Don't Count the Elders Out Just Yet!

August 24, 2018

It is always difficult predict how long a horse will live, but older horses are very common now and are usually the favorites on the farm. Geriatric horses must never be taken for granted. This blog will cover some important aspects of looking after older horses and will provide an insight into the diseases they can suffer from.



There are a few ways to define age in a horse. A horse can either be aged chronologically or aged functionally. Functional age takes into account of the horse’s use. For example, a 10 year old Thoroughbred is “old” for racing, but “young” for Grand Prix Dressage competition.


Most of the time, we refer to our horses by their chronological age. Currently, horses in the late 20’s and into their 30’s are considered geriatric.


A body condition score is an objective way to define the body condition of a horse, using a body condition score chart. The ideal body condition score for horses of all ages is 4/5 and the minimum acceptable body condition for horses of all ages is 2/3. Horses with very low body condition score, especially geriatric horses, have reduced immunity and reduced ability to combat extremes in environmental temperatures. Conversely, horses should also not be too obese, as this will lead to metabolic problems and laminitis.



Geriatric horses potentially require a more closely monitored health regime compared to younger horses. A few areas that they are at higher risk of developing abnormalities include:

– Dentition (teeth)

– Parasite burdens

– Hoof care

– Hormonal problems

– Digestive system



Horses have hypsodont type teeth. This means that they have a large amount of reserve crown and their teeth continuously erupt throughout their lives due to their grazing behavior. The most common dental abnormalities found in geriatric horses are ‘wave’ mouth and loss of teeth.


Horses with multiple missing teeth will encounter these issues:

–Not enough teeth to assist in grazing and proper chewing. This can result in weight loss despite being provided with adequate food. Overgrowth of the opposing tooth of those missing teeth, resulting in trauma to the gums and the insides of their mouth. This can lead to pain and unwillingness to eat and ultimately weight loss.


Regular dental examination by your veterinarian or equine dentist. As a rule of thumb, 2-3 times per year is the minimum required attention especially in horses with missing teeth. Customize a special feeding program for horses with missing teeth with your veterinarian.



It is crucial to maintain good hoof care in geriatric horses even if they are not in work. It is generally recommended to have a farrier attend to a geriatric horse’s feet at least once or twice a year (possibly more), even if they are not in work.


Geriatric horses will have similar hoof issues as younger horses such as stone bruises and quarter cracks. In addition, they are also more predisposed to laminitis if they have concurrent Equine Cushing’s Disease, and will require more frequent hoof care by both farriers and veterinarians to maintain normal hoof conformation and comfort.


Laminitis is a potentially fatal disease characterized by inflammation of the soft tissues in the hoof. Typical clinical signs of laminitis include heat in the hooves, lameness in more than one limb, increased digital pulses and sensitivity to hoof testers. In severe cases, horses are in extreme pain, are unable to walk, exhibit weight loss and poor quality of life that may lead to euthanasia. Causes of laminitis include endocrine (hormonal) disorders, systemic diseases (e.g. severe diarrhea or metritis), overloading of one limb and ingestion of lush pasture. Laminitis is usually diagnosed by clinical presentation and radiographs of the feet.



Older horses tend to develop their own set of disease conditions and one very common hormonal disease of the geriatric horse is Equine Cushing’s Disease or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID). It is a condition where degeneration occurs at the pituitary gland, leading to abnormal hormonal function.


This disease is usually seen in horses in their 20’s or above, and causes a set of typical clinical signs listed below:

– Quiet and docile

– Pot bellied

– Long and sometimes curly coat that fails to shed in summer

– Increased sweating

– Increased drinking and urination

– Loss of musculature on topline

– Recurrent infection with no apparent cause

– Recurrent foot abscesses

– Recurrent laminitis episodes


Horses will exhibit some or all of the clinical signs. If you suspect your horse has Equine Cushing’s Disease, please contact your local veterinarian. The definitive diagnosis involves blood tests that are catered to each patient.


Once diagnosed with Equine Cushing’s Disease, a treatment plan will be formulated for your horse. The treatment of Equine Cushing’s Disease is generally very successful and affordable. The disease is treated with an oral medication called Pergolide. This medication balances the hormonal system and reduces the clinical signs observed. Most importantly, the treatment reduces recurrent infections, foot abscesses and laminitic episodes. The medication is once a day and is lifelong. Improvement in clinical signs usually occur after 3-4 weeks of commencement of Pergolide.



Although many older horses are able to maintain a good to excellent body condition, weight loss is fairly common in geriatric horses. Some of the causes of weight loss and inability to maintain an appropriate body condition include dental abnormalities, reduced digestion or absorption of nutrients, internal diseases and hormonal dysfunction. Geriatric horses can succumb to gastric ulceration as well, especially if their feeding regime is poor, coupled with the presence of systemic diseases.


Most major commercial feed companies now offer “geriatric” feeds. These complete feeds are highly palatable, “predigested” or extruded to increase digestibility in older horses and generally suitable for horses with multiple missing teeth.


Good pasture is the best food for old horses, and ideally, they should be allowed to graze constantly 24/7. Horses should be supplemented in addition with good quality hay and commercial complete geriatric feed if they are in work, or have little or no access to good pasture.


A general rule of thumb is to feed up to 2.5% of the horse’s ideal body weight, divided into 3-4 feeds per day. Horses should be allowed constant access to good quality hay and freshwater. Other caloric dense feed supplementation that may assist in maintaining body condition include vegetable oil, but these must be introduced slowly over a period of 2-3 weeks to a maximum of 2 cups per day.



Just because a horse is old, does not mean it has to be thin or in poor health. Many older horses live a happy, healthy life, into their golden years. By having a better understanding of geriatric horse conditions, you can provide an improved quality of life to horses in their “twilight years.”



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