One hundred years ago when horses were mainly used for transportation, work and farming very few lived to become senior horses. In fact, the younger the horse was started into work the quicker he wore out. The horse was considered to be in his prime between five and ten years of age back then, and anything older was an old horse.
During those times, if a horse had not been started too young, had not been overworked, and had good health care and proper nutrition throughout its life, it might have lived to be a “very old” horse of 25 to 30 years of age. Now approximately 17% of the horses in the U.S. are estimated to be over 20 years of age. What may have been an old worn-out horse 100 years ago may just be coming into its prime today. Many performance horses are just getting settled into their work by the time they are in their teens.
What has changed in the last 100 years? One of the reasons is the workload has significantly decreased for most horses as today’s horses are primarily used for pleasure or competition instead of hard work. Lighter workloads do not put as much wear and tear on the skeletal and muscular systems, and the body has more time to recoup from stressful times. The understanding of horse nutrition has evolved dramatically and parasite control programs for the horse have improved enormously.
At what age is a horse considered geriatric? It depends on the individual because some horses age more gracefully than others. A general rule is that a horse 18 to 20 years of age is entering the golden years. Some horses remain in excellent body condition and health until the moment they die, while others deteriorate quickly or slowly over time.
Four key factors negatively affect the ability of senior horses to stay healthy and maintain proper body condition: decreased nutrient absorption, poor teeth, environmental and herd stress and disease.
Right at the top of those reasons are the horse’s teeth. So the importance of regular care of the teeth as the horse’s age is absolutely critical to their ability to chew their feed efficiently and thereby make it more readily bioavailable.
Decreased absorption of nutrients outside of the teeth issue comes as the intestinal lining decreases with age which makes it difficult for nutrients to pass the mucosal surface in order to reach the bloodstream. Focusing on providing forage and feed that is smaller and easier to digest is one of the ways to mitigate this change.
Older horses do not handle changes in environment well. Relocating an older horse from one farm to another or even from one pasture to the next can be very stressful, especially if it means a change in pasture mates. Older horses tend to fall to the bottom of the pecking order and may have to fight for food when an aggressive horse pushes them away.
Diseases that are age-related can make life much more challenging for the geriatric horse. Chronic weight loss can be the result of medical conditions like chronic infection, adrenal gland atrophy, liver failure or kidney dysfunction.
Roughage is of course a vital part of the horse’s diet, and without proper amounts, problems can occur in the digestive tract. Dental problems for example can make intake of sufficient forage challenging. Older horses appear to do better on fresh green grass even if they have lost some molars because grass is easily chewed and digested. The cycle of many older horses is to pick up weight during the spring, summer and fall when the grass is growing and lose weight in the winter when the grass is dormant.
Problems tend to happen when an older horse is asked to get its roughage from hay only. Signs that eating hay may be a problem in a horse are low intakes of hay or rolling and wadding of hay in the mouth. If this is the case you can try hay cubes in grass/alfalfa mixes, whole corn plant/alfalfa mixes and straight alfalfa if the horse is still struggling to eat cubes try pouring some water on them more easily digested. Beet pulp is another fiber source that can be soaked, making it easily chewable.
When the intake of feed is limited by mechanical problems such as dental or appetite-related issues, using a comprehensive vitamin/mineral supplement ideally with some digestive support ingredients will be a good way to go. You can also add additional fat to the diet of the horse because fat is a concentrated source of energy. Rice bran or coconut meal are 2 good choices, it would be advisable to have the horses liver function checked if you plan to increase fat in the diet.
I continue to hear stories of horses doing well right into their 30’s as we become more aware of the problems facing geriatric horses, they have a much better chance at surviving into their golden years than they would have had 100 years ago. Strong emotional ties can motivate many owners to be observant of their beloved beasts and to take the extra steps it requires to maintain them in health and comfort. In recognizing the different challenges that caring for and feeding older horses represent and taking steps to manage those challenges, it is now possible to enjoy their companionship for much longer than previously possible.