For the Love of the Senior Horse
Senior horses are a lot like senior citizens in the human world: sometimes undervalued, but knowing one is an amazing journey of experience and teaching if we just take the time to listen.
As the proud owner of a 33-year-old Hanoverian named Lionheart, I know that taking care of a senior horse is both a privilege and, at times, a challenge. With the advancements in veterinary medicine, horses are living longer, and more retirement farms are dedicated to letting retired horses live in groups and develop close relationships with each other.
I have a small group of senior horses at my farm, all over the age of 25.
Taking care of these horses has taught me a lot: the importance of living in groups, and how exercise, nutrition, and dentistry play key roles in the lives of senior horses.
Living in groups
Horses forge close relationships in groups. They are biologically wired to live together, graze together, groom each other, and take turns keeping an eye out for predators and other dangers. This herd bonding I believe contributes hugely to the horses’ wellbeing and overall health.
Horses who have spent most of their lives in stalls with daily turnout will need some time to adjust to life in a herd or group situation. It took Lionheart six months to transition. One day as I led him out to his paddock, he looked over at the herd and I could tell he wanted to join them, so I turned him out with the other horses. He has lived with them ever since.
Although the retired horses at my farm are not ridden, they walk up and down hills, moving from one grazing area to another in a very large pasture with woods and a creek. They eat, they walk, they eat, they walk. This I think is an important component to their longevity: moving.
More and more horses in their late teens and twenties are still competitive, and others enjoy being ridden and going for hacks. Exercise is one of the best ways of increasing circulation to the joints, to the whole body and to the feet.
There are several important nutritional considerations with the senior horse.
Protein: Older horses may have a harder time maintaining muscle. These horses need more protein so that the body does not cannibalize itself by breaking down its own muscle to provide enough protein for many biological needs. Adding alfalfa hay and or alfalfa pellets or cubes will provide more protein to the diet. Knowing the protein content of your hay is important, as protein values can range significantly among different hays.
For added protein support I like to use BioStar’s Locomotion EQ, which provides branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
If the senior horse has metabolic challenges, I will use BioStar’s Impulsion EQ for added protein with an NSC of 5.1%
Probiotics: The microbes in the GI tract play an important role in mineral absorption in the body. Horses out on pasture 24/7 have access to the soil microorganisms, but in wintertime with no fresh grass available, they will need probiotic supplementation to help support mineral absorption. The same is true for horses on dry lots or on limited turnout.
Certain beneficial bacteria help the digestion of protein and simple carbohydrates, as well as the complex carbohydrates that are broken down in the hindgut. Active yeast probiotics work primarily in the hindgut, helping to breakdown and digest fiber. For older horses, particularly in winter when they tend to lose some body condition, adding a yeast probiotic can help them maintain their weight.
Low starch: Senior horses, particularly the easy keepers, benefit from a low-starch, low-sugar feed plan. The hard keepers may need higher amounts of fat from the addition of rice bran and/or coconut meal. I like to keep the NSC at 12% or lower. If a senior horse is already IR or Cushing’s, then I want to make sure the NSC is not higher than 10%.
The omega fatty acids: When horses do not have access to fresh pasture 8-10 hours per day, they need omega-3 supplementation. Flax and chia are excellent omega-3 sources. Chia seeds also provide the additional benefit of their mucilage content, which can help remove sand and debris from the GI tract as psyllium does.
Vitamin E: Numerous analyses of various hays over the past few years indicate reduced vitamin E levels compared with prior years. In wintertime when fresh pasture isn’t available, it is imperative that senior horses be supplemented with vitamin E. I use camelina oil because of its high vitamin E content and the balance of omega-3:6:9. Kentucky Performance Products has an excellent vitamin E supplement called Elevate.
Minerals: Commercial feeds are fortified with minerals and vitamins, but not in their most bioavailable forms. Mineral salt blocks are important for providing salt, but since they are just compressed blocks—rocks, essentially—they don’t provide adequate trace minerals that can be readily absorbed.
Plants chelate (couple together) minerals with free amino acids, thus making the minerals more bioavailable. We used to be able to depend on our hay to supply those chelated minerals, but in the last few years mineral composition in hays has been lower in micro-minerals like zinc, copper, and selenium. Some grass hays do not have the correct ratio of calcium to phosphorus to magnesium. Some will be too high in phosphorus and too low in calcium. Some have a disproportionately small amount of magnesium. Iron and potassium levels can be considerably high in many different hays.
Because chelated minerals are more bioavailable, it is important for senior horses to be supplemented with a multi vitamin/mineral that is sourced from plants such as BioStar’s Optimum Senior JS (which includes active yeast probiotics and joint support). In addition to Optimum Senior, I add Thorvin kelp in the wintertime to further augment trace minerals and provide more salt since the horses aren’t getting fresh pasture.
Joint support: Many senior horses have arthritis, and there are loads of joint support products on the market to choose from. One product may work for one senior horse but not for another. Or, a product may work well for a few months or even several years and then appear to lose effectiveness as the horse ages.
I have Lionheart on Optimum JS because he does well with the additional joint support in that formula. I also give him BioStar’s Circuvate EQ, which helps increase nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide is the body’s master circulatory molecule. Older horses benefit from circulatory support, just as they benefit from exercise and moving around their pastures.
Some senior horses need both circulatory support and support for inflammation response. I love turmeric and boswellia for anti-inflammatory assistance. You can give a turmeric and boswellia formula with a circulatory support formula for a plant alternative to bute and isoxsuprine.
Lionheart has had good dental care his entire life. Every year the equine dentist comments on what good shape his teeth are in. But that isn’t true of all senior horses; common problems include: lost teeth, gum infection, root infections, sharp tooth points and hooks. Dental problems can increase susceptibility to choke, weight loss, and lower production of mouth saliva, which means the stomach contains less bicarbonate—an important buffer of the strong stomach acids.
Soaked feeds, soaked hay cubes or soaked hay pellets can make eating easier for senior horses with dental issues. Some of the chopped hays like Dengie or Chaffhaye can also be easier for senior horses to eat.
Older horses can be more sensitive to stress, whether it’s from moving to a different pasture or barn, losing an equine friend, finding a new horse in the group, feeling changes in the weather, or adjusting to new human caretakers.
There can be stress from arthritis: in the horse’s mind, not being able to move as freely means being unable to get away from predators. Dental issues can be stressors too, as well as hoof issues like thrush, or skin issues like scratches and rain rot. I think we underestimate stress in senior horses if it isn’t overt.
All the senior horses at my farm get BioStar’s Thera Calm EQ because it addresses the brain/gut/adrenal axis. Thera Calm helps reduce cortisol from the adrenal gland, reduce inflammation in the GI tract, and supports the neurotransmitter serotonin.