Managing the aged horse

People and horses are living longer. It is not unusual to see horses in their 20s being ridden or even competing. These horses are essentially equivalent to our retirees. Dr. Marlin tells us about the major health problems associated with older horses.

Dr. David Marlin, Equine Scientific Advisor

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What is meant by an aged horse?

Over the past 100 years, life expectancy has increased dramatically from 52 years for a man and 57 years for a woman to 79 years and 83 years respectively. The same goes for horses: nowadays we also see more older horses, and it is not unusual to see 20-year-olds riding and even competing. These horses are essentially equivalent to our retirees. The increase of older horses in the equine population may be due to several factors, including increased disposable income, better scientific knowledge, and improvements in veterinary medicine, nutrition, and dentistry. Terminology also needs to be mentioned. In human medicine, the term “geriatric” is generally used for anyone over the age of 65. For equines, geriatric age is generally set around 22 years, while competition horses become “veterans” from age 15 onward.

The consequences of aging

As with people, aging leads to the gradual deterioration of physical condition and health. These include stiffness, respiratory disease, colic, liver disease, decreased ability to digest food, weight loss, muscle loss, coat changes, dental problems, and hormonal diseases such as Cushings.

As horses age, they will need certain vitamins more, especially vitamins C and E. Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin, and is important for healthy muscles, respiratory tract, skin, and immune function. Horses can only get vitamin E from the diet, and diets, especially forage-based diets, are generally low in vitamin E. As a result, older horses are usually given a supplement. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, and works best in combination with vitamin E. Vitamin C is the most important antioxidant for protecting horses’ lungs, as well as for healthy skin, blood vessels, bones and joints, and wound healing. Horses can produce vitamin C, which humans cannot. For younger horses, therefore, the fact that forages are low in vitamin C does not matter.

However, as horses age, they use more vitamin C, and at the same time their ability to produce it decreases. This is especially true for horses with respiratory disease or Cushings syndrome. Again, therefore, older horses should benefit from a vitamin C supplement; this should not be in the form of ascorbic acid (the form of vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables), because horses do not absorb it very well.

Aging and digestion

Digestion problems in older horses can lead to deficiencies in muscle and general well-being.

Dental problems, on the other hand, can lead to decreased chewing of food, which can lead to increased risk of impaction colic, reduced digestibility, and increased risk of choking. Soft forages or feeds with high moisture content are certainly helpful in reducing the risk of choking. Reduced digestibility means that even if the horse eats the same amount of food, it does not get the same amount of energy from it. As a result, unless you eat more, you will lose weight. Regular checking of the teeth of older horses is therefore essential. Feeds such as micronized flaxseed are a good option for older horses because the finely ground meal requires less chewing and is easier to digest; they are also low in starch, provide energy in the form of oil and quality protein.

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The importance of forage

Of course, Forage should still form the basis of the older horse’s diet. However, reduced chewing ability and high dry matter content may be risk factors for impaction colic. Soaking and steam purification are ideal for promoting water intake. However, soaking results in the loss of energy in the form of carbohydrates and minerals, which dissolve in water. Older horses may also be more susceptible to forages of poor hygienic quality, so it is important to scrupulously clean the containers used for soaking hay.

Steam-Steamed hay increases digestibility and moisture content, and improves hygiene without nutritional loss; therefore, it is an ideal choice for the older horse struggling to stay healthy. Another good option is feeding a high-dose probiotic of protected live yeast: this has the advantage of improving single-chamber stomach function and increasing the amount of energy the horse can extract from its forage, without major changes in diet or the need to increase forage intake.

Respiratory health

In older horses, respiratory health is often compromised. Years of inhaling dust in the box exponentially increases the number of older horses with equine asthma (RAO, COPD, Bolsaggine). Low-grade inflammation due to inhalation of dust in forage and bedding (mold, bacteria, mites, physical dust, etc.) can lead over the long term to chronic inflammation that causes mucus, coughing and increased respiratory effort. Inflammation consumes vitamin C, and low vitamin C levels lead to inflammation-a vicious cycle that explains why older horses suffer more from respiratory disease. Of course, vitamin C supplements are very important, but ensuring good air quality is equally crucial.

This means putting them in paddocks as much as possible or keeping them in pits at times when the air quality is low, such as when there is pollen in trees, grass, or flowers or when ozone or other environmental pollutants (e.g., PM10) are high. When in the pits, it is essential to use a low-dust litter and feed low-dust feed and Forage. Feeds can be humidified, while there are three options for forages: hay-silo, soaked hay, or steam-Steamed hay.

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Colic in the aged horse

Colic is one of the most common problems of the aged horse. Both the ability to digest food and the ability to absorb nutrients decrease, and gas colic can occur due to poor forage hygiene. Impact colic can result from poor chewing and low moisture content of forages; reduced appetite and forage intake combined with reduced gastric mucosal integrity are just two of many factors that increase the risk of gastric ulcers in older horses. Pain and discomfort from gastric ulcers can in turn lead to an increased risk of colic.

Cushings Syndrome / PPID

This becomes more common in horses from 15-20 years of age. The best-known signs include a thick, rough coat that changes very slowly with the arrival of spring, increased thirst and water consumption, more frequent urination, and lethargy. Cases of laminitis and weight loss may also occur. IfPPID/Cushings Syndrome is suspected, it is important to contact your veterinarian for advice on diagnosis, treatment, and management.

To conclude

Aging inevitably leads to a decrease in athletic ability and an increase in some health problems. Avoiding obesity or malnutrition is critical. Good quality forage is the basis of any diet, and ensuring good hygienic quality serves to avoid challenging the gastrointestinal, respiratory or immune systems of older horses. Forage with a high moisture content (such as hay, soaked hay, or Steamed by steam) is also important because of the increased risk of choking and impaction colic in older horses. Older horses often have reduced digestive function, and probiotics can be used effectively for gastrointestinal tract support. Finally, older horses have a greater need for certain vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamins C and E, which can be supplemented with good results.

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