Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you're a fan of senior horses (come on, who wouldn't be?!). And many of you probably have a senior horse or two (or more!) that you're managing very successfully. But something I've learned over the years is that sharing ideas is one of the best ways to learn more!
At the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners' Convention, Dr. Mary Rose Paradis (DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM), of Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, in North Grafton, Mass., shared her tips for managing the senior horse and provided veterinarians with some great insight on what health conditions to watch for in aging horses. You can find a complete recap of her presentation at TheHorse.com/33215.
Taz's lean appearance over his back and hind quarters was simply an age-related change, our veterinarian said.
Photo: Erica Larson
After owning and caring for a variety of senior horses in varying stages of health and illness for quite a while, I've developed my own mental "toolbox" of sorts for managing older equids. And, I'm not going to lie, it was really exciting to see that some of the tips Dr. Paradis suggested were already in my senior horse care toolbox. And those tips that weren't? They are now.
Here are my three favorite senior horse care tips that Dr. Paradis brought up during her presentation, and I wanted to share them with my fellow senior horse owners. You can find more information about each of these points in the article on her lecture.
1. It can be difficult to determine if health problems seen in older horses are caused by age itself or by a disease process. So, for example, while it's entirely possible that your senior horse's diarrhea is just a consequence effect of aging, it could also be due to gastrointestinal problems, an infectious disease, or another ailment that's detrimental to your senior horse's health and treatable at the same time. Before I assume anything is simply related to a horse's increasing age, I always run it past my veterinarian.
In some cases—like our old Appy Taz's muscle wasting in his hind quarters and over his topline and his swayback—it really is just associated with his increasing age. In others, however—like our old Mini Brandy's laminitis bouts—it's associated with a medical condition. In Brandy's case, it turned out that her laminitis was associated with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, or equine Cushing's disease); once we implemented PPID treatment, she never had another laminitic episode again.
2. Although many people associate aging with weight loss, researchers on one study concluded that obesity is a bigger concern for aging horses than weight loss. At the farm where I worked, our senior horses were split about 50-50 when it comes to whether they were hard or easy keepers. One mare in her mid- to late 20s—a big grade mare named Chestnut who, somewhat ironically, was missing a molar—was the poster child for an obese senior. She never looked skinny (or, unfortunately, below a body condition score of about 7…or 8...) and only got (quite literally) a few pellets during feeding time so she wouldn't break the stall down when all her friends were eating. On the flip side, we had a little Pony of the Americas mare called Shasta who ate the most of nearly any horse in the barn twice per day, every day. Her teeth were in as good shape as can be expected for a horse in their late 20s, she had free-choice hay or pasture all day in addition to her senior feed, and she never once looked "fat." Her body condition score hovered between 4 and 5, depending on the season, and our veterinarian was happy with that.
Still, we had another mare—T.C., a Thoroughbred—who, while she remained in good body condition, was the pickiest eater we'd come across. If my memory serves correctly, after choking on her grain one day, our vet suggested placing a few smooth rocks in her feed tub to slow her eating down. Well, she didn't like the rocks and refused to eat around them. Then we tried switching her to senior feed and soaking it. Nope. We tried alfalfa cubes, both soaked and unsoaked. She wanted nothing to do with them. In the end, we just had to try regular senior feed because she refused to eat anything else. Sure enough, she consumed the senior feed with no problem, and never choked again. I thought of T.C.'s case instantly when Dr. Paradis said during her lecture, "Often feeding the geriatric horse comes down to feeding whatever they will eat."
"Often feeding the geriatric horse comes down to feeding whatever they will eat," Dr. Paradis said.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Ultimately, the big thing here for me: Senior horses diets' need to be formulated to meet each individual's needs. Not all old horses need senior feed, but not all senior horses can get by on just hay and pasture. And some horses will only eat what they want to eat. I recently learned the value of having an equine nutritionist help formulate my horse's ideal diet, so moving forward, I'm pretty sure I'll always want a nutritionist in my corner when Dorado turns from a "grain Hoover" to a picky senior!
3. "The veterinarian is often asked when it is best to euthanize the older horse," Dr. Paradis said in her lecture, despite the fact that this question doesn't have one, firm answer. Something I think all senior horse owners dread is the day they have to part with their older horses. Sometimes the decision is made for them when a horse dies naturally, but other times, the owner is faced with a choice of when to say good bye.
Like Dr. Paradis said, there's not one firm answer that works for all cases. Senior Horse A might be riddled with disease and disorders, but is well-managed, comfortable, and happy. Senior Horse B, on the other hand, might not have a particular ailment, but is getting weaker, skinnier, and harder to manage successfully. It's not a simple black and white decision of when it's best to euthanize a senior horse. If doubts or questions arise about end of life decisions, your most important ally is your veterinarian—especially if he or she has known the horse for a while. He or she will be able to weigh the options with you, and ultimately help you decide what the best decision is for your senior horse's well-being.
Unfortunately, managing a herd of senior horses means there's going to be a lot of good-byes. Habibi had a tumor in her head. While she still appeared comfortable and in good spirits—aside from a persistent runny nose caused by said tumor—we said good-bye before her untreatable condition deteriorated and she lost her dignity. Wylie dropped a lot of weight, and then rapidly lost his vision. This decision was easier—he didn't adjust well to a sightless life, and we said good-bye. And through these experiences—and all the other ones I've been there for—our veterinarian was sympathetic, assured us we made the right decision, and told us things were going to be okay. That goes a long way.
What are your top three tips for managing old horses that might be helpful to another senior horse owner? Please share them below!