In a horse’s senior years, typically considered to be around 15 years and up, various physiological changes occur that can impact their overall well-being.
It is important to note that individual horses age differently based on factors such as genetics, nutrition, health care, and lifestyle.
That being said, here are some common physiological changes that can be observed in senior horses:
- Muscle Atrophy: As horses age, there may be a gradual loss of muscle mass, especially along the topline and hindquarters. This can be due to a decrease in exercise, changes in metabolism, and the natural aging process.
- Joint Changes: Arthritis and other degenerative joint conditions become more prevalent in senior horses. This can lead to stiffness, reduced flexibility, and potentially lameness. Improving joint mobility and reducing discomfort becomes a goal for horse owners.
- Dental Issues: Aging horses can experience dental problems, such as worn or missing teeth, which can affect their ability to graze and chew properly. Poor dental health can lead to weight loss and digestive issues. Talk to your veterinarian about getting on a bi-annual teeth floating schedule.
- Digestive Changes: Senior horses may have a reduced ability to digest and absorb nutrients efficiently. This can result in weight loss or difficulty maintaining optimal body condition. Specialized diets may be required.
- Decreased Metabolism: Older horses may have a slower metabolism, making them more prone to weight gain if their diet is not adjusted accordingly. Conversely, some senior horses may struggle to maintain weight due to dental issues or other factors affecting their ability to eat.
- Weakened Immune System: The immune system of senior horses may become less robust, making them more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Regular veterinary check-ups and appropriate vaccinations become crucial.
- Reduced Cardiovascular Fitness: Aging can lead to a decline in cardiovascular function. This may affect a horse’s stamina and ability to engage in strenuous activities.
- Skin Changes: The skin of senior horses may become less elastic, and they may be more prone to developing skin tumors. Proper grooming and attention to skin health are essential.
With all of this ‘doom and gloom’, the most important thing to remember is this: Proper management of the senior horse can absolutely support a healthy and graceful aging process.
Dr. Nicole Rombach, founder of Equicore Concepts, explains:
“The main issues I see in middle-aged horses are musculoskeletal changes – low-level lameness due to arthritic changes, followed by back and neck pain. For the most part, it’s a case of discerning whether the horse is serviceably sound for its job. Can the horse be kept comfortable?
These ‘schoolmasters’ are precious as they offer so much to novice riders. Most owners of these older horses are understanding of their horses’ needs, and will support them as best as possible within their means.
This may be a combination of joint supplements, injections when needed, oral NSAIDs if the horse’s GI tract tolerates it, and a lower intensity of work. There is a fine line between comfort and discomfort, but owners and trainers who know their horses well, will usually adjust the workload as best as possible.”
So, What Can We Do to Help Our Senior Horses Age Gracefully?
Incorporating core exercises into the routine of senior horses can be beneficial in maintaining their overall health and well-being. Core exercises can help address some of the physiological changes associated with aging, such as muscle atrophy and reduced flexibility.
We recommend use of the Equiband Pro System to help senior horses with:
- Maintaining Muscle Mass: Core activation exercises help senior horses strengthen their abdominal, oblique and deep spinal muscles, which, in turn, contributes to overall muscle tone. This can be particularly important as horses age and may experience a natural loss of muscle mass, especially along the topline.
- Improving Posture and Balance: Core exercises can optimise a horse’s posture and balance. This is essential for older horses that may develop issues related to joint stiffness or arthritis. Improved balance can reduce the risk of falls and injuries.
- Enhancing Joint Mobility: Some core exercises involve gentle bending and rotational movements, which can contribute to maintaining joint flexibility. This is especially relevant for senior horses prone to joint stiffness and reduced range of motion.
- Supporting Digestive Health: Certain core exercises, such as controlled side bending/ lateral flexion, can stimulate the digestive system. This may aid in maintaining healthy gut function, which is crucial for senior horses with potential digestive challenges.
- Increasing Circulation: Engaging in controlled physical activity, including core exercises, can promote blood circulation. Improved circulation is beneficial for the overall health of tissues, muscles, and joints.
Working the older horse with the Equiband Pro is a great use-case because it is a low-impact system. A recent study at the University of Georgia showed improved spinal stability, hindlimb symmetry, and reduced back pain in horses being handwalked in the Equiband Pro System over just a 4-week period!
Some other examples of gentle core exercises for senior horses may include:
- Carrot, or “Baited,” Stretches (15-20 second hold time): Encourage the horse to stretch its neck and back to reach for a carrot or treat held towards the hock, not higher. This can promote lateral flexibility.
- Gentle Lateral Bending: During your ride, ask the horse to flex its neck to each side while standing still. This can help with flexibility and muscle engagement.
- Walking Exercises: Incorporate regular, low-impact walking into the horse’s routine. Walking on varied terrain can engage core muscles and promote joint flexibility.
- Tail Pulls: Gently lift and pull the horse’s tail straight back (2-3 seconds hold) to encourage activation of the core tunic muscles.
Four Tips for Senior Success
“I feel that longevity of our horses could be so much improved if horses were allowed to be horses: Movement is so important in maintaining body condition and strength.
In countries such as Sweden, which has some of the strictest animal welfare laws, horses must have access to daily turnout, in a space that is large enough that they can choose to move at the gait of their choice.
This is in contrast to many other countries where horses are still stuck in a box for 23 out of 24 hours. This is equivalent to bedrest in humans! There is virtually no chance of a horse gaining or retaining adequate long-term vitality with this type of husbandry,” explains Dr. Rombach.
If you have a senior horse, remember these key points:
- Give them adequate room to move and keep them moving as much as possible to maintain condition (low-impact is usually best).
- Feed appropriate nutrition.
- Commit to regular dental care and farrier appointments.
- Provide a social atmosphere with other horses.
By following these four simple steps, you will be well on your way to a gracefully aging horse that is comfortable and conditioned.
Age does not have to mean pain or decline, especially if your management is dialed in, and that is a very exciting advancement in horse ownership.
→ Use the Equiband Pro System to help you accomplish goal #1 of keeping your older horse conditioned. Try yours today here. ←