The aging horse

Just as we grow old and lose some of our functional abilities, so do horses. Aging horses experience the same ailments as people do when they grow older.

The “external” symptoms of aging are easy to recognize. Your horse may lose the lustrous coat of youth (and have grey hairs), develop brittle hooves and appear slow and stiff due to arthritic conditions. Less easy to identify are the changes taking place inside your horse’s body. These may include reduction of vision, deafness; sclerosis (hardening of the internal tissues); build-up of metabolic waste; swelling in the extremities; inflammatory bowel disease; diverticular disease; degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis); osteoporosis; hypertension (high blood pressure); heart disease, thrombosis of the veins; muscle wasting (cachexia); breathing problems and kidney problems.

Thanks to a better understanding of how people age and why, we can slow down the aging process. We can do the same for our horses.

In general, the first year of a horse’s life is equal to 10 human years. Following this, each horse year is equal to two human years. Thus an eight to 10 year old horse is like a 30- year-old person; a 20-year-old horse is like a 50-year-old person, and a 30-year-old horse is like a 70-year-old person.

The tendencies that your horse inherits (different equine breeds age at different rates), lifestyle and previous trauma are all contributing factors in the rate and extent that he ages. With understanding of the changes taking place in your horse’s body, and how best to deal with them, you can help ensure he continues to enjoy life well into old age.

Recognizing the signs of aging in horses

Vision: A bluish cast to your aging horse’s eyes is a normal feature of aging and usually does not cause visual impairment. However, a milky white appearance may mean your horse has cataracts, which can lead to blindness. Your veterinarian will be able to tell you if your horse has cataracts and how best to deal with them.

Hearing: Losing the ability to hear clearly is common among older horses. If your aging horse stops responding in the normal way to your voice, it is likely that he or she may not be hearing as well.

Changes in eating habits: Older horses are more likely to develop tooth and gum disease. This can often be painful, causing a loss of desire to eat. Waning activity levels will also cause a reduction in appetite.

Weight gain: As with humans, a horse’s metabolism slows down with advancing age. This may cause weight gain. Giving your horse a high quality age-appropriate feed will help keep his weight under control.

Weight loss: Sudden weight loss or continual weight loss is reason for concern and should be checked out with your veterinarian. Losing weight is often a sign of an internal problem that needs to be addressed promptly.

Lethargy: As a horse grows older, you will likely see a decline in the amount of energy he expends. Older horses tire faster. This is not usually a cause for concern unless the tiredness is accompanied by other symptoms.

Stiffness: Just as aging humans become less flexible, so do aging horses. Stiffness in the leg, hip and shoulder joints is common. This may be normal “wear and tear,” or it could be a sign of arthritis. Your veterinarian will be able to provide a professional opinion and appropriate treatment

Can aging in horses be delayed?

Your horse’s response to aging will depend on his/her breed, predisposition to illness and disease due to hereditary factors, breed life expectancy, lifestyle and general state of health prior to entering the senior years.

Aging in horses is a normal degenerative process of cell and tissue structure and function associated with dehydration and lack of elasticity in superficial and deep tissue. However, the processes leading to dehydration and lack of elasticity can be addressed and, to an extent, delayed.

Bioflavonoids (plant-based, antioxidant substances with the power to protect plant and animal tissues), have been shown in many scientific studies to help the tissues maintain their youthful structure. Antioxidants from green tea (Camellia sinensis) and grapes (Vitis vinifera) have been shown to have particularly beneficial effects and may be employed preventively or therapeutically to help repair damaged tissues.

Other substances that can help your aging pet are glucosamine hydrochloride (similar to glucosamine sulfate but having more positive benefits on the joints), and MSM (methyl sulfonyl methane) which also helps restore joint tissues. You may wish to include these substances as part of the diet as a preventive measure.

Helping your aging horse

You can help your aging horse by observing the following tips:

  • Be aware of the ailments that can affect your aging horse (see above) and always consult your veterinarian if you have concerns.
  • Pay attention to your horse’s diet. Make sure that you are providing nutritious food in appropriate quantity. (Many horses require smaller meals as they age and don’t expend as much energy.) Ask your veterinarian to weigh your horse from time to time to make sure he is not gaining weight.
  • Make sure that your horse is drinking enough high quality water to prevent dehydration.
  • Consistently monitor your horse for any signs of lameness. Avoid performance sport if your horse is lame and remember that masking pain with drugs when your horse is lame will increase risk of more severe injury.
  • Provide an effective lifestyle-enhancing supplement such as Recovery®EQ with Nutricol®, is an elite proprietary performance and wellness supplement for horses that enhances quality of life.Recovery®EQ improves healing by increasing circulation of nutrients to affected cells and extracellular structures, halting tissue damage and modulating inflammation. It may be used in combination with prescribed medications. Always consult with the veterinarian prior to adding a new natural lifestyle supplement to a horse’s feeding program.Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in October and December 2003Recovery®EQ rated as “Best Performer Overall” as a pain-relieving supplement for joint pain, back pain and tendonitis – comparison of natural joint care supplements.Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in June 2006:”You get what you pay for” – Horse Journal quote about Recovery®EQ used as a performance enhancing supplement – comparison of natural performance enhancing supplements

    “Best performer overall in our latest joint supplement trial, even helped with back pain. Good choice for the tough case not responding well to other products.”

    Horse Journal December 2003

  • Make sure your horse gets enough exercise. While your horse may look like he or she is tired, a little exercise is healthful and keeps the muscles (including the heart) well toned.
  • Avoid excessive use of common pain medications as they actually promote tissue degeneration when used on a long-term basis.
  • Respect your horse’s seniority. Just like older people may get “cranky” from time to time, so do older horses. Discourage visiting children or animals from pestering your horse.
  • Be especially gentle when grooming. Older horses have sensitive skin and may find grooming painful. Watch for signs of skin or coat problems.
  • Schedule regular veterinarian visits. Your horse’s veterinarian will be familiar with the changes that take place in older horses and will be able to nip developing conditions in the bud.

For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse