In my experience, it's easier to keep a healthy senior horse in good shape than it is to bring an ailing one back to health. That's not to say it can't be done—I know it can be done, as I've had a hand in bringing several old horses back from illness or injury—but I'm convinced it's easier to do all you can to prevent problems from happening or getting worse in the first place.

That's why 18-year-old Dorado and the rest of my family's aging and senior horses have always received:

Quality preventive care and several quick vet calls helped Taz stay happy and healthy into his late 20s, despite having arthritis and uveitis.

Photo: Deborah Larson

  • The American Association of Equine Practitioners' core vaccines (Eastern/Western equine encephalomyelitis [EEE/WEE], rabies, tetanus, and West Nile virus [WNV]) and some risk-based ones (mainly botulism, equine herpesvirus, influenza, and Potomac horse fever), as needed;
  • Regular dewormings;
  • Regular dental care;
  • Semi-annual (at least) wellness examinations;
  • Good nutrition;
  • Regular exercise, be it under saddle, in hand, or self-exercise in the pasture;
  • Regular farriery care; and
  • Veterinary care as needed for issues that might pop up.

I think that's part of the reason we've been very lucky to have had very healthy seniors over the years. But try as we might, we can't prevent all health problems from developing.

Our Appaloosa gelding Taz, for instance, developed equine recurrent uveitis in his mid-20s. But, because we involved our veterinarians at the first sign of some changes in his eyes, we were able to manage it well—using a combination of eye drops, ointments, anti-inflammatories, and a fly mask—for the last few years of his life.

On the other hand, you might remember a story from one of my previous posts that outlined what can happen if a vet call for a similar problem is put off: A potentially treatable issue can grow into a life-threatening—or even life-ending—problem.

All that said, our old horses don't always make it easy on us when health problems are brewing; on more than one occasion, I've dealt with incredibly stoic horses—Dorado, for instance—that refuse to let you know that something hurts until it's a fairly substantial problem. My veterinarian is convinced that's part of the reason we're currently dealing with some nagging joint inflammation: Dorado enjoys going out and working—and running around his pasture like a loon—so much that he uses the rest of his body to compensate for a little ache or pain. Then, instead of dealing with one sore spot—the left front fetlock in our current issue—we end up dealing with multiple ouchie spots—his hocks and glutes, in this case.

And sometimes our seniors tell us there's something wrong, but they're not able to say exactly what it is. A perfect example—and the inspiration behind this post—is a barnmate's nearly 30-year-old mare who's never looked or acted her age and always weathered winter exceptionally well. And while she sure doesn't act her age, she lost some weight and actually started to look her age after this winter. This first sign of trouble prompted her dedicated owner to pack her up in the trailer and take her for an evaluation at a one of our local veterinary clinics (in fact, she's being examined as I type this!).

Horses are living longer than ever these days, and it's our duty as their owners to do all we can to keep them healthy and happy. All it takes is an ounce of prevention and the wherewithal to seek veterinary help if we notice a problem we can't handle on our own.

What preventive methods do you use to keep your senior horses healthy and happy? What signs do you look for to indicate there might be a problem? Please share you experiences below!