With showing classes for veterans having come to the fore in recent years, never has it been more apparent that our equine friends are living far longer than they used to. Whilst a horse or pony is still classed as entering the veteran bracket once he reaches the age of 15, many are enjoying an active lifestyle well into their twenties, and plenty more are living to see their third decade. This can be attributed to a number of factors, which include better medicine, a deeper knowledge of equine science, and improved diets due to advances in equine nutrition.
Whilst it is good to think that age is no longer a barrier when it comes to keeping our oldies going, it is crucial to remember that they will need special treatment and care due to the unavoidable toll that the ageing process takes on the body. Of course, all horses are individuals and some will age faster than others as a result of breeding, workload, management, and any pre-existing injuries or ailments.
Looking at the beautifully conditioned veterans that can be seen in the show ring today, it can be hard to believe that some of them are a day over ten years of age. However, a close inspection would be likely to reveal at least one of the tell-tale signs of age, albeit minimal. These include stiffness, hollows above the eyes, reduced muscle definition (especially on the hindquarters), a dipped back, a thicker coat, grey hairs, dental problems, and gradual weight loss.
To keep an old horse in top condition takes time and effort, and whilst it is sadly impossible to halt the ageing process, there are many measures that can be taken to help your old friend enjoy his later years in the best possible health.
As a horse gets older, changes will take place on the inside as well as the outside of his body, and the weight loss that is associated with old age is often a direct result of the ageing digestive system's reduced efficiency in absorbing nutrients.
Accordingly, older horses benefit from a diet that is high in fibre, as this will slow the speed that the food travels through the gut. There are also many supplements and balancers on the market that aim to maintain a healthy digestive system, and adding one of these to your older horse's diet before problems with weight loss arise can only be beneficial. Veteran mixes and cubes that have been especially formulated to tend to the needs of the older horse are also available, and vegetable oil is a useful additive for general condition (of the skin and coat in particular).
The golden rule of feeding horses little and often is even more crucial when it comes to the veteran, as this will make for easier digestion and lessen the risk of colic.
Regular dentistry is one of the most important aspects of caring for a veteran. Once a horse reaches around twenty years of age, it is highly likely that his teeth will have stopped growing. As a result, gaps can begin to appear and these provide the perfect harbour for pieces of food. This will inevitably lead to decay and gum disease, both of which will cause the teeth to become loose, thus compromising chewing ability.
Further to this, older horses may lose the power to grind as they chew, and suffer from hooks and overgrown incisors. Dental problems such as these add to problems with digestion, yet they can be overcome with remarkably little effort - a hay replacer made from soaked pony cubes will allow the horse to gain the fibre that he needs with little chewing action required.
As always, however, prevention is better than cure; six-monthly check-ups performed by a qualified equine dentist will help to preserve your veteran's teeth for as long as possible, and will enable you to re-address your feeding regime from the moment problems arise, thus minimising the chance of sudden weight loss.
Whilst a sway back, thicker coat and weight loss are common signs of old age, they may also be symptoms of Equine Cushing's Disease - a condition of the pituitary gland that can affect horses in the later years of their life. ECD leads to increased levels of the body's natural steroid, cortisol, being produced, causing sufferers to experience repeated bouts of laminitis. Therefore, an early diagnosis of the disease is imperative so that diet and management can be reassessed, as although there is no cure, there are steps that can be taken to give the horse the best chance of a comfortable life for a few more years. A curly coat is one of the most common signs of Cushing's, and in such cases it is in the animal's best interest to be clipped regularly all year round. Excessive thirst and urination, a pot belly, fatty crest, and lethargy are further symptoms to watch out for.
Although some of the conditions that come with age mean that the horse can no longer be worked, age alone is rarely a good reason for retiring a veteran! Many experienced horse people are of the opinion that the best way to keep an oldie going is to keep him in work for as long as he is able to enjoy it. Whilst it would be unfair to ride any horse that is badly affected with arthritis, gentle exercise can be the best way to ward off the onset of this condition and will also serve to keep mild sufferers mobile. Feeding a supplement that contains glucosamine, chondroitin and msm will help to maintain joint health and assist with mild stiffness, but phenylbutazone should be considered for more severe cases of arthritis.
An issue of veteran care that often comes under debate is whether or not horses should be turned away to pasture once retired. Any knowledgeable, caring owner will certainly disagree with this all too common practice, as while it is helpful to keep the older horse moving, aged joints and limbs should not be subjected to wet and cold conditions. Thus, providing your old friend with a dry, draft-free stable during the colder months is far better management, as long as some turnout is available during the day. As most horses develop dust allergies once their respiratory system begins to slow down with age, a bed of shavings is preferable to one of straw, and all hay should be soaked or steamed.
Veteran horses are also unable to regulate their body temperature as efficiently as their younger counterparts, and so rugging in cold and wet weather is necessary for well-being and maintaining weight. Good levels of care are just as important in the summer months as well, as age does not make the horse immune to the likes of rain scald and fly bites. Therefore, when considering putting a retired horse to pasture 24/7, remember that he will need just as much care as when he was in work. Our veterans have served us well and deserve to be looked after in their twilight years.
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