General Health Care for the Geriatric Horse
Because of better nutrition and veterinary care, horses can live into their late thirties or older these days. If your horse reaches a ripe old age, you can be proud of your equine management skills. By this age, the horse may be able to be ridden lightly — say, a little pony ride for your five-year-old nephew or a trip down to the mailbox each afternoon — but she probably won't be up to jumping fences or barrel racing.
The ailment you will most likely have to deal with is arthritis. With medication and/or support from natural products such as glucosamine, you can probably keep your elderly equine partner quite comfortable. For the arthritic horse, your major concern is his ability to get up after lying down for a little nap or taking a little roll. If you stall your horses, give the older horse as large a stall as possible, as some movement helps alleviate stiffness. If he is getting either picked on or jostled around too much by the other horses, you may find it necessary to separate him from the younger horses.
The other ailment you will most likely have to deal with is digestion. Old horses have worn teeth that just don't work as well as they used to. Some commercial feeds are designed especially for senior equines. They are typically more palatable and easier to chew. It may be harder to keep enough weight on your horse. Try to avoid first-cut hay with the older horse, and give him later-cut hay, which is softer and more easily digested.
Keep a close eye on your old pal, especially during winter months if you live in the north. Offer her a few extras — warmed water, a blanket — to help her live a comfortable retirement.
Ultimately, the older horse will present you with that heart-wrenching decision of whether the time has come to euthanize him. If you can keep him comfortable, eating well, and enjoying life, that's great. But when the horse spends most of his day in noticeable pain and no longer cares about the world around him, it's time to be kind to your old friend and say goodbye. The unfortunate reality is that horses are large animals that must spend most of their time standing. When a horse can no longer stand without feeling constant pain in his feet or joints, it's an unkindness to delay the inevitable.
The disposal of a horse's body can be a problem. Generally, your options are to bury the horse on your farm if this is permitted or to call someone to take the body away. Your veterinarian or stable manager can explain the options available and help you make arrangements. The ordeal will be much easier on you if you plan ahead for the reality that will eventually come to pass for your senior pal.