15 is the New 10: Keeping the Middle-Aged Horse Healthy

Find out how to keep your middle-aged horse’s teeth, feet, joints, and more healthy.
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15 Is the New 10: Keeping the Middle-Aged Horse Healthy
Applying sound management protocols to your middle-aged horse’s care will help him thrive well into his senior years. | Photo: Thinkstock

Tornado Alley was Emily Brogna’s first horse. The near-black American Saddlebred mare took her young owner from beginner rider to show ring champion and secured a forever spot in Emily’s heart and family. At 13, her saddleseat park pleasure days are now behind her, but she continues to live an active lifestyle as Emily’s trail horse.

Like many middle-aged horses, Tornado Alley falls neither in the young nor the senior horse health care category. She’s no spring chicken, but she also doesn’t deserve to be labeled old quite yet. That would seem downright insulting!

What so many teenage horses like her need are management and health care strategies that will help them remain active and healthy well into their golden years.

Jay Altman, DVM, of Equine Medical Service, in Ft. Collins, Colorado, believes dental care, nutrition, and parasite control are the areas where owners and veterinarians can have the biggest impact on middle-aged horses. In this article we’ll take a closer look at these horse health aspects and more.  

“Good management primes a horse to move into geriatric age with the best chances that genetics allows,” says Altman.

15 is the New 10: Keeping the Middle-Aged Horse Healthy
One way to help an active horse achieve and maintain his condition is to provide regular dental care. | Photo: Stephanie L. Church/The Horse

Take Care of Your Teen’s Teeth  

A horse in his teens thrives best if he’s in ideal body condition—a score of 5 on the 1 to 9 scale, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. One way to help an active horse achieve and maintain this condition is to provide regular dental care, which enables him to chew food well for proper digestion.

“While filing (floating) away sharp points is important, of greater importance is the actual dental exam by your veterinarian,” says Heather Hoyns, DVM, owner of Evergreen Equine, in West Windsor, Vermont, who has a special interest in equine dentistry. “With a thorough exam … your veterinarian can identify tooth fractures, diastemas (gaps between teeth), cavities, and/or periodontal disease. These are common middle-aged horse issues that may cause problems later on.”

Equine teeth erupt about 2-3 mm (about one-eighth of an inch) per year throughout a horse’s life. Ignore them, and inches of tooth growth can result in issues such as wave mouth—uneven wear that causes a wavelike or stair-step arrangement of the premolars and molars. This can’t be fixed by the time the horse reaches his 20s, says Hoyns.  

While young and old horses tend to be the ones with the most dental issues, middle-aged horses can also have problems, being prone to develop sharp points that can lacerate gums or the tongue, causing pain and thereby decreasing appetite, she says. Having a veterinary dental practitioner file down the buccal (near the cheek) edges of the upper teeth and the lingual (near the tongue) edges of the lower teeth will help prevent this.  

“Some middle-age horses with a good, normal bite may not need comprehensive dental work on an annual basis, while others may need thorough work once or twice a year,” says Hoyns.  

The objective is to do what is necessary to keep that particular horse’s mouth comfortable and in good shape. “If an owner has their veterinarian keep up on annual exams and minor maintenance, there should never be a need for aggressive dentistry,” Altman adds.

Protect Against Parasites  

Using a strategic deworming plan to address internal parasites that interfere with nutrient utilization can also help a middle-aged horse maintain body weight.

“Parasite control can be overdone or underdone,” says Hoyns. “Some owners are still deworming every two to three months. However, new research focuses on less frequent but targeted deworming, which starts with a fecal egg count exam to identify which horses are likely to shed large numbers of parasite eggs.”  

Many middle-aged horses might only need deworming two to three times per year if their immune systems are effective against internal parasites. Because a small but significant number of horses are high shedders of parasite eggs—20% shed 80% of the eggs—it helps to identify the horses that need more intensive deworming schedules, especially when several horses share small acreage.

It’s also important to consider that a traveling horse might pick up parasites from a different pasture. In some cases, acquired internal parasites may be ones that have developed resistance to deworming medications. “This is where fecal egg count reduction testing becomes particularly relevant—parasite egg counts are compared before and after deworming,” says Hoyns. If there is no reduction in egg count between pre- and post-deworming, then the parasites have likely developed resistance against that medication.

15 is the New 10: Keeping the Middle-Aged Horse Healthy
Provide horses hay via slow-feed haynets, which have small holes that require the horse to work to get the hay. | Photo: Erica Larson/The Horse

Feeding: Not Too Little, Not Too Much

A middle-aged horse’s body condition also depends on how well his diet meets his nutritional needs. “A high-forage diet is best,” stresses Hoyns. “Grass hay is ideally the primary portion of the diet with at least 60% of the (horse’s daily nutritional intake) as forage (hay and/or pasture). Some pastures are deficient in nutrients, and so a horse may need to be supplemented with ration balancer pellets to provide specific amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.”

Hoyns says she generally encounters more fat, equine metabolic syndrome-prone adult horses than thin ones and suggests putting grazing muzzles on these horses to help them slim down. “Another useful technique to slow feed consumption and to simulate grazing is the use of nibble-net feeders,” she adds, which are haynets with small holes that require the horse to work to get the hay. Giving horses access to small amounts of forage all throughout the day is known to lower their risk of developing gastric ulcer syndrome. Also, if you feed your teenager grain, limit it to 5 pounds per feeding or less to avoid gastric ulcers.

Overfeeding can lead to other health issues, including laminitis and obesity.

“A middle-aged horse that tends to be overweight for too many years places more stress and strain on his joints,” says Hoyns. “As the horse ages, there is a greater potential to develop lameness.”  

For the hard keeper or very active horse, dietary fat is a useful fuel source for aerobic exercise. “With 2½ times more calories per pound than grains, dietary fat provides added calories yet leaves sufficient intestinal room to consume more fiber,” she says, adding that “fat should be fed only if a horse needs it. In general, if an owner complains that their overweight horse lacks energy, he will likely have more energy if he loses weight.”

Keep Colic at Bay

If you stick to a regimen of smart feeding practices, routine dental care, parasite control, and exercise, you can help prevent your middle-aged horse from colicking.

“The majority of equine colic is related to hindgut disturbances,” Altman explains. “Feeding strategies that incorporate high fiber, low nonstructural carbohydrate content, and high fat as a calorie supplement when needed all help to decrease colic incidence.”  

Providing a diet that’s predominantly forage, along with access to clean, ice-free water, is your safest bet. Regular exercise also promotes intestinal efficiency.

Some maintain that a set feeding time is best; however, Hoyns does not favor this routine. “On the occasions when a horse owner’s schedule changes, horses used to being fed at a particular time of day will become anxious,” she says. “With an expectation of feed being delivered when it is not, acid continues churning in the horse’s stomach. This can lead to colic and gastric ulcers. Behavioral issues also may develop, with horses pulling on feeders, kicking their stalls, or even kicking at each other.”  

15 is the New 10: Keeping the Middle-Aged Horse Healthy
Regular turnout (with buddies!) helps ward off respiratory problems and keeps mature joints active. | Photo: iStock

Turn That Teen Out

“Horses are meant to be turned out, especially with friends,” says Hoyns. “Having the freedom to move around promotes mental happiness as well as improvements in blood circulation, lymphatic drainage, and health of feet and joints. In turnout horses walk 2 to 6 miles per day, depending on pasture size. This keeps fit horses toned while giving them something to do all day.”

Regular turnout not only means fewer stalls to clean but also reduced exposure to dust, endotoxin, and ammonia fumes for horses, which can all cause respiratory disease. And we’ve already learned how this constant access to forage can help thwart gastric ulcer development.

If your horse is an easy keeper or ticks a higher number than 5 on the body condition score scale, again, he might benefit from wearing a grazing muzzle when on pasture. “Before applying the muzzle for the first time, adjust it by lengthening cheek pieces and snugging up the throatlatch,” Hoyns says. “Always use a breakaway strap. Initially put it on for a short time to allow the horse to adjust to it.”  

If the hole in the muzzle bucket is too large and allows for too much grass consumption, use Gorilla tape to reduce its size.  

Wellness Visits for the Mature

Veterinary wellness visits are another key ingredient to keeping your middle-aged horse healthy. It’s common to bundle these with your horse’s vaccine boosters once or twice a year. “It is easy to forget that horses can contract fatal diseases if not immunized annually with the core vaccines—Eastern and Western encephalomyelitis, tetanus, West Nile virus, and rabies,” says Hoyns.

During these visits, your veterinarian performs a hands-on exam, routine immunizations, dental care, and other preventive procedures, along with collecting blood for a Coggins test, issuing a health certificate, and collecting a sample for fecal egg count testing. You and your veterinarian also have an opportunity to discuss a variety of issues: dietary needs, hay quality, hoof care, and performance or behavioral concerns, among others. Your veterinarian might also pull blood to submit to the lab to screen your horse for potential health issues that develop with age, such as equine Cushing’s disease. Early identification makes it easier to manage issues. It also helps to have a pair of professional eyes scan your barn for hazards you might have overlooked.  

15 is the New 10: Keeping the Middle-Aged Horse Healthy
Check your horse's hooves daily for stones, rocks, nails, and thrush, especially if the horse is shod. | Photo: iStock

Care for Your Teenager’s Tootsies

If your horse’s feet are properly trimmed and shod, they should have good balance and breakover (basically, how the heel rotates over the toe as the hoof leaves the ground). This allows joints to move efficiently and place less stress and strain on tendons and ligaments. Ease of locomotion helps your horse stay sounder longer.

“There are key features for you to monitor about your horse’s feet,” says Hoyns. “Check daily for stones, rocks, nails, and thrush, especially if shod. Examine consistency and width of the frogs, and if problems are noted, discuss with your hoof care professional how to achieve appropriate contact of the frog with the ground. Observe length and balance of the feet to determine when your horse needs farrier care. If trimmed too frequently, the feet continue to shorten and the horse becomes sore; if too long between trims, then long toes, low heels, a broken-back hoof-pastern axis (alignment of the hoof with the pastern angle), and poor medial/lateral balance (the comparative heel length on opposite sides of the hoof) are all conditions likely to result in lameness.”

Simmering hoof problems not to be overlooked include cracks, visible bruising, abnormal (e.g., vinegary) odor that indicates inflammation, thrush, frog contraction, coronary band irregularities, separation of the white line (visible at farrier visit), and heel bulb asymmetry, to name a few.

“Each horse should be treated as an individual,” advises Hoyns. Horse hooves grow at different rates depending on the individual and the time of year (slower in winter vs. spring, for instance). She encourages horse owners to be present at farrier appointments when possible to discuss any issues that come up.

Caring for Creaky Joints  

A middle-aged horse that has had an active athletic career might need a little help to keep his joints flexible and as pain-free as possible. Altman notes that joint health falls into two categories:

  1. The horse used for occasional light riding or none at all; and
  2. The competitive athlete.

“A horse that enjoys a relaxed lifestyle with minimal expectations fares best on a protocol of regular turnout and a good-quality joint supplement that minimizes minor aches and pains,” he says. “A horse faced with real athletic challenges should be carefully observed for subtle lameness that requires veterinary intervention. The sooner problems are identified and treated, the better, since many lameness issues tend to be progressive.”  

Veterinarians can help manage joint inflammation by using injectable and oral substances. Intravenous hyaluronate sodium (Legend) and intramuscular polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (Adequan), for instance, have scientifically proven beneficial effects as joint therapies. For actively competing horses, once a horse has received the loading dose regimen suggested by the manufacturer, it is often helpful to administer one of these products two to seven days prior to competition, or in advance of the time frame that allows for appropriate withdrawal required by your sport.

With regard to some oral joint supplements, there is controversy as to whether the horse’s body can absorb them to the point that they’re bioavailable and effective; some products provide better results than others. Hoyns notes that there is no harm in trying an oral product for, say, a month. She recommends working with your veterinarian to assess the horse before starting the product and then re-evaluating a month later to see if you can justify continuing supplementation.  

“Acupuncture and chiropractic are helpful to include in a holistic approach to horse care, not just for joint management but for a whole host of medical issues,” adds Hoyns. “There are issues that Western medicine isn’t able to fully address, so these modalities are useful adjuncts to care.”

Take-Home Message

The extent of knowledge regarding equine physiology has escalated exponentially, with science contributing to keeping our horses living longer and in better health. “Horses used to be more expendable but now they are companions,” says Hoyns. “We invest more time and care with the expectation of longer performance and life.”

Applying sound management protocols to your middle-aged horse’s care will help him thrive well into his senior years.

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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