Horses are living much longer today and spending many more useful years under saddle. Even so, age does take a toll on even the healthiest senior. I want to share a few things I have found to make an obvious difference in energy levels and feeling good attitudes.
Social Security. No, I’m obviously not talking about a monthly check! Horses are social creatures and change in their social network can have serious consequences. Loss of a companion, moving and a drop in status within the herd are examples of common social stressors for older horses.
Horses have different sleep patterns and requirements than people but they definitely can become sleep deprived. They need to feel secure to sleep well so this is one area where issues often develop in older horses. If you notice your senior is never lying down to sleep, there’s a problem. Try making sure he gets quiet time alone in a stall or with a trusted companion in a small pen with shelter.
When a horse’s position on the social totem pole drops, so does their chance of successfully competing for food within the group. What they do have access to may be lower quality foods (e.g. stemmy portions of hay) that others left behind. Eventually this leads to weight loss but long before that the horse becomes fearful and anxious. Their frustration may surface as aggression toward humans or resistance to work. Keep a close eye on herd dynamics. If you see your senior being bullied around food be sure to give him enough time to eat by himself in a safe area.
Adaptogens. Ageing in all species inevitably comes with reduced “vigour”, decreased capacity for work, lower energy levels, reduced immune function and less mental clarity in several areas. Ageing is a complex process and at this point we have a better understanding of consequences than causes but in essence it is a blunted capacity of homeostatic processes to maintain a more youthful balance.
Adaptogens are nontoxic, naturally occurring plants that have the ability to support the body’s homeostatic responses to stressors of all types. For example, the horse’s body reacts to the physical stress of regular exercise by adaptations in levels of key hormones like growth hormone and cortisol. Within a certain physiological range, these changes enhance resistance to stress. If levels fall above or below that optimum, resistance is lost and cellular damage can occur. Hormonal and DNA changes with normal ageing further erode adaptive capacities. Adaptogens assist the ageing body in keeping hormonal shifts within the resistance range and preserving key cellular functions like mitochondrial energy generation.
There is a long list of adaptogens to choose from. One that I particularly like for senior horses is Jiaogulan. This is a vine from southern China which is widely used locally as a tea or vegetable. It is free of the extreme stimulation that often occur with Ginsengs but has a clear energizing effect in the older horse. It is highly palatable and supports a normal appetite, healthy gastric lining and good circulation.
Antioxidants. One of the major theories of ageing is that it is caused by cumulative damage from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress arises both externally from toxins, harmful metals, even the sun, and internally from metabolism, exercise, immune system activity. As the horse ages, this issue is compounded by a decrease in the ability to produce key antioxidants like vitamin C and glutathione, as well as the cumulative effects of a lifetime of suboptimal intake of key nutrients like vitamin E, selenium, copper and zinc.
If there is one time you want to keep your horse as oxidative stress free as possible, it’s as they age. This has to start with a balanced diet with adequate intake of all key antioxidant nutrients listed above. Add vitamin C to the list, especially if the horse is not on pasture. Other nutrients of benefit are the antioxidants alpha lipoic acid and N-acetyl-cysteine which is also a precursor for glutathione. On the plant antioxidant side of things, benefit is derived from resveratrol/grape seed extract, bioflavonoids including quercetin, Boswellia, Turmeric, Ginkgo biloba (also a good pick me up for seniors) and Oregon Grape root.
While ageing brings its challenges, there is much you can do to support the horse when you understand what those challenges are. Seniors often respond dramatically to the correct supplements and there are few things more rewarding to witness.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD