As those of you who have been following along know, Noble, who will be 30 next May, has had some health issues that started (or should I say that I noticed - they were probably creeping up on us before that) last fall. Thanks to our wonderful chiropractor/vet, who also knows a lot about endocrinology, the mysteries have been solved. It turns out he was starting to be insulin resistant and also had low thyroid. He also had a possible dental issue that seems to be resolved for now. He's completely back to normal now - he picks up his feet easily and it doesn't hurt him to do so, he's feisty, opinionated and active, he's eating well and just seems to feel great.
We have several other senior horses in our barn - Fred, who is in his early 20s but has special issues in part due to having had Lyme, Joe, who is in his late 20s and Blackjack, who is somewhere in his 30s. All of them have faced challenges, but right now (knock on wood), they are all doing very well. This made me think about the value that older horses have - I think they're often undervalued in our horse cultures - and the challenges of taking care of them.
To me, older horses can be of such value. I remember all the children and teens at several of the barns I was at who had young show horses that were really too much horse for them and actually impaired their ability to learn and progress in their riding, much less form relationships with their horses. There was too much emphasis placed on winning in the show ring or pen and not enough on solid learning or having a horse that was appropriate to the child's or teen's skill level. So many of them would have benefitted from the chance to learn from an older, steady horse, so their own skills could develop and flourish with the instruction an older horse can provide. Older horses can also be great partners for adult beginners, or adults who need a steady, reliable horse to help them learn and build confidence (not that all older horses are steady and reliable!).
Older horses can also be wise, and some of that wisdom, if we're lucky, can cross over to us. They are often patient, and kind, and forgiving, and even helpful - all traits that I think many of us would like to develop in ourselves. They have a quiet authority and a dignity of their own. And their weathered faces are special too. But I've learned through experience that senior horses take special care to flourish and be happy and comfortable. Here are some things I've learned that are extra important when dealing with the senior horse - many of you probably know a lot more about this than I do, so please chime in - I'm still learning from our old horses.
I think the most important thing I've learned is that, until a final illness, it isn't inevitable that a senior horse will be thin, or worse emaciated, or unhappy, or listless, or uncomfortable. But to prevent these things, care is required in a number of areas:
Nutrition - As horses get older, their digestive systems change and they may need feed changes to stay healthy. If you have a senior horse at one of those barns whose feeding philosophy is "one scoop" of whatever it is, plus two flakes hay, for every horse, regardless of age, workload or condition, you're going to be in trouble with a senior horse. Senior horses, in addition to adequate high-quality forage, may need fewer available carbs, particularly if they're retired, and may need more easily digested foods. Some senior horses do well on adequate forage alone, but some need supplemental feed to maintain their weight. There are a number of quality senior horse feeds out there. And horses with dental issues may need to have their feed soaked, and may need a forage substitute such as beet pulp. I've found that unfortunately many vets know relatively little about equine nutrition and feeding - you may have to educate yourself (there are a series of guest posts from Paradigm Farms on equine nutrition - see the sidebar - that might be a good place to start) - there are some good books out there on caring for the senior horse.
Dental - Many senior horses have dental issues due either to poor dental care in their early years, or just due to advancing age. Dental problems aren't a death sentence unless they remain unaddressed. But it's also important to have a dentist who is sensitive to the issues of older horses - I've had personal experience of having older horses overfloated - since very old horses aren't really growing much if any tooth any more, a too smooth surface can make it very difficult for them to chew properly. Also, due to age, the cartilage in their jaw joints (TMJs) may be worn or almost non-existent - a dentist who is rough or who forces the jaw open too far can cause significant pain and damage. If a horse has missing teeth or other dental issues, feeding soaked feed and possibly a forage substitute may be essential to maintaining health.
Farrier care - Senior horses need good farrier care just like any other horse, but the farrier also has to be sensitive to the needs of the older horse. Some older horses can be a bit "teetery" with a foot off the ground, and some may have arthritis which makes holding their legs bent for a long time or in a position too far off the ground very uncomfortable. A good farrier will make allowances for this kind of thing and do everything possible to make the horse comfortable.
Movement and socialization - All horses need to move, but old horses need it more. The more they move, the more comfortable their joints will be. Some senior horses may benefit from aspirin or joint supplements. But some senior horses have trouble staying warm and may need to be stalled, or at least in a sheltered environment, to be comfortable. Horses need to socialize with others, but old horses may be at risk of being harassed by younger horses, or even kept away from food or water - sometimes older horses lose their rank in the herd.
Eyes - Some horses develop cataracts or other eye problems such as a partial loss of peripheral vision, which can make them more spooky. Uveitis can be an issue for some horses and may take preventative care to control.
Metabolic issues - Old horses, even if in proper weight, often have more trouble staying warm in cold weather and keeping cool in hot, humid weather. Blanketing may be necessary when it wasn't before, and shelter from the sun may be needed in the hottest weather. Many older horses can develop metabolic issues like insulin resistance (young horses can too, especially if they come from the race or show world where steroids may have been used) or low thyroid. I was surprised to learn that overall body soreness, or reluctance to pick up feet for cleaning, can be due to insulin resistance, and that a thin horse with a normal coat (not just a fat, cresty horse with a heavy coat and poor shedding) can be insulin resistant. I also was surprised to learn that "failure to thrive" can be due to low thyroid (not just getting fat as I thought).
I just love old horses - being with them, caring for them, grooming them, and even taking them for walks!