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As people age, so do horses. While four decades ago, a horse over 20 was commonly deemed a ‘retiree,’ nowadays, it’s increasingly common to witness horses in their mid to late twenties still enjoying leisurely rides through the countryside or actively training in the riding arena. These wise animals, often imparting valuable lessons to their humans through a blend of stubbornness and mischievousness, are truly a joy to witness.

However, it’s essential to remember that around the age of 20, the onset of ‘little ailments’ requires much more attention and care in specific areas for a horse of this age compared to a younger one. Every winter poses a challenge for many owners of older horses, who eagerly await the arrival of the first green grass. With the arrival of warmer weather and the opening of the grazing season, many things often become more manageable.

Maintain a healthy weight with fibre-based feeding

The primary challenge often lies in providing species-appropriate nutrition to older horses for weight maintenance. A golden rule for older horses: It’s preferable to have a few extra kilos on their ribs than too little.

When they fall ill, they often experience a rapid weight loss, and regaining that weight always seems to take an eternity. A modest ‘weight reserve’ is always beneficial for senior horses.

Starting in their early to mid-20s, many horses begin to experience dental problems, a leading cause of emaciation. As dental issues arise, the chewing process slows down, causing horses to consume less roughage per day than necessary for their maintenance, even with an ample supply.

These issues escalate until, at a certain point, their only response is to twist the hay into coils and spit it out. As horses are natural roughage eaters, the allowance of concentrated feed cannot be indiscriminately increased, as it may lead to issues such as laminitis, diabetes, or symptoms of Cushing’s. Owners battle to keep every kilo on their horse’s ribs, a challenge amplified in winter when easily chewable pasture grass is scarce.

If you observe a gradual weight loss in your horse, it’s crucial to promptly supplement the roughage ration with soaked hay pellets. Since hay pellets don’t require chewing, this method allows for an initial increase in roughage proportion or the maintenance of the total ration to compensate for the deficiency caused by slow chewing. Begin with a small quantity and distribute the soaked hay pellets across as many small meals as possible, allowing the horse ample time to consume them.

If the horse is kept in an open yard, it should be separated during mealtimes if necessary. After the horse has successfully regained a healthy weight, the amount of hay pellets can be gradually reduced, addressing only the shortfall in the hay ration to maintain the achieved weight. The precise daily amount varies according to the horse’s needs and must be adjusted individually. Factors such as stress, temperature, level of exercise, and many others come into play.

For optimal protein content aimed at muscle building or maintenance, the hay pellets can be mixed with sainfoin pellets. As a legume closely related to lucerne, sainfoin offers an even superior amino acid pattern for protein metabolism compared to lucerne.

Old horses also benefit from sainfoin pellets.

Moreover, sainfoin contains condensed tannins, contributing to a stable horse intestinal environment and facilitating the enhanced breakdown of nutrients from the total feed ration.

Sainfoin should be introduced gradually, commencing with 100g, for example, and can then be increased to 3kg per day (dry). It should be soaked without question, and when dealing with substantial amounts, distributing the feeding over several small rations—preferably mixed with hay pellets—is highly recommended.

Many elderly horses experience a more or less advanced ‘malabsorption disorder.’ Consequently, they progressively extract fewer nutrients from their food. As a result, it’s often necessary to provide the horse with a surplus of nutrients, surpassing its actual requirements.

This is applicable not only to the quantity of roughage but also, and perhaps more crucially, to the provision of vitamins and minerals/trace elements. Ensure that your senior horse is regularly provided with a high-quality and, if feasible, slightly more concentrated mineral feed. For this purpose, consider using products like OKAPI Senior Minerals, which can be blended with hay pellets.

Concentrated feed only in moderation!

It’s frequently tempting to quickly ‘feed up’ a thin senior horse by offering substantial amounts of concentrated feed. Unfortunately, this does not work. Authentic weight gain, particularly in terms of muscle mass, necessitates a combination of time, exercise, and a diet rich in fiber. However, it might be necessary and recommended, particularly in cold winters, to incorporate a share of ‘fast energy’ through concentrated feed, given that older horses need to expend a significant amount of energy on ‘heating.’

We suggest soaking crushed barley along with the hay pellets. As a general guideline, limit the ration to no more than 0.5 liters per meal and a total of 1.5 liters per day. Commence with a small amount, like half a cup, and proceed to increase the quantity very gradually. Overfeeding grain raises the risk of laminitis and insulin resistance, especially as older horses may face challenges in regulating their blood sugar levels adequately.

Hence, it’s advisable to use grains in moderation overall. It is not employed for weight gain but rather to prevent weight loss, particularly in instances of extremely low temperatures when horses in cold stables expend additional energy for heat supply.

Oil interferes with digestion in horses. © Adobe Stock / emmi

Oils do more harm than good

Adding oil to the feed is popular with old horses. While it may be effective for dogs, the same approach proves detrimental for horses. Given the horse’s limited ability to digest oils without a gall bladder, incorporating cooking oil into their feed is counterproductive. The undigested oil not only hinders proper digestion but also disrupts the absorption of essential nutrients, posing toxicity risks to the crucial intestinal flora of the horse.

Hence, it is advisable to refrain from adding oil, including in hay pellets. Conversely, incorporating a moderate amount of oilseeds into the feed ensures that the horse receives fatty acids in a usable form, facilitating the digestion of other nutrients. In winter, you can enhance the hay pellets by including linseed, wild seed mixtures, or hulled sunflower seeds, thus elevating the content of easily digestible, essential fatty acids.

Yet, their role is not in promoting weight gain or energy production; instead, they serve as essential building blocks for regeneration. Horses utilize them to produce sebum, maintaining a water-repellent coat and conserving energy.

Yes to protein, but in the right quality

To enhance the protein content of the diet and prevent muscle loss, incorporating sainfoin, which blends seamlessly with hay pellets, is highly effective. As an alternative, spirulina algae can be introduced, offering not only an outstanding detoxifying effect but also a rich source of essential amino acids.

For most horses, it can also be blended with the hay pellets. Begin with a small quantity to acquaint the horses with the relatively strong flavor.

Spirulina algae can also be used interchangeably with sainfoin. While spirulina algae supports the detoxification metabolism, sainfoin contributes to stabilizing the intestinal environment. Both benefit the horse’s overall metabolism.

Use treats sparingly, even with older horses. Treats such as carrots and apples should be given in moderation: one or two carrots a day or alternatively one or two apples. Excessive amounts can significantly disrupt the digestive process.

Therapeutic support for the cold months

If a senior horse tends to experience circulatory problems, such as mild colic, weather-related colic, heavy breathing (‘pumping,’ ‘hyperventilating,’ or ‘pulling’), or excessive sweating behavior, the supplementation of L-carnitine has proven to be effective.

Elderly horses, in particular, frequently experience an underlying deficiency of L-carnitine, which restricts energy production in the muscles.

Supplementary feeding not only supports the reconstruction of skeletal muscles but also fortifies the heart muscle, contributing to the stabilization of circulation. This also yields an immediate positive impact on digestion and the overall metabolism.

Another issue of concern for older horses is osteoarthritis. These degenerative joint processes typically initiate between the ages of 16 and 20 and escalate with advancing age. Sport horses and heavyweight breeds often experience more pronounced effects, but ultimately, osteoarthritis can impact horses of all types.

To maintain joint flexibility, regular gentle exercise is crucial. Standing is poison for arthritic joints!

To minimize the risk of joint issues, it’s recommended to keep horses in a calm group setting in an open yard or a stable with ample turnout, ensuring they avoid prolonged periods of standing. To address mild joint issues, consider regularly providing the horse with dried rose hips. Alternatively, during a walk in the woods, you can allow the horse to pick its own rose hips from a bush, ensuring they are neither unripe nor rotten.

Rose hips in a bowl
Rosehips are often helpful for the joints of old horses. © Adobe Stock / pilipphoto

Rosehips have a mild anti-inflammatory effect on joints and provide high-quality fatty acids in their seeds.

Sprinkled in the turnout, they provide a nice winter activity. If a horse experiences short-term issues in very wet and cold weather, you can also mix fresh ginger root—available in any supermarket—into the feed.

Typically, about one teaspoonful of fresh ginger per day is sufficient to assist an arthritic horse during such days.

Crucially, ginger should not be administered for more than 5 consecutive days, as, according to Chinese medicine, it exerts a potent ‘heating’ effect that may disturb the metabolism in the long run.

In cases where issues persist beyond a few damp and cold days, incorporating powdered devil’s claw into the feed has demonstrated efficacy as an herbal anti-inflammatory, particularly for moderate to severe osteoarthritis.

It typically takes around two weeks for devil’s claw to reach its maximum active ingredient level, and a similar duration is required after cessation of use for complete breakdown.

Administer devil’s claw as a regimen for an initial period of six to eight weeks and monitor its impact. If the horse exhibits a notable decline in movement after discontinuing, devil’s claw can be administered throughout the entire winter.

To partially rebuild or maintain cartilage, you can incorporate glucosamine sulfate into the horse’s diet. Green-lipped mussels contain glucosamine sulfate, making them a common therapeutic choice. Green-lipped mussel extract, widely used for its benefits, often has a strong fishy odor and may be poorly accepted.

A horse does not normally eat mussels. The pure synthetic active ingredient, such as OKAPI Synofit, is a more suitable option in this case. As a rule, half a teaspoon to a teaspoon per day is typically sufficient to supply the horse with adequate nutrients.

Synofit is suitable for at least partially rebuilding the cartilage © OKAPI GmbH

Synofit should also be administered as a course, either concurrently with devil’s claw or immediately following it, for a duration of six to eight weeks. If the horse exhibits a significant decline in mobility after the treatment is stopped, the course can be repeated, or Synofit can be administered continuously.

If specific joints are affected, applying leeches to those joints has proven to be effective. Horses with these conditions also experience benefits from ceramic boots worn on the affected joints, such as those provided by CeraTex or Back on Track.

At first, leave these boots on only briefly and observe the horse. Then, the duration can be gradually increased, all while closely observing the horse. If the horse displays discomfort or attempts to remove the boots, shorten the duration to ensure the horse’s comfort.

Support in spring

As horses age, changing their coat becomes more challenging, especially noticeable during spring. The sun is shining warmly, and the horses are still clad in their thick coats! If necessary, you should grab the clippers and give the horse an “athletic trim”: in particular, just trim a stripe into the coat on the neck and flank.

If old horses do not shed their winter coat, a strip can be clipped on the neck and flank. © Adobe Stock / Tina Bauer

This enables the horse to better regulate its body temperature, avoiding thermal stress that can further strain the cardiovascular system. A complete clipping should be avoided. If a horse is unable to shed its coat entirely, it’s advisable to leave the coat on the back, around the kidneys, and croup, or at least keep this area longer, providing protection from rain and cold. However, the neck, flanks, and belly can usually be clipped without any issues. Simply observe where the coat gets wet in the rain – this area should be left longer if possible.

Furthermore, older horses often benefit in spring when supplemented with detox herbs and sulphur. An improvement in the change of coat is often noticeable.

Detox herbs support the kidneys, which undergo significant strain during the coat change. Sulphur, essential for hair growth, becomes a crucial mineral during this process. Often deficient in older horses due to their general condition, it plays a vital role in maintaining their overall health.

As a horse ages, the complexities of its care, including feeding, increase —be it managing osteoarthritis, addressing kidney issues, or dealing with coat changes. But the more they appreciate the care and attention provided to them. What’s more, after an exhausting and therapy-intensive winter, it’s always a wonderful moment when a 30-year-old horse bucks across the pasture in spring, squealing once again!

How old is a horse in human years?

Horses age Life phase Human age
1 Foal, yearling 6,5
2 2 year old 13
3 3 year old 18
4 4 year old 20,5
5 Physically fully grown 24,5
7   28
10   35
13 Middle age 43
17   53
20 Senior 60
24   70
27   78
30 Very old 85
33   93
36   100
Translated and adapted from an original by Jeannie Willems, LVT, RVT, BS,