Health Care Priorities in the Senior Horse

In this blog, we would like to focus on an ever-growing population of horses nationwide – our seniors! By definition, any horse over the age of 15 years old is considered “senior”. However, thanks to  the many advances in how we care for our horses today, the modern equine is unnamednow surviving much longer than their ancestors would have in the wild, often into their mid-30s! The true key to maintaining an active, healthy “senior” horse lies in prevention. 

Vaccinations: It is important to know that older horses are no less susceptible to disease than their younger counterparts. In fact, it is well-documented that horses can actually have decreased immune function and at times a weakened response to vaccinations as they age.This means seniors must continue to receive annual to biannual protection through vaccinations. Deciding what vaccinations may be necessary in older horses will continue to depend on their exposure risk. For example, an older horse retired from competition that is boarding at a facility in contact with other horses who are continuing to travel and show may still be at risk for communicable diseases such as influenza, herpes, and strangles. In comparison, a horse living on a farm when there is little to no movement of horses may require protection against only the diseases contracted from the environment. We recommend you discuss your older horse’s vaccination program with our veterinarians to help you make the safest choices. More information about vaccination protocols can be found at .

Dental Health & Nutrition: A horse’s nutritional needs, as well as how they chew, digest, and utilize these nutrients can change over time. Making appropriate decisions about your senior horse’s diet will depend on several factors. The most important considerations include assessing their body condition score/weight and the presence of metabolic disease (discussed below).  Additionally, the health of your horse’s teeth will have an important impact on their ability to utilize nutrients as they age. Their teeth are designed to wear down gradually, losing efficiency to grind their food over time.Older horses can also be more prone to tooth infections and periodontal (gum) disease.Having a veterinarian perform an oral exam on your older horses, ideally every 6 months, allows for the identification and treatment of tooth problems. The goal is to catch these problems BEFORE they get to the stage where they can have a negative impact on your horse’s health.  For more information on our dentistry service, please see

As mentioned above, when older horses become less efficient at chewing their food, their need for a substitute fiber source (such as soaked hay cubes, hay stretcher pellets or beet pulp) and/ or the addition of a senior (complete, extruded) feed to your horse’s diet may become necessary. Senior feeds often contain higher levels of protein and fiber. They are designed to offer horses a more “complete” source of nutrients without the need for hay or grass if necessary.  When choosing which brand and type of senior feed might be right for your horse, keep in mind that there can be variation in composition between brands in terms of carbohydrates, calories, and fat content. Your veterinarian can advise you on which type of grain is best for your horse given their individual needs.  

Endocrine Disease:  Horses over the age of 15 years old are more prone to the development of Cushings disease (PPID).Their chances of developing equine metabolic disease, specifically insulin resistance, also increases as they age, although younger horses are susceptible as well.  Cushings disease develops from an abnormal enlargement of the pituitary gland, leading to an increased production of the enzyme ACTH. Insulin resistance occurs when a horse’s body becomes unable to respond normally to insulin produced, causing significant effects on a horse’s ability to digest and metabolize nutrients, especially carbohydrates. The diseases can occur separately or in combination, but both cause a heightened sensitivity to carbohydrates (starches and sugars) in their diet. Therefore, offering these horses a diet that has a low-level of carbohydrates is very important. Signs of Cushings disease include a long, wavy hair coat, abnormal shedding pattern, increased drinking and urination, weight loss, and a greater susceptibility to disease. 

Horses with insulin resistance may be overweight or sometimes underweight, but tend to have abnormal fat deposits in the crest of the neck, over the shoulders, or in the hind end around the tail head.Horses suffering from either disease can be more susceptible to laminitis. Given that the consequences and side effects of these diseases can be debilitating and sometimes fatal, we recommend that horses 15 years old or above be tested for Cushings disease and insulin resistance at least once a year. Our hope in performing these blood tests as part of a routine screening effort, is we will be able to catch some horses in the earlier stages of the disease process. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the sooner preventative measures and treatment can be administered, and the sooner potential side effects controlled.

As a horse owner, you should take great pride in your older horses, as it is due to your excellent care that they have made it this far.  The above mentioned preventative measures will hopefully carry your horses through many happy years to come!