Golden oldies

While older horses need more care, the extra effort pays off for their owners, writes Dr Mac.
Issue date : 05 December 2008

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While older horses need more care, the extra effort pays off for their owners, writes Dr Mac.
Dr Mac

By definition, veterinarians consider any horse over 20 geriatric and in need of a lot more care to stay in good condition, but it’s worth it. Some horses can still compete in the show ring or go out trail riding into their late 20s, or sometimes even early 30s. Worn teeth are probably the main reason older horses are put down. The teeth keep erupting throughout a horse’s life. In a young horse, the roots of the mandibular teeth reach down deep into the jawbones, but by the late 20s only 1cm or less remains. The crowns barely protrude through the gums, while the front teeth, or incisors, can be angled so far forward that the horse can only graze the softest grass.

Often there are teeth missing and the remaining teeth wear unevenly, with sharp edges and hooks that can cut the gums. The horse gradually starts losing weight and its coat becomes dull and patchy. Lack of energy because of improper digestion of badly chewed food results in long winter hair, even in summer, as the aging body struggles to keep warm. A n equine dentist can be consulted but, generally, feed older horses softer food that needs less chewing and is easy to digest. Kikuyu pasture, leafy lucerne and fine tef hay are a better source of roughage for them than veld grass, dry Eragrostis or lucerne consisting mainly of stalks.

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Several feed manufacturers now produce rations specially formulated for the older horse. They are in the form of an easily chewed meal rather than pellets and contain extra vitamins, amino-acids and omega 3 or 6 fatty acids needed to boost the aging metabolism. Higher levels of minerals such as phosphate, calcium and selenium are also included, as these are often poorly absorbed by the digestive tract in aged horses. When the teeth are really bad, stir warm water into the ration to make a porridge-like “mash”. I t’s important to keep an elderly horse in the right condition.

If it’s too fat its joints and hooves will suffer. Being too thin indicates loss of muscle tissue that may not regenerate, or if enough good-quality ration is fed, can indicate a hormonal problem or even a tumour – consult your vet. T he feet should not be neglected, even if only trimming is needed because the horse is unshod. If your horse’s joints creak early in the morning or tend to swell, or ringbone is developing around the pastern joints, joint supplements are advised. hese supplements are usually a powder containing hyaluronic acid, chondroitin sulphate and glucosamide, which is added twice daily to the food. The effects won’t be immediate, but a course lasting four to six weeks usually causes notable improvement. treatment can be repeated once or twice a year.

Hind legs often swell overnight due to poor circulation and should be supported with stable bandages from the hoof to the hocks. Elderly horses need exercise as standing in a stable all day causes the joints and tendons to stiffen up. warm blanket is essential in winter and a deep massage with a rubber curry comb will promote circulation in stiff back muscles. f there’s early morning lameness that improves with movement, a short course of anti-inflammatory powders may be advisable in the feed, but use under the direction of a vet as they’re prescription drugs and overuse can cause stomach ulcers. An annual vet check can be done and blood tests taken if the vet suspects any problems.

Elderly horses often make excellent children’s ponies or first horses for the novice rider. hack through the countryside on a wise old horse that’s seen it all and is unlikely to shy at something that would send a younger horse skittering, is a real pleasure. Because they often need only gentle exercise, they’re useful for the weekend rider who doesn’t have the two hours a day needed to keep a younger horse fit. Most riding schools keep a few elderly horses for beginners. They’re also very useful companion horses as they calm the antics of younger horses in the paddock and discipline rowdy young geldings. – Contact Dr Mac c/o [email protected] |fw