Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University, Alabama 36849-5612

Agriculture & Natural Resources

Cindy McCall, Ph.D.
Extension Horse Specialist

With advances in equine nutrition and veterinary care, many horses are living longer than their owners ever imagined. Today, horses over 20 years of age may still be active and useful as riding horses, and many horses close to or past 30 years of age are living in retirement. As with older humans, changes in the older horse’s body reduce its ability to successfully cope with everyday stress. With a little extra care, horse owners can keep their older animals healthy and productive well into their 20’s.

Research has indicated that older horses have reduced digestive efficiency compared to younger ones. This reduced digestive efficiency, combined with the finicky eating habits that many older horses develop, often makes it hard to meet their nutritional needs. Older horses need higher protein and phosphorus levels (and consequently higher calcium levels to maintain a correct calcium to phosphorus ratio) in the diet than younger ones. Most feeds formulated specifically for geriatric horses provide 12 to 14% crude protein, 0.3% phosphorus and at least 0.3% calcium. Most of these feeds also contain additional fat (up to 8% of the feed) to boost the energy content. Fat is digested easily and contains 2.25 times the energy of the same amount of carbohydrates, so it rapidly increases the horse’s energy intake without a drastic increase in the amount of feed given the horse. Increasing the fat content of the diet helps older horses stay in good flesh without increasing the risk of colic and founder that is associated with large amounts of grain in the diet. Other options for increasing an older horse’s energy intake are to add fat in the form of vegetable oil (up to 2 cups daily spread over two or more feedings) or as stabilized rice bran. Because rice bran is high in phosphorus, it should contain supplemental calcium when feeding it to horses.

Older horses often have dental problems which further compromise their ability to utilize feed efficiently. Their incisors increasingly slope forward with age making it hard for them to graze. Their molars can develop sharp points and other conditions which make chewing painful, and the grinding surface of their molars can become flat and ineffective. If a horse is dropping partially chewed food out of its mouth (called “quidding”) teeth problems should be suspected. Older horses should have their teeth checked one or twice a year depending on their dental condition. Older horses with poor teeth may need their grain processed into pellets which are easier to chew. Providing chopped hay or hay cubes may help these horses get the necessary long fiber in their diets. For horses which are missing teeth, pellets and hay cubes can be soaked in water until they reach a gruel consistency before feeding. Dried sugar beet pulp, soaked in water, also provides a palatable, easily chewed, high quality long roughage for horses. As with any horse, feeding small, frequent meals and allowing free-choice access to pasture or hay can increase the geriatric horse’s feed utilization and digestive tract health. Whenever possible, feed horses individually. Older horses may take longer to eat and may be more distracted by activity around them. When fed in a group of horses, the older animal may get bullied away from the feed before getting its fair share. A quiet, secure feeding area in which the older horse is separated from other horses, but not isolated, often helps increase its feed intake.

Older horses should be maintained on a routine deworming schedule. Horses over 20 years of age were around before modern larvicidal dewormers were available, and they may have scarring and damage to their intestinal tract which decreases their ability to effectively digest food. Some older horses which have trouble maintaining their body weight seem to benefit from deworming with a product that kills encysted small strongyle larvae, and others seem to benefit from the daily deworming products.

Horses, like people, may experience slower reaction times, stiffer joints and reduced exercise tolerance as they age. However, rest is not a friend to the older athlete. Consistent work, appropriate to the horse’s ability, is extremely important in maintaining condition and soundness in the aged horse. Aged horses which know their job do not need a lot of schooling. Specific skills practice (jumping, cutting, roping, etc.) usually can be reduced and replaced with general exercise, saving wear and tear on the horse. Also, owners of older athletes should carefully select competitions for older horses to avoid high stress levels associated with a heavy competition schedules. Older horses which are not sound enough to work or cannot be worked on a consistent basis should be retired to the pasture and should not be expected to be weekend warriors.

Geriatric horses have less effective immune systems and may be hit harder by infections than younger horses. Owners should check an older horse’s general health and attitude daily for any sign of illness. Vaccination schedules for older horses should be carefully maintained, and they may need additional protection (influenza, strangles, rhinopnuemonitis) that might be skipped in younger, more disease resistant horses. Reducing stress and injuries by providing age-appropriate companions, shelter during weather extremes, good footing and fencing conditions, and regular hoof care can help older horses maintain a good level of health and a sense of well-being.

It is estimated that 15 percent of the U.S. horse population is over 20 years of age. Older horses are often calmer and more consistent than younger animals. They often make excellent horses for beginner riders, children and adults who ride for relaxation rather than show ribbons. A few aged horses remain competitive in world class competition well into their 20’s and many older accomplished competition horses serve as “schoolmasters” for riders beginning a competitive career. Maintaining an aged horse requires a little extra care and expense, but most owners of older horses think that they are well worth the extra effort.