (body fat is insulating), and or hormonal changes.

Things you can do to support your senior horse during the colder months include; blanketing which helps reduce the calories needed to maintain body temperature leaving more calories to maintain condition, and feeding more fiber which is digested through a process of microbial fermentation that releases heat helping to keep your horse warm from the inside.  Insure that you are feeding higher quality hay with a good leaf to stem ratio that will be easier to chew and digest.  Consider adding super fibers like beet pulp that are also fermented in the hindgut but that yield more calories per pound than hay.

Be careful to watch for adequate water intake as reduced intake may increase the risk of impaction colic and choke.  Add table salt to your horses ration year round at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 500lbs body weight.  Soaking hay or adding water to their concentrate feeds is another great way of increasing water intake.  Keep in mind too that research has shown that horses prefer tepid water over cold water so trough heaters can be a good investment.

Not only are senior and geriatric horses less able to handle cold temperatures, starting in their late teens they also have a harder time in hot weather.  Reduced plasma volume means they have less fluid available for sweat so they run the risk of overheating.  Frequent rest breaks during exercise in hot weather can be very helpful.  In fact research shows that when given frequent rest breaks they will recover as quickly as younger horses.  Consider riding early in the morning or evening when it is less hot and be sure to educate yourself about the signs of heat stress. For both heat and cold providing adequate shelter is an important consideration.  This need not be a fancy shelter, trees planted in the correct location can be perfectly adequate.

Thinking ahead should be a key component of managing any horse but is particularly important for the senior horse.  Take time to consider how your horse may react to the potential stressors mentioned here and take steps to minimize disruption.  Have a plan ahead of time for what you will do should things not go smoothly.

I would love to hear readers experience of managing their senior horses.  What have you done to handle the things discussed within this article?  Have you identified stressors for your senior horse that I did not include here?  Please leave your comments and questions below.

Creative Commons License
Understanding The Needs of The Senior Horse: Environment by Clair Thunes PhD of Summit Equine Nutrition LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Published: Apr 05, 2012
Last Modified: 
June 26, 2024 @ 5:33 pm

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