Special Considerations for the Senior Performance Horse

How to adapt your horse’s management to better support his age
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Q: How can I keep my senior sporthorse healthy? How should I organize a fitness program with the goal of keeping him fit and interested?

A: The first step in maintaining the health of a senior horse is recognizing when your horse has reached senior status. This can be tricky since the definition is not simply based on age. Rather, horse owners and veterinarians must watch for the physical signs of aging and declines in body system function.

Manage His Diet

One of the first facets of a horse’s care that needs to be adapted for his age is diet. Through a combination of loss of dental integrity and the natural aging of the intestines, older horses lose their digestive efficiency. They can’t absorb the nutrition released from the food they eat when it is processed in the colon, and if there is dental disease, they may not be able to properly chew the forage and begin the digestion process in the first place. As a result, aged horses have a higher daily protein requirement of 12 to 14 percent. This is especially important for aging athletes and supplementation with the specific amino acids lysine and threonine can help optimize muscle recovery. High-quality forage is important and a hay analysis can help determine whether you are choosing an appropriate product. As always, free choice water and salt is important.

It’s important to consider your senior horse’s diet, as older horses lose digestive efficiency.  

It’s important to consider your senior horse’s diet, as older horses lose digestive efficiency.  

If a horse is not able to chew his hay properly, then replacing the fiber through forage alternatives is a good option. These can include complete feeds, chopped forage, hay cubes and beet pulp. The commercially available senior concentrate formulations take these concerns into account and offer horse owners a streamlined alternative that includes readily digestible fiber, added fat and reduced sugar. Senior foods are typically available in pelleted or extruded formulations to make them more easily digested compared to textured formulations, which contain whole grains that require the gut to work harder to break down and absorb nutrients.

There are additional supplement recommendations to consider for senior athletes. A probiotic formula that includes prebiotic ingredients will optimize the health of the bacteria that live in the horse’s hindgut. Antioxidants like vitamin E and vitamin C support the immune system, which naturally declines with age. Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation and support a healthy weight in seniors who are prone to leanness when working hard. Lastly, include a joint supplement that contains ingredients such as glucosamine sulfate and avocado unsaponifiables, which can support joint health in any aged athlete.

Be Proactive

Another way to keep your senior competition horse healthy is to proactively screen for diseases that can undermine his well-being. A baseline cardiovascular workup can be lifesaving for a mature athlete, especially an event horse, for whom the risk of sudden death on cross country significantly increases after 15 years of age. Routine blood tests can identify a decline in kidney or liver function, the organ systems more commonly affected in old age. Long-term use of non-steroidal medications can also affect these body systems, and since many older athletes receive anti-inflammatory medications to support soundness and comfort, monitoring for changes once or twice a year becomes especially important. Endocrine diseases such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID or Equine Cushing’s disease) are more prevalent in senior horses. Recognizing and initiating appropriate treatment early on can help avoid costly injury since the resulting hormone dysregulation from PPID exposes older athletes to weakness in their tendons and ligaments and reduces injury recovery. Daily medication can help normalize the hormone imbalances and prevent career-ending complications like laminitis. But, it should be noted that the most commonly prescribed medication for PPID, pergolide, is not permissible in FEI competition and requires a veterinarian-endorsed therapeutic use exemption to show in USEF competitions.

Regular soundness exams become even more important for the senior athlete. Recovery from intense athletic activity can take longer, and the joints and soft tissues are naturally more at risk for injury and inflammation due to accumulated wear and tear. Managing joint pain due to osteoarthritis with targeted treatment directly into the joint is more successful now with the development of therapies that can be made from a horse’s own blood (regenerative medicine). These biologic-based products can safely extend the careers of senior horses when corticosteroid injections into arthritic joints has become less effective or is riskier due to coexisting endocrine disease. Older athletes are more prone to soft-tissue injuries, and routine ultrasound imaging is a useful tool to monitor the integrity of tendons and ligaments.

Consider Your Training

A low-intensity warm up with lots of walking can ease stiffness and supple the joints. When possible, perform this type of work outside the ring to reduce boredom. Before competition, a shorter warm up can avoid sending a fatigued horse into the ring. Older horses benefit the same as younger horses from alternating intense days with lighter days to allow recovery.

For the senior horse, a low-intensity warm up with lots of walking can ease stiffness and supple the joints. Doing this work outside the ring can keep things interesting and reduce boredom. 

For the senior horse, a low-intensity warm up with lots of walking can ease stiffness and supple the joints. Doing this work outside the ring can keep things interesting and reduce boredom. 

With the help of proper nutrition and attentive veterinary care, we are now able to keep our senior horses performing better than ever into their later teenage years. Although it might be necessary for an owner to gradually transition her equine partner away from the more rigorous aspects of training, there can still be many more happy and productive years ahead of a senior horse. The key is to keep a watchful eye for hints that your athletic partner is aging, and provide age-appropriate support to go that extra distance.

Christina “Cricket” Russillo, DVM, graduated from the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2001. After completing a large animal medicine and surgery internship at Texas A&M, she realized her desire was to work on elite sporthorses. Following 13 years of practice at Fairfield Equine Associates in Newtown, Connecticut, focused on high-level show-jumping and dressage horses, she joined Virginia Equine Imaging in 2015. Russillo relocates to Florida every winter to support her clients and patients. She has competed through Third Level in dressage and in February 2017 she was appointed the U.S. Dressage Team veterinarian. She is also a certified member of the International Society of Equine Locomotor Pathology. 

This column has not been approved or endorsed by U.S. Equestrian.

This column originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Practical Horseman.

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