TLC for our Senior Horses!

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Check-ups and check-ins still required for equine health and welfare

Trusty steed Sparky is ready to “retire”, but what exactly does that mean?  Certainly, there are management changes when it comes to the senior horse.  While there may be savings in some areas, there are still serious commitments of both time and finances to make sure Sparky, the once seasoned campaigner, does not suffer from preventable afflictions that come with age.  Your horse may be ready for retirement, but are you ready for this next chapter in your horse’s life?

Senior Horse Challenge
Regular care for retirees can be found within Equine Guelph’s online healthcare tool, The Senior Horse Challenge (

Test your senior savvy with Equine Guelph’s free online healthcare tool, the Senior Horse Challenge ( To get you started, here is a quick quiz:

True or False?

  1. Senior horses require more protein than an adult horse
  2. Senior horses put out to pasture no longer require vaccinations
  3. Horses tend to sweat less as they get older and won’t need salt or electrolytes
  4. It is easy to recognize pain in horses

The answers are further down in this article except for number four which is quite subjective. We will discuss this one first!  As a prey species, hiding pain is one of the top survival skills of the horse.  Signs of pain can be very subtle like shifting away from you when being groomed but others, like nipping, are painfully obvious. 

Research papers are emerging to help horse owners hone their skills in this tricky area.  From the Equine Facial Grimace Scale to ground-breaking work from researchers like Dr. Sue Dyson.  The first clue for horse owners is often a change in behaviour which frequently gets dismissed as the ‘new normal’ or missed all together if the equine is a senior “pasture puff”.  

See the pain recognition information sheet on the senior horse tool which lists: rigid posture, head lowering, squinting eyes, limp ears, teeth-grinding, increased flight behaviour, aggression, a decrease in responsiveness, flaring of nostrils, looking back at the flank, restlessness, stoic or pained expression, dull eyes, awkward tail carriage or aggressively swishing tail, reluctance to move, guarding part of their body or reluctance to be handled and more.

Practise Daily Diligence:

A daily check is in order for all equines, even for Sparky whose main job is now to munch on pasture.  Thrush could develop in hooves that are not picked daily; skin diseases sneak up quickly on the ungroomed horse and an undetected wound can spell big trouble if it causes an infection.

Provide Regular Care:

Farrier appointments are often the first cutback for the retired or semi-retired horse, but each horse is an individual and needs to be treated as such.  A balanced hoof helps minimize stress on the joints and hoof structures as farrier Sean Jones points out in the Senior Horse Challenge  feature video.  The threat of laminitis does increase in older horses, especially if they develop a metabolic disorder. Senior hooves require extra attention and input from both veterinarian and farrier. 

“Studies show one-third of laminitis cases are linked to PPID,” says Dr. Doug Myers, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health and sponsor of the Senior Horse Challenge tool. “The best rule of thumb is when you see symptoms of laminitis, talk to your veterinarian about testing for PPID.” 

Turned Out to Pasture? – Check in Frequently:

There may be a temptation for owners to turn the horse out to pasture and hope all is fine but staying on top of senior healthcare is not an occasional effort.

Body condition scoring (BSC) is a task to stay on top of with great diligence.  If Sparky becomes obese, that will also put more stress on his joints increasing his risk of a developing a metabolic issue.  Performing a regular BSC will also raise the red flag if Sparky loses weight.  Weight can drop quickly in a senior and it can be more challenging to restore optimal body weight as sometimes there are more than one health issue contributing to the challenge.  Old age is not a valid reason for declining body condition, and it must be addressed, as is true for for any animal at any stage of its life. 

Senior horses often require more regular visits for dental care, modifications to their nutrition program or a change of turn-out buddies if they are not getting their fair share of resources.  They also need to remain on a parasite control program.

Sparky may not need to consume as many calories as when he was in full work but what he does consume may need to soaked, extruded or both to make his feed easier to digest.

Move it or lose it

Sparky still needs the stimulation of regular exercise.  Use it or lose it relates to horses just as much as humans. An unused muscle will deteriorate over time. Tendons and ligaments which have seen their fair share of work will weaken over time. The senior horse’s exercise regime should be carefully considered to encourage mobility for health without putting undue stress on old injuries or areas of weakness.  Regular exercise combined with a quality protein feed is beneficial to maintaining the topline.

Exercise is also important for helping maintain healthy gut function. Lack of movement weakens muscles and bones. In many cases, mild exercise can help reduce inflammation in tendons, ligaments and joints. Exercise can also help prevent the senior horse from gaining too much weight.  Old injuries and wear and tear may mean the aging horse will need to have its athletic ventures scaled back, but the benefits of maintaining an active lifestyle can be healthier joints. Perhaps Sparky would like to go for a light hack?

Many older horses also suffer from pain due to arthritis. If possible, keep them moving by extending their turn out time. Any discomfort or pain should be addressed by a veterinarian who can suggest treatment options. Work with your veterinarian to decide what level of activity is suitable for your horse.

How did you Score? Quiz Answers:

Q.1: The answer can be found in the Ontario Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue, Retirement and Adoption/Rehoming Facilities.  It’s true!  Nutrient requirements of geriatric horses more closely approximate those of weanlings in terms of protein, calcium and phosphorous.  Geriatric horses are often fed diets containing 14% to 16% crude protein.  More great tips can be found in Equine Guelph’s Senior Horse Challenge in the Nutrition and Your Senior Horse fact sheet.

Q.2: False.  The fact Sparky is no longer taking trips off property does not eliminate the need for regular vaccinations.  Talk to your veterinarian to learn about the viruses endemic to your area and decide what vaccinations are required.

Q.3: False.  Electrolytes may be appropriate for the performing geriatric horse, as they sweat more at lesser intensity exercise.  Salt is a requirement for every equine as outlined in the National Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines.  Salt is essential for the horse to regulate fluids. It is a good idea to provide loose salt versus a salt lick as many senior horses have an even drier mouth than their youthful counterparts and the loose salt is easier for them to consume.

Much like people, elderly horses can be more susceptible to health problems. It is important to schedule an annual or bi-annual check-up with your veterinarian. Prevention is the best cure!

Take the Senior Horse Challenge (, kindly sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, to help make the best evidence-based decisions for the Sparky in your life.  Watch for an upcoming short course on senior horse care coming soon!

Related Links: 

Equine Facial Grimace scale:

Video Interview by World Horse Welfare of Sue Dyson on pain in the ridden horse

Ontario Care Guidelines for Equine Rescue, Retirement and Adoption/Rehoming Facilities

National Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines