Student Blogs

Caring for Older Horses

[older horses]

With proper care, older horses can prosper

The lifespan of the horse has increased over the years. Improved veterinary medicine, a better understanding of care, and the role of horses as pasture pets are some of the factors that allow horses to live past 20 and even 30 years of age.

Older horses, however, need proper care and management so they remain comfortable and so we can have even more years with them. Common conditions that affect the well-being of older horses include osteoarthritis, dental abnormalities, and weight loss or weight gain.


Osteoarthritis is pain in the joints from a degenerative inflammatory process. While arthritis is not reversible, we can treat the pain and decrease the effect of the disease on the horse’s lifestyle.

This condition can often be managed through good husbandry. Providing horses with a clean, dry, well-bedded area to lie down if they choose is important. Just like humans, horses need the chance to be able to get off their feet and give themselves a break. It is also important to have routine foot care so that when they are standing, their feet are as balanced and comfortable as possible.

Weight control and exercise are crucial in managing arthritis. A horse that is overweight will put unnecessary pressure and strain on the joints. Therefore, keeping horses at an appropriate weight is vital. Allowing as much paddock turnout as possible is great for arthritis. Horses that self-exercise, or are allowed to keep moving at their own pace, will decrease the pain associated with arthritis that comes from standing still, such as in a stall.

In addition, there are some medications that can help to reduce the inflammation in the joints if a change in management does not decrease pain in the horse.

Dental Problems in Older Horses

A horse’s teeth continually erupt or grow throughout his life. But sometimes in geriatric horses, the teeth actually reach the end of growing, and when this happens, dental conditions might arise. They may develop missing teeth, broken teeth, sharp points that cause pain, or just teeth that are worn down.

All of these problems can prevent a horse from being able to chew properly, which in turn prevents the horse from being able to absorb the nutrients he needs, and predisposes to choke.

An older horse should have an oral exam twice a year to assess dental health. A horse that is quidding, packing food in her cheek, losing weight, or has an odor coming from the mouth may have a dental problem.

Proper Weight

The body condition score of an older horse is very important. An older horse that is too big or too thin will find it much harder to provide the proper support for the body to fight infections or support normal function.

According to the Henneke body condition scoring scale, a horse that is an ideal weight is a 5/9; its ribs can be felt but not seen. Horses that are obese may have underlying metabolic disorders, such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome or Cushing’s syndrome.

Appropriate nutritional support for an older horse will encompass palatable, digestible, and easy-to-chew food along with fresh clean water. For older horses, pastures often will not provide enough energy, and they will need to be supplemented with a forage or senior formulated grain.

Alfalfa hay can be unfavorable to an older horse; either grass hay or equal parts mixed hay would be preferred. Alfalfa hay is stemmy and is harder for horses with poor dentition to chew properly which could result in loss of body condition or choking on poorly chewed food. Grass hay is softer and easier for them to chew and obtain proper nutrients and energy.

A pelleted feed specially formulated for seniors is also a good way to supplement their diet, as it has forage processed into the pellets. Other pelleted or cubed forages are an alternative to hay if your horse is not able to properly chew hay.

Prepare Older Horses for Winter

Management of older horses is very important going into the winter months. Your older horse should have a body condition score of 5 to 6 out of 9. That means you are not able to see the horse’s ribs, but you can feel them under slight pressure.

Blanketing older horses during the winter should be considered, especially if they do not have enough fat to maintain proper body temperature or cannot maintain proper body weight. Their teeth should also be checked to make sure that they do not have any dental problems that would impact their ability to chew their food.

With proper care and management, the older horses in the barn can have long and comfortable lives. When we provide proper body condition scoring, nutrition, dental checks, and managing arthritis, the older generation can prosper and in turn provide many opportunities for us to learn from them.

Dr. Ceara Suther