California Riding Magazine • October, 2008

The Golden Years
Keep your senior horse happy and healthy.

by Dr. Kim Sergent

As horses enter their golden years there will be more maintenance requirements than when they were youngsters. This is the time when chronic conditions such as arthritis and poor dentition catch up to them. The horse may start to stumble, move slower or lose weight. In addition to these visible problems, multiple changes are also occurring within their immune, digestive and endocrine systems, and these changes are going to affect overall health.

Many subtle changes may only be picked up during physical exams and/or bloodwork. Examples of subtle changes may be heart murmurs, respiratory issues or problems with the kidneys or liver. Many of these changes begin to occur in the horse when they are in their mid to late teens and, if identified early, many issues can be treated with greater success than when they become chronic. Early treatment will lead to a longer, more productive and, best of all, happier life for your equine companion.

Your veterinarian is a valuable resource and you should take advantage of their knowledge and special education by getting routine health check ups and care. The following are the usual recommendations, but your veterinarian can guide you as to what your horse’s individual needs are.

Physical and Musculoskeletal Exams: Have these exams performed one to two times per year. This includes listening (ausculting) to the heart and lungs, looking at the horse’s hair coat, general musculoskeletal condition and having their weight evaluated. This is an excellent opportunity to ask questions, review nutrition, other supplements and deworming protocols. It is also a great time to mention any changes that you’ve noticed; anything from a newly noticed stiffness to a change in attitude. This might stimulate a conversation regarding joint care, chiropractic care or acupuncture.

Vaccines: A 5-way (which includes eastern and western encephalomyelitis, tetanus, influenza and rhinopneumonitis) and West Nile vaccines are given once yearly. A booster in six months of flu/rhino and West Nile vaccines may be recommended. Titer testing for some diseases is now available, which can cut down on the number of vaccines a horse requires.

Dental Exams: Dental exams should be performed every six to 12 months. Each horse should have a full dental check at least once a year and more often if they have previously identified problems. This will generally require sedation and a speculum (to keep their mouth open). If there have not been previous problems, a cursory exam six months later should be carried out. This will likely include oral palpation, checking lateral excursion and TMJ palpation. If there is already significant dental disease your veterinarian can recommend a diet to help maintain weight and energy.

Bloodwork: An annual chemistry panel and complete blood count will not only identify existing underlying internal problems, but also gives baseline values should your horse get sick later. Bloodwork can be used to identified low-grade infections, inflammation, anemia, kidney/liver diseases, electrolyte imbalances, protein loss and some muscular problems. Both older and younger horses can benefit from this simple procedure.

Fecal Exams: Your veterinarian can also take a manure sample and send it to the lab or perform the exam herself. This can be a great tool to manage your deworming program. It can help determine when deworming needs to be done, if the dewormers in your current program are sufficient, and potentially reduce the number of dewormers you have to give. Southern California is a great place to institute such a testing program (two to four times a year) due to our lengthy dry season. Typically worms like a fairly moist environment in which to reproduce.

Following these basic recommendations can really help keep your equine friend as fit as possible as they get older. This will in turn allow you to enjoy their companionship while they remain happy and healthy through their golden years.

For more info call All County Equine Services (A.C.E.S.) at 619-659-3532 or visit