Golden Trails

Seven simple keys to keeping your aging trail horse on a healthy path.
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Your beloved older trail horse has carried you miles on his back, and you look forward to many more. He's sensible, reliable, and bombproof. You use him to settle younger, more skittish horses.


Lately though, he seems to be struggling on those harder rides. He just doesn't seem quite up to tackling challenging trails. Is it time to quit? Probably not. But it might be time to slow things down a little bit. And hey, you might be ready to scale back, as well.

Here, I'll help you decide when it's time to reduce the demands on your older horse. Then I'll give you seven keys to senior-horse health. I'll tell you what major concerns you should have, how to recognize problems should they arise, and what you can do to help keep your aging trail horse healthy, strong, and fit to ride for as long as possible.

Along the way, I'll explain why you need to keep a close eye on tack fit, and I'll supply you with five signposts that indicate it's probably time to give your old-timer a well-earned retirement.

How Old is Old?
When does your horse officially become a "senior"? It's hard to say. Just like people, some horses show their age a little sooner than others. It often depends on the care they receive.

As a rule of thumb, every year of your horse's life is the equivalent of three to four years of yours. That means your 15-year-old horse is somewhere between 45 and 60 years in human terms, a time when some of us are slowing down and others are just reaching their peak.

Your 25-year-old horse is between 75 and 100 years in human terms, a time when most of us slow down (at least a little bit) and some are confined to a wheelchair or bed.

Your goal is to recognize how your horse is aging and modify your demands according to his needs. Start watching your older horse for signs of aging when he's about 15 years old. These signs include:

• Graying hair. Older horses will begin to show gray hairs, first over the eyes and around the muzzle, and later over other parts of the body. Gray hair may be the first sign that your horse is entering his senior years.

• Longer haircoat. Many aging horses begin to grow a longer, thicker haircoat. Although they still shed during warmer months, even their summer coat is heavier than that of their younger counterparts. If this long haircoat is excessive, begins to curl, or fails to shed, your old-timer could be developing Cushing's disease, a hormonal abnormality common in older horses. If you see this happening, ask your veterinarian whether testing for Cushing's disease would be advised.

• Loss of muscle tone. Your older horse may begin to lose muscling over his back and hindquarters, often accompanied by a swaying back and pendulous belly. Although this can be a completely normal physical change, it might also indicate the need for changes in his care. Pay attention to his condition and ability to keep up on the trail. A loss of muscle tone is another possible sign of Cushing's disease, so ask your vet whether this change in physique is extreme.

• Behavioral changes. As your horse ages, he's likely to become more settled. He's less likely to spook or resist requests from handlers, because he's "seen it all." It's this maturity that makes an older horse a good mount for children or beginning riders. However, if your horse's behavior changes from settled to grouchy, it might be time to scale back your work demands.

• Stiffness and soreness. Just like you, your horse might find it harder to "get out of bed" in the morning as he ages, and might even struggle a bit with hard trails or long rides. Pay attention. Offer him plenty of time to warm up and get moving, and modify your rides according to what he seems comfortable doing.

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7 Keys to Optimal Health
When you start to see the signs of aging in your horse, it's time to pay particular attention to his care to help ensure he stays healthy and happy. Keep your aging horse on the right path with these seven keys to optimal senior-horse health.

Key #1: Proper Nutrition
Why it's a concern: Old age brings on a number of changes in your horse's nutritional requirements. Most important, his intestinal tract won't function as efficiently as it once did, making it more difficult for him to digest his feed to make use of energy and protein. His ability to absorb and process vitamins and minerals also changes. Specifically, your senior horse will experience reduced digestion of fiber, protein, and phosphorus.

Red alerts: You might begin to see your old-timer losing weight. His back might begin to drop naturally as he ages, giving him a swaybacked appearance. His spine, pelvis, and ribs will become more visible. If his spine and pelvic bones become very pronounced, but he has a large, round belly, he might be getting plenty of forage, but is lacking the protein he needs. It's time to evaluate his ration.

Management tips: To accommodate your aging horse's nutritional needs, feed him a diet that consists of 12 to 14 percent protein, 0.3 to 0.4 percent phosphorus, and 0.6 to 0.8 percent calcium. Supply his feed in a highly digestible form, such as good-quality hay with minimal stems, or a processed pellet. If weight-management becomes difficult, you can add up to two cups of vegetable oil to his daily ration.

The simplest way to provide good nutrition to your geriatric horse is by giving him a commercial feed or "senior diet" specifically designed to meet his needs. You can feed these products either in addition to hay and pasture, or as a complete feed as your old-timer reaches a point at which he can no longer chew effectively.

Key #2: Regular Dental Care
Why it's a concern:
As your horse matures, his teeth continue to erupt (break through the gum) so he can grind and process feed. Eventually, the reserve crown (the tooth portion buried under the gum) is expired or "used up." Although this generally doesn't occur until he reaches his mid- to late 20s, when it does happen, it'll drastically hinder his chewing ability. In addition, the exposed teeth become smaller in diameter as they erupt, resulting in spaces between the teeth that are prone to infection. Finally, tooth loss is more likely to occur as your horse ages, compromising his dental balance and his chewing ability.

Red alerts: Your horse might show bit discomfort by opening his mouth or tossing his head. He might experience weight loss and chewing difficulty. If your horse drops a lot of feed at mealtime, tips his head to the side when he chews, or leaves behind wads of partially chewed hay, ask your veterinarian to perform a thorough dental examination.

Note that your horse might even pack partially chewed hay in his cheeks to protect his soft, sensitive gum tissue from his teeth's sharp edges. From the outside, these hay wads look like facial swelling that comes and goes.

Serious dental problems will cause a foul smelling odor to come from your horse's mouth or a discharge from one nostril. If you notice these signs, arrange for immediate veterinary care.

Management tips: Schedule a dental examination every six months. Your veterinarian can identify and correct problems as much as possible, minimizing risk of tooth loss. Eventually, problems may not be correctable, and your horse will begin to lose his teeth. A regular dental exam will tell you when it's time to feed your horse only a moistened, pelleted ration that he can digest easily, without excessive chewing.

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Key #3: Regular Hoof Care
Why it's a concern: Of course, you should maintain a regular trimming or shoeing schedule. Your senior horse is vulnerable to chronic musculoskeletal issues, such as arthritis, making regular hoof care especially important to help keep him comfortable. He's also more prone to founder (a chronic, painful foot inflammation), in part because it's secondary to some metabolic diseases (such as Cushing's disease) common in older horses.

Management tips: Hoof care is easy; simply maintain a regular trimming schedule with your farrier. Your farrier can help you spot hoof and foot problems that might require veterinary treatment. Generally, trimming every eight weeks is all you'll need, unless your horse has specific problems that require more regular care.

If you ride regularly during summer months, a more frequent interval may be needed to maintain proper balance of his feet. Some horses fare better with as little as four weeks between farrier visits; even if there's not a lot to trim, foot-balance adjustments can help maintain his soundness. In the wintertime when hoof growth is slow, you might be able to go 10 weeks between farrier visits, especially if you ride less during this time of year.

Of course, regularly clean your horse's feet, and check for rocks or sticks that may be imbedded in his frog or sole. Pick his feet before and after every ride. During wet winter months, consider applying something to control thrush (an infection of the frog). Effective thrush-control products include Kopertox by Fort Dodge Animal Health, Thrush Buster by Mustad, and Thrush Remedy by Absorbine, all available at your local equine-supply store.

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Key #4: Appropriate Exercise
Why it's a concern: Your aging horse might experience musculoskeletal issues as he ages, most commonly due to degenerative joint disease or arthritis. He'll also have a more difficult time maintaining his condition. While he might've been just fine for weekend trail rides with minimal conditioning in his youth, he won't be able to tolerate that kind of schedule as he grows older. He'll fare much better with regular work.

Red alerts: Your horse might become more stiff and sore if he spends too much time confined. In addition, if he's not worked enough to maintain his physical condition, he'll get tired on the trails.

Management tips: Find a large paddock or pasture with a sheltered area. This will allow your horse freedom to move around, which will not only help him maintain condition but also will help prevent him from getting stiff and sore. Ride or longe him at least four to five days per week if you plan to continue regular trail riding. A regular exercise schedule will be beneficial, even if you only work him for 20 to 30 minutes at each session.

Key #5: Regular Grooming
Why it's a concern: Your older horse might develop a long, sweat-inducing haircoat (especially if he develops Cushing's disease) that can lead to skin conditions. If he lives outside in the rain or mud, groom him regularly to check his skin for wet-weather related problems such as rain rot (a bacteria that thrives in wet conditions) or mud fever (an infection that can cause his legs to develop scabs and swell). In summer months, he may be more at risk for allergies to insects that can affect his skin.

Red alerts: Watch for crusting, scabs, or hair loss that could indicate your horse has a skin problem. If he's outside in rainy conditions, pay close attention to his back and lower legs where problems are most common. In warm weather months, watch his belly for scabs that could indicate an insect hypersensitivity.

Management tips: Groom your horse at least two to three times per week with a soft-rubber currycomb that will stimulate his skin, and help remove dead skin and hair. During warm months, practice regular pest control.

Key #6: Proper Joint Maintenance
Why it's a concern: Your horse might experience problems with his bones and joints as he ages, especially if he's been a hardworking trail partner.

Red alerts: Carefully watch for signs of stiffness or outright lameness. You might notice that he has more trouble standing and holding up his legs for the farrier.

Management tips: If you think your horse is having joint problems, call your veterinarian for an examination. Consider giving your horse a dietary supplement. Look for arthritis aids, such as glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronic acid, and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM).

Talk to your vet about prescription joint therapies, such as intravenous hyaluronic acid (brand name, Legend) or polysulfated glycosaminoglycans (brand name, Adequan). Your vet might also recommend a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as phenylbutazone ("bute") or flunixin meglumine (brand name, Banamine) before or after trail rides to enhance your horse' comfort. Your vet can help you design a plan based on your individual horse's condition.

Key #7: Regular Veterinary Visits
Why it's a concern: Your senior horse is at risk for developing a wide range of medical problems, such as those described here.

Red alerts: Watch your horse closely for any sign that he's not feeling well. These signs might include weight loss, difficulty chewing, stiffness, lameness, and behavioral changes, such as increased aggressiveness or depression.

Management tips: Schedule yearly veterinary examinations to identify any problems. Keep up-to-date on vaccinations and deworming. Consider an annual blood panel to help identify anemia, liver or kidney problems, or other metabolic abnormalities. Your vet will help you monitor your horse's condition, and design a plan to keep your aging horse healthy and strong for years to come.