Horses are magnificent creatures and for centuries they have served mankind in many ways. As they age, horses just like people need a little extra care because just like us they can suffer from all sorts of age related health issues including arthritis. Knowing how to feed, rug and generally take care of an old horse means taking a close look at their diet, how much exercise they get (if any) and their general body condition.
One of the first and most important things when caring for an older horse is to differentiate whether a health issue is age related or if there is something else going on which could be disease related. If your horse has diarrhoea, it could be they have got some sort of gastrointestinal issue or maybe an infectious disease and nothing to do with their age at all. This has to be determined by a vet who would be able to establish what the root cause of the problem is and then provide the right treatment to suit the condition.
Many older horses as they reach their senior years have a lot of muscle wastage, especially around their hind quarters and over their toplines making them appear very swaybacked. This is a natural ageing process in horses which should not be too much of a worry for owners. However, horses and ponies that have suffered repeated bouts of laminitis and where the condition is associated with another medical issue like PPID (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction) or Cushing's disease, then the loss of condition is something else altogether and can be treated with the help of medication after being diagnosed by a vet.
Although many owners of old horses have a real problem keeping the weight on them, there is a far bigger problem that vets often have to deal with which is obesity in senior horses. If you have just got an older horse as a companion to another horse you own and don't know much about the animal's worming history, the first thing you need to establish if they have worms. You can do this by having a "worm count" done, either by contacting your vet or these days you can do this online very easily too. If the test comes back positive, you should worm your horse with the correct wormer and make sure you do this in the morning so you can keep an eye on them throughout the day.
It is also a good idea to keep them in their stables for a couple of days so no contaminated poop ends up in the paddocks. Some horses and ponies have been known to colic if they are wormed when they are heavily infested which is another reason to keep them in after worming in the morning. If you still have problems keeping the weight on an older horse even after worming, then you may need to speak to your vet or a nutritionist who will advise on which feed would be best for them and to rule out any other health issues that may be causing the problem.
If you have a real problem getting the weight off an older horse, this can be just as bad as not being able to keep the weight on them. It might be worth talking to an equine nutritionist so they can formulate a diet for the horse that meets all its needs so the calorie intake is less than the horse expends. The thing to bear in mind is that most old horses are no longer in work and as such don't need hard feed unless they are being given some sort of joint or other supplement. They can survive very well on hay and going out to grass.
The condition of an old horse's teeth will play a crucial role in how they are able to chew and therefore digest their food which will have a direct bearing on their overall health. The problems older horses have is their front teeth (incisors) tend to meet at a more acute angle as they age which means they become too long and therefore get worn unevenly. This in in turn means their ability to graze is affected and they cannot pull the hay out of their hay-nets that easily. Molars often get loose and then fall out which means an old horse loses it's ability to grind food too.
Because of teeth issues, hay needs to be soaked before feeding and left on the ground rather than in hay-nets. Soaking the hay also helps increase palatability. Regular check-ups with an equine dentist are essential to make sure there are no broken teeth and that no root abscesses have formed which are a common dental issue seen in old horses.
You can check if there is a tooth problem although bad breath is a sure indication there's an issue as food collects in any gaps which in turn can lead to a gum infection. The thing to bear in mind is the cost of a twice yearly check-up with an equine dentist would be recouped very quickly with an old horse getting much more out of their feed therefore the cost of feeding would be reduced.
Just as in people, old horses (and young ones) can suffer from arthritis with the majority of horses in their latter years developing some sort of joint stiffness. You may notice they have a much shorter stride and their movements are slower with a much reduced flexibility. Good management together with regular and appropriate exercise will help an old horse but you should seek advice from your vet as to the amount of work the horse needs on a daily basis. Together with a good diet that contains all the right supplements for joint repair and stiffness, a old horse suffering from arthritis can be made a lot more comfortable.
Many old horses develop cataracts which come on gradually as they age. Occasionally, an older horse will lose their sight due to the cataract but even a partially sighted animal can be cared for successfully and long as they are handled and approached with lots of thought and consideration.
In their latter years, horses suffer some of the same age related afflications as people do but with the right management and husbandry, owners can offer them a long and comfortable retirement. With this said, old horses still need regular exercise, a good diet, their feet picked out and regularly trimmed so they remain in top condition in their latter years so they enjoy life to the full!