Six Steps to Keeping Senior Performance Horses Healthy

Riding, owning, and loving a senior horse can be bittersweet. You’ve had years, maybe decades, of experiences together, and while he’s still spry at the moment, you know that, eventually, old age will catch up to him. The good news is decades of research and experience have provided veterinarians with more tools and tactics to keep aging horses healthy and active longer than ever. It just takes a little senior horse health knowledge, medical support, and a good care team.

At the University of Kentucky’s senior horse care mini-symposium, held Sept. 28 in Lexington, Marian G. Little, DVM, described a step-wise approach to maintaining aged performance horses’ health and wellness. Little is a Paris, Kentucky-based technical veterinarian for American Regent, Inc.

A 2015 National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) survey confirmed what many equine industry members had long observed: The percentage of the horse population aged 20 years and older has increased to 11.4%, up from 7.6% and 5.6% in 2005 and 1998, respectively, Little said. This means there’s a growing need for care tailored to senior horses, many of which are still actively competing and/or teaching novice riders. She said the multiple goals behind senior horse wellness programs include:

  • Extending the “health span” as well as the lifespan;
  • Maximizing performance years (which is beneficial for both financial and sentimental reasons, she said, because owners have often invested a substantial amount of time, money, and emotions into older horses);
  • Keeping the horse at his original performance level and, at some point, a lower level; and
  • Maintaining a good quality of life.

Little said these goals can be achieved when the horse’s care team:

  • Knows what’s normal for the horse—chances are, any variation is either normal aging or signs of an age-related medical problem that might be manageable. Of course, it’s essential to know the difference between those, as well, she said. For example, those gray hairs speckled on your horse’s face and his slight swayback are probably normal signs of age. The extra-long haircoat that never seems to shed completely is not normal—it’s one of the hallmark signs of pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID, one of the most common health problems in senior horses. Little said subtle longer, lighter hairs or loss of topline muscling might also signal the onset of PPID. “Owners should be alert to any physical or behavioral changes that are ‘different’ and could indicate a medical problem unrelated to typical aging,” she said;
  • Takes steps to delay the onset of age-related changes, such as muscle wasting and exercise intolerance. Keeping senior horses in a regular work routine at a level that doesn’t overexert them can help in both respects;
  • Recognizes and intervenes in age-related disease early. “Owner recognition of disease can be challenging,” Little said, but veterinarians can help explain what to watch for; and
  • Is proactive and begins managing horses for their senior years in their teens.

An easy way to manage those tasks is for veterinarians to offer—and owners to make use of—wellness programs tailored to aged performance horses. Little outlined six key components of such plans and how they help keep senior horses in the game.

1. Vets: Educate Clients

Little reiterated that owners might not have a good understanding of the normal challenges and health problems horses face as they age. “Clients are often unaware that aging results in less resiliency in the face of environmental stressors,” she said. “Thus, good husbandry is key.” She encouraged veterinarians to educate owners on changes that typically occur with age:

  • Older horses benefit from longer warmups and cool downs before and after exercise due to loss of flexibility;
  • Their thermoregulatory abilities wane, underscoring the importance of adequate shelter from cold and shade from sun;
  • Some horses lose their pecking order status to younger herd members and, thus, might need to eat meals separately; and
  • Seniors require appropriate nutrition to address issues such as tooth loss and impaired nutrient absorption. They also seem to prefer warmer water compared to ice-cold.

Veterinarians can also advise clients on clinical signs to watch for that could suggest a problem.

2. Keep Health Records

Little stressed the importance of owners maintaining records to monitor trends in senior horses’ health over time. She recommended including information such as:

  • Dates of vaccine administrations and Coggins tests;
  • Monthly body weight and body condition score (BCS);
  • Laboratory test results, including complete blood counts (CBC) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH, used in PPID diagnostics) levels;
  • Workout data, noting any changes in exercise abilities and recovery time;
  • Hoof-care records;
  • Diet and water consumption;
  • Overall performance status;
  • Behavior changes; and
  • Regular photographs to monitor things that might be difficult to appreciate when owners see a horse every day or veterinarians only see them a few times a year, such as conformation changes or subtle haircoat alterations.

3. Schedule Regular Veterinary Exams

This, Little said, is key to maintaining senior performance horses’ health. She recommended beginning regular (at least annually, if the horse’s individual needs don’t dictate more frequent checks) and thorough wellness exams starting when horses are about 15 years old. “Approach these with the level of detail you would a prepurchase exam,” she told veterinarians in attendance. These visits don’t have to be solely for wellness checks. She recommended planning them to coincide with spring and/or fall vaccine administration. In addition to evaluating the horse’s general parameters (i.e., BCS, muscling, endocrine status, parasite load via fecal egg counts, dental health, sheath or udder cleanliness, etc.), Little encouraged practitioners to keep a keen eye out for some of the most common medical issues that impact senior horses. Such ailments include:

  • Lameness (the No. 1 problem facing healthy senior horses, she said; see sidebar for tips on combating it);
  • Weight loss;
  • Colic and other gastrointestinal disorders;
  • Eye problems;
  • Tumors (including melanoma) and other skin issues, often secondary to PPID;
  • Endocrine disorders;
  • Chronic respiratory problems (i.e., heaves, or equine asthma); and
  • Exercise intolerance.

4. Incorporate Well-Horse Geriatric Screens

While your veterinarian is conducting a well-horse exam, ask him or her about collecting samples for laboratory screenings. “Don’t wait for problems,” Little stressed. “Get baseline values when your horse is healthy, so you’ll know what is considered normal for your horse before a problem occurs.”” She said a well-horse geriatric screen should include:

  • A CBC and blood chemistry;
  • Resting/baseline ACTH levels (for moderate to advanced signs of PPID);
  • Serum amyloid A levels (which can indicate infection and inflammation in the body); and
  • Fecal egg counts.

If horses are overweight or have a history suggestive of equine metabolic syndrome or PPID, Little recommended adding either resting insulin levels or the dynamic oral sugar test to assess insulin status and determine whether a horse suffers from insulin dysregulation. If a horse is underweight or has unexplained muscle loss (i.e., topline loss), she suggested conducting a thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) stimulation test to check for PPID, which can help detect PPID early, when clinical signs might be subtle.

5. Provide Adequate Nutrition

Horses’ nutrition needs usually change as they age. Ensuring their dietary requirements are met remains a crucial part of keeping them healthy and active. Little recommended having a veterinarian perform dental exams at least twice a year to make sure horses can chew the food they’re offered properly. She also stressed the importance of ensuring older horses have a safe place to eat where they’re not chased away before they finish their food. Even horses that spent their whole lives as the dominant ones in the pasture might eventually find themselves further down the pecking order. Finally, she recommended owners work with their veterinarians or equine nutritionists to ensure the feed senior horses are consuming meets their dietary needs.

6. Identify Problems and Intervene Early

The last step to keeping aged performance horses at the top of their game is to identify ailments and implement treatment early. “Construct a specific list of criteria where medical intervention is necessary—the ‘call ifs’—based on each horse’s specific history,” Little told veterinarians. For aged performance horses, such issues might include changes in:

  • Attitude or behavior;
  • Performance level;
  • Body condition or hair coat;
  • Appetite;
  • Manure and/or urine output;
  • Respiratory effort; and
  • Gaits or lameness.

Take-Home Message

Keeping senior horses performing to the best of their abilities isn’t rocket science. It just takes effort, education, a team approach, and a little bit of luck over the years. She urged veterinarians to promote lifelong wellness plans to clients and educate them on how to best keep their aged horses healthy. Likewise, she encouraged owners to be proactive with their old horses’ health care and to ask questions of their veterinarians as they arise. “Make it a team approach,” she said. “Don’t go it alone.”