Care of the Elderly Horse

Care of the Elderly Horse

It seems these days that not only are humans living longer, our horses are as well.  I am sure we all have or know of someone who has a retired horse in a field somewhere.  In this blog I will give you some top tips on caring for our slightly elderly lifelong equine friends, especially at this time of year.


The old saying “no foot no horse” has been around for many years and for a very good reason.  Maintaining your older horse’s feet in good condition is key to them remaining sound and happy when retired in the field.  Although they may not be in full work and may even be unshod, routine trimming by your farrier is the best way to keep them in good condition.  Your farrier will be able to pick up any potential problems (laminitis, cracks in the feet) early before they become a clinical issue.    If your horse’s feet are in poor condition consider adding a hoof supplement to their diet to try and encourage good horn growth.


It is essential to get your older horses teeth checked routinely (at the same time as their annual vaccinations) by your vet or equine dentist.  Horses that suffer from tooth issues cannot chew their food properly leading to weight loss and poor condition.  As they reach later years their teeth can become loose and may fall out forming gaps between the teeth that can become impacted with food.  This impacted food can then rot and infect the tooth roots leading to further problems.  Common clinical signs of teeth problems can include:

  • pocketing of food in their cheeks making them look like a hamster
  • quidding or dropping of their food especially hay or grass. This can even lead to reluctance to eat hay or grass and only eating their hard feed
  • weight loss, poor condition
  • smelly breath


As horses get older their immune systems become less efficient and can be slower to fight infections.  It is sensible to keep your horse’s vaccination status against Equine Influenza (Flu) and Tetanus up to date especially if they are mixing with other horses of unknown vaccination status moving onto the yard.

Equine Influenza is a very serious respiratory disease in horses and can cause significant clinical signs including death.  Annual vaccinations against Equine Influenza is important to keep their immunity against this disease up to date.

Horses are most at risk of contracting Tetanus when they have a wound.  Most elderly horses will be retired in a field and they can pick up small cuts and wounds which may even remain hidden under long hairy coats.  It is important to keep their Tetanus protection up to date.


Good parasite control is very important in the older horse.  Routine testing of your horse, as described in our Worming Advice section, is essential.  Uncontrolled parasite burdens in elderly horses can cause significant weight loss, colic and even death.  As I have mentioned before, the immune system in older horses may not function as well as younger horses and they can be prone to suffering from large parasite burdens.  TEST BEFORE YOU TREAT.

Cushing's Disease/ PPID:

Recent studies have shown that younger horses can suffer from Cushing’s disease but invariably we see it in older horses (>15 yo).  The most important and serious clinical sign of Cushing’s Disease is laminitis which can cause severe debilitating lameness.  Other clinical signs of Cushing’s Disease include:

  • Excessive drinking and urinating
  • Very hairy coat especially evident in Spring/ Summer time
  • Lethargy
  • Fat pads above the eyes
  • Loss of condition and potbellied appearance
  • Prone to repeat infections

Diagnosis of Cushing's Disease can be done with a simple blood sample by your vet and treatment (Pergolide) is available to help reduce and control the clinical signs of Cushing’s Disease.

Diet/ Weight:

Monitoring our elderly horses diet and weight is essential so as not to predispose them to other health problems.  During the winter make sure you check them daily and remember to remove the rug and have a good look at them to make sure they are not putting on too much weight or in fact losing weight and condition.

Horses that are underweight or losing weight could be suffering from teeth issues or underlying disease as mentioned above.  If you have concerns that your elderly horses is losing weight or not putting it on then it is always advisable to get advice from your vet.

Overweight horses can be at risk of suffering from laminitis so if your elderly horse is a “good doer” then dietary management including taking them off the field for periods of the day or putting on a muzzle while in the field will help them reduce weight.

Orthopaedic Issues/ Lameness:

Invariably we will have had our elderly equine friends for many years and will have enjoyed many years of exercise and competing.  As with humans, their bodies may show the signs of ageing through stiffness or low level lameness.  There are many different causes of lameness in horses but invariably elderly horses will suffer from some form of “wear and tear” or arthritis.  Discussions with and investigations by your vet will help to diagnose what is affected and to what extent.  Long term low level pain management may help to allow your horse to live and long and comfortable retirement

We have touched on the main points for caring for our older equine friends and helping to them to stay fit, healthy and happy long into their retirement.  If you have any questions or would like some advice then please contact us.