6 Simple Spring Safeguards for Senior Horses

Ensure your senior horse or pony is prepared for a healthy and happy year ahead.
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Spring has nearly sprung, and it’s the ideal time to ensure your senior horse or pony is prepared for a healthy and happy year ahead. Consider these six simple steps, said senior horse expert Amanda Adams, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky (UK) Gluck Equine Research Center who established and oversees the UK Aged Horse Research Center.

Know What’s Normal. Take and record your senior horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rate. Keeping your horse’s baseline vital signs at hand can help you identify abnormal signs quicker and, thus, allow for more rapid treatment when potential health issues arise.

For an adult horse, the normal vital sign ranges are:

  • Temperature: 99° to 101°F
  • Pulse: 28 to 44 beats per minute
  • Respiration: 10 to 24 breaths per minute

Remember that each horse is an individual, and their averages might lie slightly outside the normal ranges. If questions arise or you’re concerned about a vital sign reading, contact your veterinarian.

Schedule a Wellness Exam. Have your veterinarian conduct a wellness exam—which can include an overall health check, body condition scoring, a peek at the teeth, a general soundness assessment, and more—to see how your aging equid came through winter and what he or she might need to stay healthy.

Additionally, endocrine conditions—such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), insulin dysregulation (ID), and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID)—are common in senior horses and can significantly impact how individuals react to spring grass.

“Your veterinarian might recommend laboratory testing to ensure new conditions haven’t developed or existing ones haven’t worsened since your horse’s last exam,” Adams said.

Secure Spring Shots. Studies from Adams’ laboratory have shown that horses’ immune function diminishes as they age, a phenomenon called immunosenescence. This can leave them more susceptible to common infectious diseases.  Fortunately, spring vaccinations can help keep them healthy.

Core vaccines—which veterinarians generally recommend for all horses—include:

  • Tetanus
  • Rabies
  • Eastern equine encephalomyelitis (EEE)
  • Western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE)
  • West Nile virus (WNV)

Based on your horse’s lifestyle, your veterinarian might also recommend risk-based vaccines such as those against botulism, equine influenza, Potomac horse fever, or strangles.

Don’t Forget Deworming. Studies have shown that older equids tend to have higher fecal egg counts (FECs) than their younger counterparts. To provide optimum protection against parasites, run an FEC early in the year and deworm your senior horse based on the results.

Additionally, Adams encourages owners to assess dewormers’ efficacy on their farms using an FEC reduction test (performing an FEC before and about two weeks after deworming).

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Consider Body Clipping. Researchers know an abnormally long, thick hair coat and delayed shedding are common in horses with PPID and can even persist with treatment. They also know aged equids are less efficient at maintaining an appropriate body temperature than younger horses.

“Body clipping senior horses with a thick coat that’s slow to shed can help them stay cool as temperatures rise,” Adams said.

Extra groomings can also help horses shed out quicker, she added, potentially eliminating the need to body clip.

Start Work Slowly. Finally, if you plan to bring your senior horse back into work after a winter break, take it slow. Study results have shown it takes longer for older equids to gain fitness than their younger counterparts, so give your horse plenty of time to re-adapt to exercise.

But, Adams said, don’t let this discourage you from working your equine senior: “We know that as humans age, low-impact exercise is important to help maintain muscle mass. This also holds true for our senior horses. Keeping them busy with appropriate exercise can help them stay active even as they age.”

Find more information about the UK Aged Horse Research Center at seniorhorsehealth.com.

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