Technical information for veterinarians
The aging horse
15% of the North American horse population has surpassed the age of 20 years. Many of these horses are still actively employed in sporting events and breeding. Today, it’s not uncommon for horses and ponies to live well into their late 20s and even 30s.
Whether or not a horse remains active and productive in its latter years is dependent to a large degree on its lifestyle and management.
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 in horses are easy to recognize. An aging horse may lose the lustrous coat of youth, sprout grey hairs, develop brittle hooves and appear slow and stiff due to arthritic conditions. Less easy to identify are the changes taking place inside the horse’s body. These may include reduction of vision, deafness; sclerosis; build-up of metabolic waste; swelling in the extremities; inflammatory bowel disease; diverticular disease; degenerative joint disease; osteoporosis; heart disease, thrombosis of the veins; cachexia; breathing problems, kidney problems and parasitic infestation.
Thanks to a better understanding of how people age and why, we can slow down the aging process. We can do the same for companion and working animals.
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 8 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.
Genetic factors, lifestyle and previous trauma are all contributors in the rate and extent that a horse ages. Understanding the changes taking place in their horse’s body and how best to deal with them, will help owners ensure their horses continue to enjoy life well into old age.
Signs of aging in horses
The average horse will begin to show signs of aging by 16-18 years of age. The aging process affects each horse differently and is influenced by the previously mentioned factors and conditions.
Signs of aging in horses include:
- Deepening hollows over the eyes
- Sway back posture
- Drooping of the lower lip
- Rough, dry, dull hair coat
- Greying hair around the eyes and muzzle
- Pot belly
- Diminishment of muscle tone
- Reduced appetite
- Elongation of incisor teeth
- Low sloping pasterns due to reduced strength in ligaments and tendons
- Stiffness of movement
Changes in Vision – Horses
A horse’s eyesight deteriorates as he ages. The most common problem in older horses is the development of recurrent uveitis, or “moon blindness.” Complications resulting from this inflammatory condition include cataracts and scarring that can lead to blindness.
Older horses with healthy eyes will experience a loss of elasticity in the lens of the eye, causing the horse difficulty in focusing on objects. Older horses experiencing vision loss need veterinary attention, but are frequently suprisingly adept at picking up cues from their owners, other horses and their surroundings to help them navigate their way around.
Dental problems – Horses
Horses depend on continual new tooth growth to maintain the chewing surface of their teeth. As a horse ages, tooth growth slows down and the teeth become shorter. Good dental care is essential during a horse’s senior years. Older horses need frequent dental examinations to identify loose or missing teeth, teeth that no longer grind properly, or teeth that have developed abnormal wear patterns, making them less efficient at chewing. Horses that no longer have any chewing ability are able to sustain their body condition through the use of special extruded feeds designed especially for older horses.
Musculoskeletal changes – Horses
As a horse ages, his muscles, bones and joints begin to lose their strength, resilience, and ability to repair themselves. While muscles and bones grow stronger with repeated use (to a degree, even in older horses), joints do not respond well to concussion. The smooth cartilaginous lining of the joints tends to break down with repeated use, causing pain and stiffness.
Cardiovascular changes – Horses
In general, horses enjoy a low incidence of cardiac disease and they don’t suffer from hypertension. However, the heart—like all muscles—tends to deteriorate with age. Older horses are more likely than younger horses to develop heart murmurs as a result of functional problems, such as aortic insufficiency.
Gastrointestinal changes – Horses
Dental issues are the primary source of gastrointestinal problems in older horses. Horse owners who continue to feed their senior horse with hay and other high-fibre foods, are likely to see their horse develop malnutrition and/or impaction colic because the teeth cannot properly grind down these foods. Many feed manufacturers produce excellent formulas for older horses, helping to circumvent these problems.
Urinary/Kidney changes – Horses
As a horse ages, the kidneys become less efficient at removing waste products. They also become less able to concentrate the urine, leading to an increase in the loss of body water. For this reason, drugs should be prescribed only when absolutely necessary. It is important that the owner provides plenty of fresh water to prevent dehydration.
Can aging in horses be delayed?
A 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.Nutricol® (available to veterinarians as Recovery®EQ (horses) and Recovery®SA (companion animals), is a proprietary formulation containing both these ingredients.*
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 decreasing inflammation. It may be used on its own or in combination with prescribed medications. Ask your veterinarian how Recovery®EQ can help your horse.
Review in the prestigious Horse Journal in October and December 2003
Recovery®EQrated 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 inJune 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
For more information on helping your horse stay healthy, please see Tips for a Healthier Horse
Other substances that can help the aging horse include 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.