~ 6 minute read ~
Maintaining the best of health in our horses can be a particular challenge over winter, with the cold dark days, and no fresh grazing available. If we add in the needs of the veteran equine, it can be even more challenging. However, we know, that our equine population is ageing, and more and more horses and ponies are continuing to lead an active life well into their teens and beyond. It’s important we support not just the ‘lifespan’ of the older horse, but the ‘healthspan’ – that period of life spent in good general health and free from pain or the disabilities of old age.
Kate Hore, Head Nutritionist at NAF chats to Sian Wall, Vet and Technical Product Manager.
KH: We get asked a lot about optimising health for the older equine, particularly through these colder, dark months when keeping them fit and healthy can be a challenge. As a Nutritionist, I always like to start with their body condition. As we would with any horse, I would always recommend sticking with a fibre focused forage based diet, which usually means the preserved forages of hay and haylage over winter.
SW: Yes, exactly, one of the best ways to keep a horse from feeling the cold is to feed a good quality forage in sufficient quantity. The bacteria in their huge caecum can then get to work digesting it, which generates a lot of heat. It’s like their own central heating system! Especially important if the horse is going into winter a little thin, so yes, having an idea of where your horse is in terms of body condition score is vital. There are lots of resources out there to help you score your horses’s condition. You could use a weigh tape but remember they are quite inaccurate and are perhaps better at monitoring trends, as long as the same person is measuring each time.
KH: I agree – forage diets are nature’s way of keeping them cosy. Our only concern would be the micronutrient profile, which can be very poor, particularly with issues such as vitamin levels dropping in preserved forages, and soil deficiencies contributing to dietary shortfalls. We would always recommend simply balancing that forage based diet with a concentrated product, such as NAF In the Pink Senior, which provides all the essential micronutrients, together with live probiotic yeast to support digestion by the hindgut microbiome. The additional digestion support of In the Pink Senior is particularly useful for the older horses, where condition loss with age can be a concern.
SW: And then when you add in the fact that a lot of these older horses are going to have poor dentition, you need to ensure that you are providing the fibre in a suitable way. This may mean using a soaked short chop hay replacer, something that is easier for them to chew. This is where the probiotic digestibility enhancer in In the Pink Senior can really help them maintain a healthy digestive system. It is obviously also vital that you monitor for dental problems and any sign that they may not be taking in as much fibre as they should be due to struggling to chew. Monitor for quidding, and get your horses’s teeth checked every 6 to 12 months by a vet or equine dentist.
KH: That’s right, of course soaking hay can also be useful for those spending longer stabled and sensitive to the inevitable dust and fungal spores associated with preserved forages. If respiratory health is the principle concern we don’t need a long soak, 20-30 minutes is plenty, even less if you’re able to use warm water.
For those respiratory sensitive horses, we’d advise feeding NAF Five Star Respirator Boost which is high in natural antioxidants to support the body’s own defences against the oxidative stress that comes with respiratory challenges.
SW: Absolutely – the hidden danger of respiratory stress is particularly relevant to all horses looking forward to getting out and about travelling and competing again. As Official Suppliers to Team GBR, we recommend Respirator Boost to maintain a clear airway in all those working hard and travelling regularly. Whether your veteran is heading to Tokyo, or simply looking to qualify for the local Veteran Championships, it’s something we would recommend.
Whatever we do with our horses, joint stress is an almost inevitable part of day to day life. Whether hacking down a tarmacked road, performing extended dressage strides or landing over a jump, our horses’ joints are working above and beyond their evolutionary requirements. Ageing adds to that, with the inevitable wear and tear of the passing years.
SW: Joint issues are very common and the most significant factor for loss of performance and retirement. Age-associated changes that are occurring in the joints of our older horses make them much more susceptible to joint stress, and the effects of daily wear and tear, doing all those fun things that you highlighted, Kate. Horses are commonly competing into their late teens so many owners are keen to manage and maintain their horses’ joint health with natural alternatives, turning to medicines that are not allowed in competition only when necessary.
KH: Of course, another concern we often hear are the potential side effects of long term pharmaceuticals, particularly within the gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, horse owners are keen to learn about natural alternatives.
We would advise Five Star Superflex Senior for daily joint support in all older, working, horses and ponies. Superflex Senior provides a premium combination of the key joint nutrients working in synergy to provide a high performance product, suitable for all older horses and ponies, whatever level they are working at.
SW: Obviously, the time will inevitably come when you have to make the decision to retire them from competition or move them on to lighter work. As much as we would love them to, they just can’t go on forever. It doesn’t mean that you can’t still enjoy them though. Continue with a level of exercise they are comfortable with, don’t just suddenly stop. These creatures of habit will enjoy a nice gentle routine not too dissimilar to what they are already used to.
KH: I agree, the more they can keep active and keep moving the better, and for the older, retired, horses we find NAF Devils’ Relief is particularly useful for these types. Devils Relief uses the traditional herbal root Devils Claw to support comfort in older horses. One proviso, if your horse is still competing – at any level – we would not advise it, as the Devils’ Claw active component, harpagoside, is classed as a Controlled Medication under rules. For the older competing horses who need a little additional support we would advise the alternative NAF Go Sound, which uses traditional herbal comfort suitable for use in competition.
Of course, soundness is not always associated purely with joint stress. In our senior horses, particularly, we often hear concerns from owners regarding age related conditions, and how they can support their horses at that time.
SW: Yes, there certainly are other common veteran issues such as endocrine dysfunction. As a vet, I would say a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t necessarily work and it’s all about finding the maintenance regime that suits owner and horse. Long term veterinary medications are not without their cost and compliance issues and owners are often looking for what alternatives might be out there.
KH: It’s about getting the balance right, and we would advise owners to discuss any alternatives they’re looking at with their vet, if they are at all concerned. Targeted nutritional support can play a key role in those veteran horses and ponies needing to maintain health and vitality when faced with age related challenges. NAF Cusinaze provides herbal adaptogens to support the challenge of ageing, along with specific herbs such as Chasteberry (Vitex agnus castus), well known for its supportive role in these older horses and ponies. Certainly Cushinaze is a product we sometimes have the loveliest ‘complaints’ about, with owners of veterans reporting that he’s started being really cheeky and naughty again, kicking the stable door, or bucking on hacks – which, of course, is just that type of ‘complaint’ we love to hear!
SW: Yes, it’s always nice to hear of those horses growing old disgracefully! I think when we look holistically at combining good nutrition and sound management practices there is no reason these veteran horses can’t continue to lead a happy and fulfilling life well into old age.
We surely love our older equines, and whether it’s the pony we learnt to ride on that we simply can’t part with, our performance partner who we want to keep at the top of their game, or simply our daily hacking companion over many years, we want to make sure we do our best for them in their senior years.
Kate Hore RNutr, R.Anim.Technol & Sian Wall BSc BVSc, MRCVS
If you need any advice on caring for your golden oldie, NAF are always happy to help. Call their Freephone Advice Line on 0800 373106. You can also call our own horse lovers at Wadswick on 01225 810700 for free, unsolicited advice.
Take a closer look at NAF’s featured products for Veteran horses.
Additional advice for veteran horses
As well as feeding veteran horses the right feed and supplements, it’s important to keep them warm by providing decent shelter and rugs. This will aid in maintaining condition as it will help to prevent energy lost in trying to keep warm when the weather is cold or wet. A light to medium weight rug is often an ideal choice for the older, unclipped horse so that they don’t get too hot but benefit from the protection against the rain, wind and cold. Take a look at some of our rug picks below.
You could also try Equilibrium’s Therapy Back & Quarters Pad, which is designed to promote circulation to relieve stiffness, muscle soreness and increase the rate of healing in horses’ backs.