Improve your horse’s well-being and longevity with this helpful health advice.
No matter how long you’ve had your horse, the two of you have a special bond – and you’d love nothing more than to extend her lifespan. While unfortunately there is no fountain of youth, there are numerous ways to foster a long, healthy life for your beloved equine companion.
Get her teeth checked
As the saying goes, “no hoof, no horse”. But I’d like to argue “no teeth, no horse” – that’s how important your horse’s teeth are to her overall health and well-being! Horses have hypsodont teeth, meaning they continuously erupt throughout their lives. This eruption replaces the 2 mm to 3 mm of tooth that is ground away each year as your horse eats.
Normal grinding can lead to sharp points on the teeth. The horse’s lower jaw is about 30% narrower than the upper jaw; because of this, the outside edges of the upper teeth and the inside edges of the lower teeth don’t wear away as fast, leaving behind sharp enamel points. If not addressed, these points can cause painful ulcers on the inside of the cheeks and on the tongue.
For optimum oral health, I recommend a dental float at least once a year. This is the perfect opportunity for your veterinarian to assess both the teeth and soft tissues of the oral cavity. In addition to addressing any sharp points or hooks, your vet can also look for wavemouth (when the grinding surface of the cheek teeth forms a wave instead of a flat surface), loose teeth, gaps/pockets between teeth that can trap food and cause infection, and other abnormalities.
All these conditions can cause pain or discomfort which can lead to abnormal chewing, dropping feed, or a reluctance to eat at all. This can translate into weight loss, a change in personality, and in severe cases, colic. As horses age, dental problems are often seen more frequently, so I advise a dental float at least once a year, but an oral exam twice a year. This can allow for issues to be caught and treated early on to prevent any weight loss or discomfort in your senior horse.
Schedule regular physical exams
Annual physical exams are a key component of promoting your horse’s longevity. During a physical exam, your veterinarian can evaluate many different aspects of your horse’s health and lifestyle. She will listen to her heart, lungs, and GI tract, tuning in for any abnormal sounds. She will take a closer look at her eyes and ears, as well as her leg joints. A body condition score will often be assigned, giving you an idea of what kind of shape your horse is in. This can be helpful for horses who are easy keepers, and for senior horses who may have trouble maintaining their weight.
Having your veterinarian out to evaluate your horse every year gives him or her the opportunity to pick up on any developing issues, and address them before a real problem arises. This approach to your horse’s care – having routine exams performed regularly versus waiting until you notice an abnormality – will help ensure she has the longest lifespan possible.
Focus on diet and gut health
What your horse eats plays a huge role in her overall health and wellness (and ultimately her lifespan). The horse was designed to consume a diet primarily made up of forage. The cecum, a large fermentation vat within the GI tract, houses millions of beneficial microbes that specialize in breaking down fiber so it can be effectively used by your horse as energy. There are many different types of grains out there, but if you want to lengthen your horse’s lifespan, focus on feeding good quality hay before choosing a grain.
Your horse’s stomach capacity is small, so her digestive system is designed to accommodate small, frequent meals throughout the day instead of two large meals. Continuous grazing of hay/grass throughout the day can also decrease the risk of developing gastric ulcers. If the stomach remains mostly full all the time – instead of sitting empty for long stretches – the food material acts like a buffer, neutralizing the acidity of the gastric acids.
In addition to excellent hay and access to pasture, I also recommend adding in a general, well-balanced vitamin and mineral supplement. This product ensures your horse is receiving all the vitamins and minerals she needs for precise vision, a shiny coat, tough hooves, and more. It’s always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian about any specific vitamins or minerals to include, as some geographic areas can have soils deficient in these building blocks. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, our soil is deficient in selenium, so I recommend a vitamin/mineral supplement that contains selenium.
To complement the hay and pasture, I recommend a fiber-based pellet, an excellent addition to any horse’s diet. Fiber-based pellets are low in unnecessary sugars and starches but high in fiber. I always advise giving pelleted feeds well-soaked, which can help decrease the risk of choke or esophageal obstruction. Plus, these feeds serve as a great base for any supplements or medications your horse may need. These types of pellets are also ideal for horses who need to put on weight, or need extra calories to maintain weight – because they are fiber-based, they are safe to feed in high amounts.
By staying away from highly processed grains that are high in sugars and fats, your horse’s diet more closely resembles what her GI tract is designed to digest. When your horse can efficiently digest her feed, she can utilize nutrients more appropriately and is less likely to experience colic. A healthy, happy gut is essential to a healthy horse with a long lifespan.
Track her weight
Ensuring your horse maintains a proper, consistent weight throughout her life is also crucial. Obesity in horses can lead to numerous conditions such as equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and laminitis, and puts added stress on her joints and soft tissues. Educate yourself on the Henneke body condition scoring system, and practice scoring your horse. Assigning a body condition score (BCS) to her can give you a general idea as to whether she’s in ideal condition, overweight, or underweight. When your vet comes out for your horse’s annual exam, see if they agree with the BCS you got, and if not, have them explain why.
You can also use a weight tape to get a better idea of your horse’s weight, especially if you are trying to help her gain or lose some pounds. I find weight tapes most helpful when tracking trends – I am often less concerned about the actual number, and more concerned with what that number is doing over time. Is it going up or down? Is it moving in the direction you’d like it to? Based on the trend you are seeing, you can adjust your horse’s diet and exercise accordingly.
Lifestyle matters when it comes to lifespan
How does your horse spend her days? Is she stalled part of the day? Does she have access to pasture? What kind of exercise does she get? Evaluating your horse’s lifestyle is a crucial step in increasing her lifespan. In an ideal world, your horse should be getting as much turnout as possible – whether on a dry lot, pasture, track system, etc. This most closely mimics a natural way of life for the horse – the ability to self-exercise, and move around for food throughout the day. This natural movement helps promote a healthy digestive system, and is also beneficial for senior horses with arthritis or stiff joints.
Keep her social
Horses are gregarious animals who prefer to live in a herd. Their mental and emotional well-being will benefit greatly from having other horses around. Whether it’s a turn-out buddy, a horse across the fence or across the aisle, your horse will feel safer and more at ease with equine friends close by.
Avoid training blunders
If your horse is also your riding or driving partner, her training and exercise is another aspect to consider. To maximize her comfort and ensure you are able to ride her well into her late 20s, start by ensuring you have properly fitting tack. An ill-fitting saddle can lead to numerous problems, including back pain, changes in gait, muscle imbalances, a reluctance to collect under saddle, and even kissing spine.
Avoid falling into the trap of “weekend warrior” syndrome, especially if your horse is older. By this, I mean your horse does not get ridden much during the week, but you ask a lot of her on the weekends with long schooling sessions or intense trail rides. Moderate, consistent exercise is better in the long term for a horse’s joints and soundness. Just as we wouldn’t run a half marathon on Saturday without any prior training, don’t ask your horse to do the same!
Incorporate a proper warm-up and cool-down to your riding or exercise routine. A warm-up prepares your horse’s muscles, joints, and other soft tissue structures for the work ahead, helping to prevent injury. A cool-down allows her to gently recover from her training, bringing her heart and respiratory rates down. Part of a cool-down can include stretching your horse – whether it’s a some carrot stretches or a little horse yoga, stretching helps reduce muscle fatigue and soreness, improves flexibility, and can result in better performance overall.
There are no guarantees in life, but taking a proactive approach to your horse’s can extend her lifespan, and sets her up for a long, healthy partnership with you.