Did you know, our equine population is gradually ageing? Due to improvements in dietary and nutrition knowledge, better veterinary care and improvements in routine care like anthelmintics, the average lifespan of the horse is increasing. Plus, of course, a very important change is that our horses are now much loved family members, a distinct conversion from their historic role as working animals.
But how old is old? We’re often asked when would we consider a horse to be a ‘veteran’, and it’s really difficult to answer. Ageing is multi-modal, with many different factors influencing how we all age, including our horses; meaning that some may be looking their age by their mid-teens, while others will still look, and act, like four year olds into their twenties! However, generally we find that around fifteen years of age is where we start to think of them as older, and that can be seen reflected in veteran classes at shows, insurance packages, and feed.
Around 30% of the UK equine population is thought to be over 15 years of age, and within that the majority are between 15-19 years, but with plenty still leading full, active lives for much longer.
However, our modern-day veterans have quite some ways to go to beat the oldest recorded horse, who was said to be ‘Old Billy’, a working barge horse, who died in 1822 aged 62 years!
Many factors will affect how your horse or pony ages, and how well they are able to cope with the challenges of ageing; so if you have an older equine make sure you keep an eye on all of these areas.
Fig 1: Breakdown of 30% of Horses over 15 years of age.
Traditionally we think of older horses as losing body condition due to reduced digestive efficiency, but that is not quite true. We now know that true age associated condition loss is not likely to happen until horses are well into their twenties, and actually we need to be mindful of excess weight in younger horses. If your teen or twenty-something is carrying a bit too much condition that can exacerbate an issue known as ‘inflammaging’ which is a chronic increase in inflammatory responses in older animals of all species, and can impact on many areas of health and soundness.
It is advised to monitor their condition through Body Condition Scoring, and only change their diet if a change is warranted. The diet should remain as fibre and forage focused, with the essential micronutrients and gut support provided by a concentrated supplement which doesn’t add energy, i.e., calories, to the diet, such as NAF In the Pink Senior.
Joint health is something we think about throughout a horse’s working career, but certainly something that increases as they age, with soundness being the primary issue relating to loss of use and euthanasia in older horses. Whether we are looking to continue to support working joints as they age, or simply supporting comfort in the retired horse, there is a supplement to suit all older joints.
If the horse is still competing ensure that your chosen product is suitable for use under affiliated competition, and keep Devils Claw based products, such as NAF Devils Relief, for your equine retirees only. To maintain soundness in working horses we advise upgrading their joint care to Five Star Superflex Senior, which provides a unique combination of the key joint support nutrients required for strong, healthy joints in older horses.
It’s important to keep up regular dental checks, as the term ‘long in the tooth’ is not for no reason where older horses are concerned. Nearly all horses over the age of fifteen will have some degree of dental disease, though it is not always easily recognized by owners, so do ask your vet or equine dentist to check them regularly.
Just as with the equine dentist, it’s important to keep up regular checks from a qualified farrier, as hoof abnormalities are common in older horses. On veterinary examination, 80% of horses over 15 years of age had some sort of hoof issue.
A daily application of NAF Farrier Solution, formulated by farriers, is ideal for maintaining sound growth and healthy horn all year round.
In addition to the above, specific, issues, it’s important you keep up regular veterinary checks of your older horse for general health. Your vet will be checking all the points above, but also looking for issues such as poor eyesight, compromised respiratory function or an increase in heart murmurs – all of which more commonly occur in older horses. Veterinary research shows that, quite surprisingly, routine veterinary care decreases as horses age, despite the fact that their incidence of disease generally increases. Remember, as horses and ponies get older, we want to support not just their increasing lifespan, but their ‘healthspan’ – i.e. that period of time that they are healthy and free from disease – and regular veterinary checks are an important part of that.
In conclusion, monitoring your horse as they progress through their teens and beyond, and ensuring the right targeted nutrition is in place alongside suitable veterinary care, will ensure that your horse or pony remains as an OAP, that is, Old Age Performer, as long as possible.