The Older Horse: Special Care and Nutrition

Due to improvements in nutrition, management and health care, horses are living longer, more useful lives. It’s not uncommon to find horses and ponies living well into their 20s and even 30s. While genetics play a determining role in longevity, you too, can have an impact. By providing proper care and nutrition, you can help make your horse’s golden years happier and more productive.

The Aging Process

Time does take its toll on many body systems. The horse’s digestive tract isn’t as efficient as it once was. Bones and joints are less resilient. Elderly horses may feel the aches and pains of arthritis. The immune system is less reliable, making older horses more susceptible to illness and slower to recover from both disease and injury. Parasite infestations also take a heavy toll. Aged horses are more prone to respiratory, eye and dental problems. Elderly animals are also less able to cope with environmental stresses, such as wind, wet and cold. Additionally, hormonal changes may affect overall body condition, hair growth, appetite and energy levels. But while some signs of decline may be directly related to the aging process, others may have an underlying medical problem, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian.

Special Nutritional Needs

While every facet of horse health care is important, proper nutrition is vital. As horses age, their digestive systems become less efficient. Hormonal and metabolic changes affect or interfere with their ability to digest, absorb and utilise essential nutrients in their feed, especially protein, phosphorus and fibre. For these reasons, many older horses benefit from complete rations with built-in roughage that are specially formulated to compensate for changes in their digestive physiology.

When selecting feeds, evaluate your choices by the following criteria. The senior diet should be:

  • Highly palatable
  • Easy to chew and swallow
  • Clean and dust-free to prevent or lessen the impact of allergies or lung disease
  • Provide 12-16% protein
  • Contain enough high-quality fibre to aid digestion
  • Provide essential minerals, including calcium and phosphorus in the proper ratio
  • Include all essential vitamins, especially vitamin C and B-complex vitamins
  • Provide enough readily available energy to maintain proper body condition
  • Include adequate, palatable fat from a vegetable source to promote healthy skin and hair, aid digestion and boost energy intake

Dental Care

A horse that can chew its feed properly will waste less of it, get more nutrient value from it and be less likely to choke or colic. Have your veterinarian examine and float (file) your horse’s teeth at least once a year — twice annually if the horse is over 20. This will keep his nipping and grinding surfaces in good working order. It also gives the veterinarian a chance to troubleshoot for broken or lost teeth, and check for tongue, gum or other problems.

Managing The Horse In Old Age

by Steven Haughen, DVM

Age is somewhat relative in the horse, with some horses being “old” by the time they are 8 years of age and others going strong at 25 years of age. These differences can sometimes be attributed to breed, genetics, health care and the type of work during previous years. After a horse is mature it is sometimes said that one year of a horse’s life equals three years of a human’s. So, the 20-year-old horse is comparable to the 60-year-old human.

The physical signs that the older horse shows may vary but will often include the following:
1. Loss of muscle tone, resulting in a flabby or “pot-belly” appearance
2. Change of weight distribution; they may deposit fat in one place yet appear skinny in others
3. Change in facial appearance, such as drooping of the lower lip and deepening of the pockets above the eye
4. A hair coat changing colour and/or rough, dull, long hairs that don’t shed out properly

The older horse is more likely to encounter medical problems, which may include:

  • Dental problems: Poor teeth result in difficulty in properly chewing and digesting food. The horse’s teeth constantly erupt, with each year wearing off a certain amount of the tooth until eventually there is no longer any tooth left. For many horses the loss of their teeth and inability to chew is what limits their lifespan. A yearly examination of the teeth is important. Floating the teeth removes sharp points on the premolars and molars and enhances the horse’s ability to chew and digest. In the very old horse the teeth may have very little root left to hold the tooth into the gum and jaw. By floating loose teeth it is possible to loosen these teeth further and have them fall out sooner. By examining and floating these horses before they get too old, we can avoid these problems from occurring.

  • Liver and kidney problems: These problems can show a variety of signs. The animal may be dull, listless, stumbling or dragging the back feet. They may also have a poor or excellent appetite but be unable to gain weight. They may drink excess amounts of water and urinate excessively. A blood screen can help diagnose these problems, and treatment includes diet changes and sometimes medication.
  • Hormone problems:
    1. Horses with hypothyroid are often overweight and lack energy. A blood test can determine if there is a problem, and the horse’s feed can be supplemented with medication.
    2. The adrenal gland is a small gland by the kidney. Adrenal glands sometimes are exhausted after a bad winter or period of stress, resulting in a horse that drinks large quantities of water and is a hard keeper no matter what it is fed.
    3. Tumours of the pituitary gland (a gland located in the brain) can result in the adrenal gland producing too many hormones. These horses will have a long, rough, curly coat, which usually never sheds. They may also have a greater loss of muscle tone, resulting in a more pronounced swayback.
  • Weight problems: The obese horse may be seen in the more geriatric horse due to feeding too much, thyroid problems or lack of exercise. The extra weight puts additional stress on the horse with lung and heart problems and aggravates arthritis, laminitis and navicular disease. Lipomas or fatty tumours are more likely to be found in the older fat horse. These fatty tumours are generally inside the horse and often look like a large mushroom. They can wrap around intestines, causing blockages, circulation collapse, colic and even death.

    Too much weight loss can also be a problem in more geriatric horses. As the horse ages, there is often a reduced efficiency in the digestive system. It is believed that the older horse may need a 10% to 20% increase in feed to make up for the loss of efficiency. Researchers have determined that older horses need higher-quality protein, more digestible energy and increased minerals as compared to the maintenance requirements of the adult horse. Horses over 20 years of age often have the same requirements as yearlings. Once an older horse loses weight, it is more difficult to return it to good body condition. Sometimes no matter what is fed, the horse does not gain weight, but clients have reported good results with a variety of feeds and supplements.

  • Vitamins: The older horse may have certain medical problems that require vitamin supplements. However, administering large doses of vitamins beyond those recommended for the yearling horse are not always beneficial. Because of the metabolism in the older horse, it is not able to deal with an excess of vitamins, and over supplementing may result in liver and kidney damage or failure.

A Simple Guide to Competition

Written by the Pearcedale Pony Club Inc

You should not be scared of competitions. Yes; they can be daunting and yes; there is plenty to learn, but it can be done. This guide is just one stepping stone. This guide will not cover competition rules, (these are available from the PCAV web site) but rather, will focus on the sequence of events leading up to competition. This sequence can be broken down into a couple of key areas:

Event Selection

Is there a schedule of events? Where do I find all the details? How do I select an event? These are all important questions.

There are several sources of event information but the main ones are:

a. the PCAV website www.ponyclubvic.org.au and click on ‘competitions’,
b. The Weekly Times newspaper, comes out on Wednesday, and
c. The Club Newsletter.

These sources will also offer event contact details and these people should be able to provide you with additional details.

Once you have found a few events, you now need to select the one you will do. You must be graded appropriately for the event you choose, if you choose a combined training (Dressage and Show Jumping) you must be graded for combined training on the horse you plan to take. If you haven’t been a regular competitor or this is your first event, it will be wise to discuss your plans with other riders at your club. Some events sound simple but may be at the ‘harder’ end of the scale and this type of event may not be a good choice for a novice rider.

Once you have selected an event make sure you complete the entry form correctly and you include your payment (cheques are typically the only form of payment accepted) well before the closing date. Enter as soon as you have decided to compete, some events are popular and some sections will fill well before the official closing date. Remember to keep a copy of the entry form; it contains all the event details.

Preparation – The Day Before

You’ve put in some good work to prepare for your event, now it is time to focus on the detail. There is nothing worse than running around on the morning of a competition because you can’t find your boots or, you get to the event and you discover you have forgotten something. You’ll need to figure out what you should take with you but here is a starting point:

a. Clean gear, saddle with girth, stirrups, saddle blanket, bridle with bit, etc.
b. Helmet, whip, back protector and gloves.
c. Brush box with hoof pick, and other grooming needs.
d. Copy of the entry form and dressage test (if required)
e. GRADING CARD and MEDICAL ARM BAND – you must have these!!! No card = No ride.
f. Food and drink, the event will take all day and you may not have time to get to the canteen. Camping chairs are also very handy if you have to wait several hours between rides.
g. If the weather looks bad include: rain coat, spare gloves, a towel (or 2) sunscreen, fly repellent, spare saddle blankets, light or heavy horse rugs, etc. Do not bring an umbrella.
h. It is always good to have a little bit of spare gear like; another whip (you could loose it in the cross country then have nothing for the show jumping), and anything else you think necessary.

If you are competing in a horse trials event you will be able to walk the cross country course on the day before the event. Take this opportunity. There are a number of benefits to be gained;

a. You will be able to clearly understand how long it will take to get to the event and what problems you may encounter (road works, etc.)
b. You will be able to familiarise yourself with the grounds, were do I park? Were is the secretary’s office? Were is gear check? etc.
c. You will be able to quietly walk the cross country course; take your time to have a proper look. You can always refresh your memory on the day of the event if time permits.

Pack the car and the float the night before and organise your riding gear as well. You should also review how you’re going to get to the event, what way are you going to go? How long will it take? Plan your trip accordingly, work back from the time of your first ride. You should plan to be at the event NO later than 1 hour before your first ride. Go to bed early and allow time for breakfast in the morning.

Preparation – On The Day

The first thing you must do on the day is ……don’t stress. You’ve made a plan so stick to it. If you have any trouble at all leaving home on time, (the horse wouldn’t get in the float, etc.), ring the event organising club; there will be a number on the entry form. They may be able to adjust your times and this will lower your stress levels considerably.

When you get to the event you’ll be told were to park. Take some time to get your horse out and get yourself organised. The first thing you will need to do is ‘check in’ at the event secretary’s office. You will need to take your helmet, grading card and your medical arm band with you. The event secretary will inspect your helmet and arm band and keep your grading card, they will then give you a back number – make sure it is the correct number. (When the event is over, return your back number to receive your grading card back.) You may also receive an event program, check your times again, there may have been some minor changes, (you might be in a different dressage ring).

Before each phase of the competition (dressage/show jumping/cross country) you will need to have a gear check. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t changed any gear or you haven’t even un-tacked since your last ride – you still must have a gear check. Normally you must have completed a gear check 20 minutes before you are scheduled to ride. A gear check only takes a couple of minutes but there might be a queue, so allow some time for this. Before you leave the gear check area check with the Marshall that they have finished with you; they need to record that you have successfully passed through gear check. If you have a problem with your gear they will ask you to fix it then present for another gear check. Remember, No Gear check = Elimination. It is better to do your gear check, and then go off to the warm up area. The warm-up area is normally near the competition area but there is no guarantee the gear check is near anything! It also means that if you are slightly delayed at gear check you are not in danger of missing your assigned riding time. Don’t forget to have on your medical arm band and your back number!

When you get to the warm-up area don’t do anything different; just do your normal warm-up. Remember, what works in practise will work in competition. Also, when you are warming up for show jumping or cross country pay attention to the flags on the warm-up jumps – Red to the Right. Jumping the wrong way can be dangerous and you could get yourself eliminated.

As you wait for your turn to ride pay attention to the number of the rider in the ring. You have been assigned a time to ride but these can ‘slip’ as the day progresses. You should make yourself known to the ring Marshall about 2 or 3 riders in advance and if you have any questions of the Marshall ask them, don’t wait until the last minute. Sometimes in dressage you will not need to present to the judge; watch other riders or ask the Marshall if you are unsure.

When you do report to the judge, smile and be courteous.

The Final Word

Not all competitions will go according to plan; some will be brilliant whilst others will be poorly run and verging on disasters. Just remember one thing – you’re there to have fun. Even on your worst day you’ll learn something that will make the next event that litter bit easier and less daunting. Horse riding is supposed to be fun, so enjoy your day.

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