Equine Health: Care of Older Horses

Posted by Heather Smith Thomas on 01/04/2017
Amy Gill, PhD is an equine nutritionist in Kentucky and says digestive efficiency is reduced in older horses, so don’t over feed coarse, hard to chew hay.
Senior horses may need more calories with less starchy grains, and this can be achieved by adding certain oils to their diet. A fat source with a high Omega 3 fatty acid, such as flax seed oil, helps with immune response and is pro-anti-inflammatory.
According to Gill, 70% of horses over age 20 have Cushing’s disease or insulin resistance problems and you must make sure you don’t aggravate the problem by feeding hay with too much soluble carbohydrates.
Many people feed joint supplements to alleviate some of the ​discomfort of arthritis. Horsemen who use herbal remedies may try joint products that contain yucca.
Be aware of body condition score (BCS) on older horses in order to make nutrition adjustments as needed since they may have trouble keeping weight for many reasons.
Chance (pictured after) regained most of his lost weight after only two months with green grass and a high quality senior horse feed containing ascorbic acid to provide extra vitamin C.
Stephen Duren, PhD, an equine nutritionist at Performance Horse Nutrition, says horses age at different rates and the nutritional definition of old is when they can no longer eat a normal diet and maintain body weight.
Nutritionist Kathleen Crandell, PhD with Kentucky Equine Research says there are benefits to using alternative forages, such as chopped hay or hay cubes that still have some length in the material in order to help keep the digestive tract functioning.
Your vet should make a proper diagnosis if it’s not a dental issue since there are a multitude of reasons why an older horse is losing weight.
Dental care is important to an older horse. Watch him eat to see if his teeth meet well and that the grinding surfaces are optimal. A horse with dental problems may take longer to eat, and may drop partly chewed feed out of the side of his mouth.
Click for full size
Previous Next

Equine Health: Care Of Older Horses

Research continues to discover more about ways to keep older horses healthy, and we’ve learned a lot about geriatric horse care in the past several decades. Fifty years ago, most horsemen considered a horse “old” by age twenty, but today we often see horses continuing athletic careers into their late twenties and enjoying retirement in their thirties. Longevity is partly genetic (just as in humans), but also partly due to good care. As horses grow older, their nutrient needs change. This may be due to poor teeth, changes in metabolism, or less efficient digestion. Some become thin, while others gain weight and become prone to laminitis. Some develop problems like Cushing’s disease (now called PPID), insulin resistance, failing kidneys, or impaired liver function, and need a special type of diet.

The Importance Of A Balanced Diet

Amy Gill, PhD, an equine nutritionist in Kentucky, says it is important for an older horse to have good quality protein with the right amino acids. “Make sure the diet is highly fortified with vitamins and minerals, and very digestible sources of fiber,” says Gill. Don’t feed overly mature, coarse hay that’s hard to chew and does not contain adequate nutrients. “A healthy older horse that doesn’t have metabolic problems has nutrient requirements slightly higher than a mature horse in its prime. An older horse’s requirements are similar to those of a young, growing horse. Digestive efficiency is reduced in older horses,” she says. Thus, the old horse needs more feed, but it must contain all of his nutrient requirements. You should not increase calories just by adding more grain. The horse needs a concentrate with less grain and higher levels of soluble fiber and fat. For a horse that needs more calories to keep adequate body weight, you can add oil to the diet rather than starchy grains. It’s best to avoid corn oil, however, because it is high in unhealthy Omega 6 fatty acids. “Find a fat source that has a high Omega 3 fatty acid, like a flax oil blend. This helps with immune response and is also pro-anti-inflammatory,” says Gill. Prostaglandins produced in the body then tend to be anti-inflammatory rather than inflammatory. Omega 6 fatty acids (found in grains) tend to be pro-inflammatory. 

Gill also suggests using products that contain small amounts of direct-fed microbials, such as yeast or lactobacilli, since these are beneficial if the hindgut is not functioning as well as it used to. Vitamin E and C are also helpful since they are powerful antioxidants. 

“For older horses it’s a good idea to supplement with certain vitamins,” according to Shannon Pratt Phillips, PhD, Associate Professor for Equine Nutrition and Physiology in the Department of Animal Science at North Carolina State University. “Many people supplement senior horses with vitamin E and/or fish oil (for the DHA and positive Omega 3 fatty acids). A study by Sarah Ralston found that older horses had lower vitamin C status. Senior feeds generally include ascorbic acid to provide extra vitamin C. It is unknown whether the older horses are deficient because they can’t make their own vitamin C as well anymore, or whether they have a higher turnover because they have more inflammatory processes going on in the body.” Both vitamin C and vitamin A act as antioxidants. 

Endocrine status and Cushing’s can be a big concern with certain horses. “Insulin resistance can also be related to that, to some degree. A horse that has Cushing’s is not always insulin resistant, however. Nor is the older horse or fat horse always insulin resistant. If part of your yearly veterinary check includes a blood draw to check for other conditions, it’s a good idea to monitor insulin status as well,” says Pratt Phillips. “I always recommend that owners consult with a nutritionist about what they should actually feed after testing the hay, and start from that. You can do a pretty good job of taking care of nutrient requirements by feeding good quality hay and some good quality commercial feeds, but you can probably do a better job if you know exactly what’s in that hay, and then select your feeds and/or supplements to build from there,” explains Pratt Phillips.

Avoid Starch And Sugar

Gill says one of the main things to watch in older horses is their sensitivity to starch and sugar. She says 70% of horses over age 20 have Cushing’s disease. “If a horse has Cushing’s or insulin resistance problems, you can’t just add calories with grain. Also, make sure there’s not too much soluble carbohydrate or NSC (non-structural carbohydrate) in the hay,” says Gill.

For a horse with Cushing’s or insulin resistance, she recommends a lower quality hay (less NSC) and supplementing with vitamins, mineral, and protein that the hay might lack. “You choose the lesser of two evils; you don’t want a horse to not have anything in front of him to eat, so you use a lower quality hay he can nibble on all day rather than a couple of small flakes of good hay.” 

A healthy horse can handle better quality hay, but you don’t want to precipitate an insulin resistance problem by overfeeding starch and sugar. “You can feed a good quality low-starch high-fat-and-fiber concentrate like a senior feed. But, it’s important to realize that even the senior feeds are not good choices for horses that are insulin resistant or have Cushing’s disease. Even though it’s a senior feed, it can still be very high in NSC. Look for a product that is low in NSC, so the total diet (forage and concentrate together) will be no higher than 10% NSC,” explains Gill.

“One of the best products I’ve seen for older horses is Triple Crown Safe Starch, a complete mixed ration that contains chopped forage (easy to chew) with pellets mixed in that contain all the protein, vitamins, and minerals. All you feed is this bagged product. The hay is grown specifically to have low NSC, and saves the hassle of trying to figure out a diet for the older horse. Another product made by this company is called Low Starch, a pelleted concentrate that’s easy to eat. A horse may need a combination of the two, or the forage product by itself may be adequate if the horse is carrying enough weight,’ explains Gill.

When making your own ration, have your hay tested and check the NSC. “If it’s too high in NSC and you don’t have any other options for hay, you can soak it in warm water for 30 minutes (then drain it and discard the water) to pull out most of the sugar,” says Gill.

Dental Issues

Shannon Pratt Phillips had a horse of her own that lived to be 30, and she has several recommendations for owners of senior horses. “The first thing to check is their teeth. Have a veterinary-dentist look at the teeth to see if the horse needs dental care. Also, watch the horse eat. Sometimes, even after the teeth have just been floated, they might still not meet perfectly and create problems as the horse is eating,” she says. 

The horse may drop partly chewed wads of feed out the side of the mouth. This is called quidding. “The grinding surfaces may not be optimal and the horse loses food out of the mouth,” she says. A horse with tooth problems may take longer to eat.

“Older horses are often at the bottom of the pecking order, which means they won’t get their share if fed in a group. It’s best to feed them separately. Even if horses are on pasture for winter, some people supplement the group with a big hay bale. Even though the horses have access all day to hay, an older horse may still be shortchanged. The hay bale may not be the best quality for him to be able to chew and he may also have a harder time nosing his way into it because the other horses may chase him away. So, feeding him separately may be the only way for him to get what he needs,” she says.

Feeds For The Horse That Can’t Chew

Stephen Duren, PhD, an equine nutritionist at Performance Horse Nutrition, suggests that when you start figuring out a diet, to start with forage. “If an old horse, because of poor teeth, is not getting feed adequately chewed, we have to ‘chew’ it for him,” says Duren.

An older horse that’s not keeping his weight may not be getting enough fiber, says nutritionist Kathleen Crandell, PhD, of the Kentucky Equine Research. “The biting surface of his teeth may have changed and become wavy or he may have lost teeth and can no longer grind forage properly. He may do fine on green grass, but loses weight when you feed hay in winter.”

This is when you need alternative forages, such as hay cubes or chopped forages - something in which the breakdown process has already started reducing particle size so teeth don’t have to do it all. “Ultimately, some horses need pellets containing forage that is ground up and doesn’t need much chewing,” says Crandell.

“There are benefits in using chopped hay or hay cubes since there’s still some length in that material, which helps keep the digestive tract functioning more normally than with finely ground forage,” says Crandell. If a horse’s teeth are so bad you must resort to pellets, soak them in water so they become a mash and fall apart. Then, they are easier to eat since cubes and pellets are often quite hard, and this decreases the risk of choke.

Duren recommends completely covering the pellets or cubes with water so they soak it up and become soft. “Once the feed is fully moist, I don’t add any extra water; the mass of pellets or cubes just grows in bulk as they take on water,” he says. When using alternative fiber sources like beet pulp, these are soaked also. 

“Dental issues are a serious concern in older horses in terms of nutrition,” says Pratt Phillips. “The forages you feed must be really good quality and easily chewable. The hay should be low in ADF (acid detergent fiber), which is one of the values you’ll find on a hay analysis. The ADF component includes the lignin and cellular structure (the stiff, firm part of the plant, which is harder to chew). You need to find a soft, pliable type of hay,” she explains. You might also look into alternative forage products like chaff or hay cubes that the horse doesn’t have to chew very much. “Some people think of hay cubes as being very dense and firm (and some of them are), but there are a few products that crumble readily; you simply touch them and they fall apart. The horse doesn’t have to chew these as much,” she says. “Beet pulp and rice bran are also high in the type of fiber the horse needs, while being easy to chew, and they contain some good digestible energy. The horse still needs fiber for proper digestion. The research comparing younger horses to older horses regarding fiber digestibility showed that the ability to digest fiber is reduced in older horses. This could be because older horses don’t have adequate dentition to start the breakdown process, or because the hindgut is not as efficient in fermentation of fibers as in the younger horse,” she explains.

Monitor Body Condition

Be aware of body condition score (BCS) on older horses. This is measured from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese), with 5 being optimum for most individuals. “Cats tend to lose weight when they get old, whereas older dogs often get fat,” says Pratt Phillips. “Horses can go either way. Whatever seems to be their optimum body condition score, you probably want to maintain it. But in many cases, I prefer to see an older horse in BCS 5 to 6 with a little reserve fat. Then if they do get sick or something happens and they lose weight, it’s much easier to go back to a 6 from a 5 than it is to get back to a 5 from a 4. You don’t want them to get caught being too thin,” she explains. “On the other hand, if the horse has had previous laminitis or has a lot of arthritis, you don’t want him carrying a lot of extra weight. So, the ideal body condition would be an individual thing for each horse.” The owner should figure out what would be the best BCS for that horse and monitor to see if the horse is losing, gaining, or maintaining.

“Even just using a weight tape can be helpful. There are a couple different places you can measure. One is the typical weight tape for measuring heart girth circumference. If it’s the same person doing it once a month with the same tension on the tape, it doesn’t matter so much numerically what the tape reads. What you want is for it to always be the same. If the tape says the horse weighs about 1000 pounds, that’s fine. Maybe the horse is actually 1100 pounds or less than 1000, but what you want to see is the tape showing the same number each month,” she says. Then you know the horse is not gaining or losing weight.

“Another method is to measure a different circumference a little farther back from the heart girth. Measuring the belly circumference can be done at a certain spot (past a certain rib). Either one of these methods can give you an objective number to track and monitor rather than trying to just rely on your eyes and an impression about whether the horse is gaining or losing,” she says. 

There are also places on the body you can feel with your fingers to estimate fat covering, such as over the ribs—especially if the horse has a long hair coat and you can’t determine the rib covering just by looking at the horse. “If you have a horse with Cushing’s, the hair can be especially thick,” she says.

The Importance Of A Veterinary Examination

The wild card that horse owners might not expect is disease that may occur in older horses. “If the older horse is losing weight and it’s not just a dental issue, it may be metabolic or a kidney or liver problem,” says Crandell. Have your vet check the horse for proper diagnosis. 

Sometimes, cumulative damage from worms may make the digestive tract less efficient at absorbing nutrients. “After a certain point, there may not be as much functional tissue. The horse may be able to keep his weight if you simply offer more feed,” she says. But if it’s a metabolic problem, the horse needs a different type of diet. We can now diagnose most of the disease problems in older horses and help them live longer by feeding special diets.

Gill says you need to make sure you know what you are dealing with so you can feed the horse properly and not make his condition worse. “Cushing’s is a pituitary disorder, whereas the insulin resistant horse just can’t handle starch and sugar. A normal horse can handle limited amounts of starch and sugar and you don’t have to be quite as careful. But with many older horses, you may be sitting on a time bomb. So, it doesn’t make sense to feed a lot of starch and sugars and then later have a problem,” says Gill.

“If it’s a weight issue, a high fat/high fiber feed can help supply needed calories. But if a horse has liver problems, you can’t feed a high fat diet,” explains Crandell. A thorough exam and a blood panel is wise if a horse starts losing weight, rather than just adding fat to the grain or more grain to the diet. Horses with Cushing’s become prone to laminitis, and you need to reduce the amount of starch and sugars (or lush green grass). If the horse is at pasture for exercise, you may have to use a grazing muzzle.

Gill recommends having your vet draw a blood sample once a year to see if the horse is deviating from normal, or from his original, baseline regarding liver and kidney function. If he has impairment, you’ll need to work closely with your vet and a nutritionist to monitor the horse’s condition and work out the best kind of diet. 

When Is A Horse Old?

Horses age at different rates. Duren says there is also an emotional definition of when a horse is old - when he retires from a career. He may be put out to pasture just because he’s no longer being ridden. “There’s also a nutritional definition of old, when he can no longer eat a normal diet and maintain body weight,” says Duren. When the body starts to change, regardless of what is affecting it, that’s when you should think of the horse as geriatric and reconsider the diet.

Aging rate is affected by genetics as well as by the lifestyle the horse had earlier in his younger days. “If he had good care all his life and was never used hard, ‘old’ may be mid-twenties or early 30’s. On the other hand, if a horse had a strenuous career, he may be arthritic and have old injuries,” says Duren. An older horse may lose weight because he’s stiff and not as aggressive in the herd, dropping down the pecking order and being chased away from the hay. Dental problems and loss of teeth can also be a factor and in many ways, a horse is only as “old” as his teeth. Some horses’ teeth develop problems sooner than others.


When you own on older horse, you should have a plan for the end of his life. At some point you will have to decide when his life becomes more pain than pleasure. This may occur when you realize he’ll have trouble being comfortable in the coming winter, or when arthritis and lameness can no longer be reasonably managed with medication.

You also must decide where and how his life will end, and who will be responsible for the task, either you or your veterinarian, and what to do with the remains. Most horsemen choose to have a veterinarian euthanize the horse, but sometimes you have to deal immediately with a decision you are not prepared for if your healthy old horse is suddenly injured or down one morning and can’t get up and is obviously in serious pain. 

Generally, however, you have a bit of time and many owners prefer to have a veterinarian give the horse an injection, such as an overdose of anesthetic intravenously, to induce a deep sleep and stop the heart and other vital functions.

As caretakers of horses, we are responsible for their lives, their care and well-being, and when the time comes, we are responsible for their deaths, as well. Sometimes the greatest gift you can give your old friend is a merciful end - a release from the pain that binds him.

Categories: The News

Subscribe to receive news and updates.