Aging for horses, as with humans, aging isn’t always graceful or easy or fun. But, the good news is that a combination of routine care and a little TLC can keep senior horses healthy, comfortable and productive.
“Senior horses are going to have good days and bad days. We all do,” said Michael Stone, D.V.M. “Don’t write them off before their time; keep up on their preventatives.”
Stone, veterinarian and owner of Oak Harbor Veterinary Hospital, Inc. in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and owner of Belgian breeding farm, Oak Haven Belgians in Fremont, Ohio, says that senior draft horses can thrive with the appropriate care. In this article, he shares insights into the challenges that senior horses may experience and offers tips for keeping geriatric draft horses comfortable and healthy in their later years.
The golden years
In 2016, the Horse Network reported the passing of the world’s oldest living horse. Orchid, a Thoroughbred/Arabian cross, was living at the Remus Horse Sanctuary in Ingatestone, Essex, U.K. The retired broodmare was believed to be the world’s oldest equine when she passed away at the ripe old age of 50.
With Orchid’s lifespan an exception, Stone said it’s highly unlikely that draft horse breeds will live five decades like Orchid did. A half-century is even a long time for light horse breeds. He noted that he has seen Belgians live into their mid-20s, but notes that the majority of draft horses live to be 18 or 19.
Like large breed dogs, draft horses have shorter life expectancies than their smaller breed cousins. Strain on the musculoskeletal system, colic and heart problems tend to accelerate the aging process in draft horses. Routine care, such as dental care, wellness exams and practices, and nutrition, slows these age-related processes.
“Without regular floating of the horse’s teeth they can get quite sharp and painful. They may not be able to masticate their hay appropriately, (which) can lead to colic or nutritional issues,” Stone said.
Senior horses are also prone to developing periodontal disease, one of the most painful equine diseases. Horses are stoic when it comes to dentition problems. They may still eat despite a fractured tooth of periodontal disease. Regular checkups are important to prevent unnecessary suffering.
Nutrition is another aspect of routine care that should be monitored. As with humans, an older horse’s metabolism slows. “It’s important to make sure they’re not getting overly obese, which can cause problems with moving around and fire up arthritic conditions,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, senior horses may have difficulty keeping weight on. Losing weight can be attributed to dental problems and herd dynamics.
“It’s important to make sure they are not getting too thin, especially if they are grouped with other horses and low on the pecking order,” he said.
Nutrition impacts more than a horse’s weight. “Draft horses are more prone to laminitis so making sure they don’t get too heavy or too rich of feed is very important,” he added.
Sticking to a regular vaccination and deworming routine is as important for senior horses as for younger horses that may travel off the farm. Similar to aging humans, an older horse’s immunity weakens with age.
“Even though they may not be traveling or showing like they used to they are typically housed in close proximity to horses that are traveling, which puts them at risk,” he said.
Ouch, that hurts!
Joint pain, inflammation and stiffness are synonymous with aging. Degenerative joint disease can accumulate from years of moving their excess weight and from the concussion of working on hard surfaces. The aches and pains that accumulate from a lifetime of work isn’t limited to show or parade horses. Working horses may also experience an earlier onset of degenerative joint disease.
Providing older horses with lighter workloads and administering nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory can relieve the majority of discomfort.
“I think it is important to keep the horses as active as possible,” Stone said.
But some horses may be stiff and need some anti-inflammatory medications to help them with their mobility.
Keeping them healthy
Typically, draft horses require similar care as lighter breed horses. The biggest difference is their size and with size comes mobility issues and arthritic issues.
“Try to get these senior horses as much fresh air and exercise as possible,” Stone said. Exercise can be as simple as walking from one end of the pasture to another to reach a water tub or hay bale to hand-walking outings around the farm. Exercise encourages a horse’s musculoskeletal health and combats weakening bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Light “work” also keeps obesity in check and helps prevent colic, which can be more common in senior horses.
Before your horse develops an age-related medical condition, get to know his resting temperature, pulse and respiration. Track his vital signs and save them in an easily accessible location.
Read more: First Aid Guide for Draft Horses