Catch up on Part 1 of Considerations for the Aging Performance Horse first by clicking here.
Provide a safe, comfortable environment
Ensuring your aging has a well-bedded, sanitary space with adequate water and protection from rain, snow, direct sun, and biting insects will help keep them comfortable. Middle-age and senior horses may also become more sensitive to respiratory irritants such as mold, fungus, dust, and pollen. As a result, it is recommended that barn and stall cleaning is done while the horse is in turnout or being ridden so they do not breathe in dust stirred up during cleaning. Minimizing their exposure to these irritants by maintaining a clean and well-ventilated stable will go a long way in keeping an older horse healthy.
Like all athletes, horses can experience physical setbacks and are not always so quick to bounce back as they age. Osteoarthritis and laminitis are two common medical conditions that become more prevalent with age. It is important for the middle-age and senior performance horse to be managed with proper veterinary care, farriery, and a suitable training program.
Routine performance evaluations by a veterinarian are a useful tool in detecting subtle changes in a horse’s gait and movement before issues become injuries. A veterinarian will be able to suggest the appropriate treatment, such as anti-inflammatories, joint injections, biologic therapies, or alternative medicines, to maintain and even increase the horse’s flexibility, range of motion, balance, and ease any discomfort. Many owners begin consulting their veterinarian on regenerative and alternative therapies well before their horse has reached senior years as these therapies may help to support longevity in performance and better health for the horse’s organ and musculoskeletal systems.
Pay attention to changes in behavior and contact your veterinarian
Changes in the horse’s behavior or energy level, even minor or seemingly unimportant changes, can be indicators of underlying issues or disease. Exercise intolerance, poor coat condition, weight loss, stiffness, dropping feed, or changes in how much water they drink can be signs that something may be going on and should be communicated to your veterinarian. The sooner issues are identified, the sooner the horse can receive the right care and ultimately ward off serious illnesses.
Periodic preventative care checkups, performed at least bi-annually, can be key to catching many age-related conditions and diseases that owners may not notice in their everyday care due to a gradual onset. Involving your veterinarian in the management of your senior horse will go a long way toward ensuring their health and happiness throughout their golden years. Reach out to your Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian for any questions about your horse’s health at any age by calling 561-793-1599 to schedule an appointment.
From a veterinary perspective, horses can be considered “middle-aged” by 13 years of age, and “seniors” by 20 years of age. Although many sport horses may just be coming into their prime for training and competing during these years, horses show signs of aging at different rates just like humans do. As horses age some physiological functions start to decline, and they require extra care to maintain their overall health and condition.
Advances in diagnostics, therapies, and medications can help to support equine athletes and keep them performing well into their golden years. While many of the same health factors apply to horses of all ages, several additional and significant concerns should be considered for the aging horse.
Meet your horse’s nutritional needs
Aging impacts a horse’s ability to digest and utilize the nutrients in its feed as well as its ability to maintain weight and muscle mass. Senior horses require a diet that is highly digestible, palatable, and has an amino acid profile that will maintain muscle mass. As diet is one of the most crucial facets of a horse’s care, owners can consult their veterinarian to make sure they are fueling their aging horse with an adequate ratio and amount of high quality of forage, grains, vitamins, and minerals.
“When it comes to the best nutrition for senior horses, access to high-quality forage is very important and some horses may need free-choice quality hay to maintain optimum health,” said Dr. Marilyn Connor of Palm Beach Equine Clinic. “There are many commercially available feeds labeled as “senior” that are formulated to meet the dietary needs of the middle age to senior horse. These feed products are often beneficial to all adult horses as they are processed to be nutrient dense and highly digestible.”
There are many additional factors that go hand-in-hand with feeding a senior horse, such as minimizing the risks of colic and ensuring the best dental health. A veterinarian will be able to advise the owner if their senior’s diet is meeting the horse’s needs and setting them up for success in the years to come.
Be mindful of dental health
The digestion process begins in the mouth, so maintaining good dental health is imperative. Equine teeth, unlike human or a small animal teeth, will continue to grow throughout the horse’s life. An annual dental exam by a veterinarian will go far in preventing and fixing sharp points, hooks, chipped or fractured teeth, or damage to soft tissue within the mouth.
“In geriatric horses, the teeth are no longer erupting as quickly and as a result they may not develop sharp points as quickly. With age however, the teeth wear which causes the crown to thin and roots to shorten. As this happens, the teeth are more prone to damage and fracture. Regular dental exams – at least on an annual basis – will catch these potential issues sooner than if allowed to become problematic.”
“Another condition more common in geriatric horses is Equine Odontoclastic Tooth Resorption and Hypercementosis (EOTRH). This condition affects the incisors and occasionally the canine teeth and can be very painful. Often times, EOTRH can be recognized as irritability, head shyness, or if the horse struggles to bite treats like carrots. We can make a definitive diagnosis of this through taking radiographs,” continued Dr. Davis.
Monitor internal health
Older horses are more prone to developing endocrine diseases such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID or Cushing’s disease). These diseases can lead to progressive deterioration of healthy tissue and have major negative effects on almost every bodily system in the horse. A horse with unmanaged PPID is more likely to experience episodes of laminitis, chronic infections, anhidrosis, and infertility, as well as career-ending soft tissue injuries. Research indicates that between 20 to 30 percent of horses over the age of 13 have PPID, many with no clinical signs making the disease go unnoticed.
“I recommend that all my patients over the age of 13 start annual endocrine metabolic testing to look for early changes associated with PPID or EMS. Horses can start to develop these diseases at as early as seven-years-old. I think it is critical to be proactive in the middle-age and senior horse so we can start treatments to correct the hormone imbalances before they begin to cause long term damage or the horse sustains an injury that might have otherwise been avoided.”
Routine blood tests, such as a Complete Blood Count (CBC) or Serum Chemistry analysis are useful in identifying changes to the horse’s red and white blood cell counts (to see if they may be anemic) and to assess internal organ function. Having your horse tested every six to 12 months will be helpful for tracking and detecting any changes in their health and implementing treatment early on.
Immune system function also gradually declines with age, making middle-age and senior horses more susceptible to illnesses. It is important for owners to stay vigilant and up to date on their horse’s core vaccines, and to consult their veterinarian about timing and frequency of boosters to make sure their horse is protected.
Palm Beach Equine Clinic also recommends routine fecal testing to evaluate the horse’s internal parasite count and implementing a consistent deworming program. This is imperative for clients based in Florida year-round due to the lack of frost which usually kills many parasite eggs in northern climates. Fecal egg count testing should be performed twice per year, in the spring and fall, to assess parasite load in the intestines. It is important to note that not all parasites are susceptible to every deworming product, and the results of a fecal test will give the veterinarian insights as to the type of parasites and which dewormer is best to administer for that unique horse. Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarians have access to the laboratory equipment onsite to run the vast majority of these tests for rapid same day results.
The veterinarians at Palm Beach Equine Clinic take pride in emphasizing the importance of proper care for equine athletes that are aging into their senior years. Advances in equine medicine are enabling horses to perform longer. Last month, we discussed the importance of routine veterinary examinations to ensure top health, appropriate fitness programs to maintain stamina and muscle mass, treatments for physical discomfort, and proper care throughout the hot summer months. This month, we highlight how the evaluation of metabolic and organ function and proper parasite control can benefit the senior performance horse.
Horses from the ages of 12 and older are considered “senior.” Many horses that are in the prime of their careers are over this threshold and may require extra maintenance in order to continue performing at their best. Maintaining these athletes in peak condition requires teamwork between the owner and their veterinarian.
Metabolic Function of the Senior Performance Horse
An important component of physical health in the aging equine is the metabolic function. As horses age, they become more prone to develop a metabolic disease known as Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s disease, also known as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID), is when disfunction of the pituitary gland results in increased production of Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH), ultimately creating overproduction of the hormone Cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone and a surplus of this hormone negatively affects the body.
Veterinarians use the fasting test of ACTH that evaluates the hormone levels to screen for possible Cushing’s disease. This hormone test should be conducted every six months to monitor hormone production.
Cushing’s disease is often detected in older horses between 16 and 23 years of age, but it has been documented in horses as young as eight years old. A few of the clinical signs of Cushing’s disease include a change in body conformation such as the development of a swayback and pot belly, lethargic attitude, and in some horses the growth of long, “curly” hair with delayed shedding. Horses suffering from Cushing’s disease are at serious risk to develop laminitis without any specific predisposing causes.
Occasionally, horses may have Cushing’s disease without showing any outward clinical signs as the onset is quite slow. A simple blood test will be extremely helpful in the early detection of Cushing’s and other metabolic diseases.
Organ Function and Parasite Control
Blood tests are also necessary to determine whether a horse has anemia (low red blood cells). Serum chemistry testing can evaluate liver and kidney function to ensure these organ systems are working properly. Palm Beach Equine Clinic has the laboratory equipment on site to run the vast majority of these tests for rapid same-day results.
Palm Beach Equine Clinic also suggests a fecal test to evaluate a horse’s internal parasite count. In Florida, the peak worm season is year-round due to the lack of frost. The effectiveness of different dewormers can be measured using a fecal egg count reduction test, which involves performing a fecal egg count before and after deworming a horse. Equine tapeworms are difficult to identify in fecal examinations, so deworming for tapeworms annually with a product containing praziquantel, available in products such as Zimectrin Gold®, Equimax®, and Quest Plus®, is strongly recommended.
Establishing an effective deworming program for equine parasites has become a debated topic as veterinarians have changed their views on worming in recent years. New research has found that a minimal parasite load within the horse’s hind gut is actually helpful in producing a natural immunity. However, it is crucial to control the parasitic load. Due to the emergence of new resistant parasites, the recommended method is to practice proper barn management for prevention and control along with rotational treatment with anthelmintic medications.
Environmental management is imperative to equine parasite control. Veterinarians recommend removing manure from pastures at least twice weekly. Mowing and harrowing pastures regularly will break up manure and expose parasite eggs to the sun. If possible, rotate the use of pastures by providing a period of rest or allowing other livestock to graze them. Grouping horses by age in a pasture can reduce exposure to certain parasites.
Additionally, reducing the number of horses per acre to a minimum can prevent overgrazing and reduce fecal contamination of the grazing area. Owners should consider feeding horses in a feeder for hay and grain rather than on the ground. Lastly, caregivers should routinely groom all horses to remove bot eggs from the hair to prevent possible ingestion.
Contact Palm Beach Equine Clinic for an Evaluation of Your Senior Performance Horse
It is important for owners to consider all of these issues in the senior performance horse and coordinate with their veterinarian for routine testing in horses 12 years and older. Have questions? Contact your Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian today. Did you miss “Caring For The Senior Performance Horse Part 1?” CLICK HERE to catch up.
Advances in equine medicine are enabling horses to perform longer in their athletic careers than ever before. Together with veterinary care from Palm Beach Equine Clinic, educated owners can offer senior horses a happy and pain-free life as they age into their senior years.
Horses from the ages of 12 and older are considered “seniors,” but they often compete successfully into their teenage years. Many horses that are in the prime of their careers may require extra maintenance in order to continue performing at their best, and advances in veterinary care have helped extend careers. An 18-year-old equine athlete would have been rare 10 years ago, but today, there are horses performing at a high level well into their senior years. To maintain these athletes requires more work on the owner’s part, as well as the veterinarian’s part, however, preemptive attention to an aging equine’s needs may help keep your partner performing longer.
Maintain Top Health Over the Years
There are several areas of care that owners should consider in order to maintain their horse’s top health and ensure continued success. It is important to remember that just as the human body changes with age, the horse’s body does the same.
Owners should contact their veterinarians on a routine basis to have their horse’s overall health and fitness evaluated, no matter what the horse’s job is. All regularly performing senior horses should be evaluated a minimum of twice a year. If it is a pleasure horse, it should be evaluated at least once a year.
An appropriate fitness program is imperative to the senior horse’s performance. As horses age, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain their fitness. Any exercise that builds your horse’s stamina and muscle mass is essential, and the more your horse gets out of its stall and moves around the better. Anything from riding lessons to trail riding, or even hand walking, can be beneficial. There are new exercise aids available, such as treadmills, which are great for keeping the senior horse in top shape. Owners should talk to their veterinarian to help create a great fitness program that works for both them and their horse.
Like any athlete, horses can experience physical setbacks, so it is important for owners to have their horse’s gaits evaluated routinely. Veterinarians can suggest appropriate treatments to avoid creating larger issues, whether the horse needs a little assistance with the flexion in their necks or joint injections to ease any discomfort.
It is important to make sure that the senior horse’s stall is maintained for sanitation purposes and with a nice, deep bed to lay down in. The stall should be out of the direct sunlight and have fans for effective air movement and plenty of freshwater to prevent overheating.