Common Issues of the Older Horse

With a lifetime of good care there is no reason a horse can’t remain active and useful well into their 20s or even longer. However, just like us, there are some health issues that become more common as a result of the passage of time.  Joint disorders and digestive complaints are two of the most common.

When thinking about joint health, our tendency is to focus on the cartilage but many other tissues can be involved.  The horse’s body is equipped with mechanisms to repair damage as it occurs.  It doesn’t just pile up over time.  Problems can occur when the damage overwhelms the healing  capacity (e.g. serious trauma, very hard work) or when regenerative capacities slow down due to age. Most horses fall in the second category.

The big three of joint support supplements – hyaluronate, chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine – are involved in helping to maintain the homeostatic mechanisms that protect chondrocytes (cells producing cartilage) from things like oxidative stress. MSM and hydrolyzed collagen have similar properties.  They also help with maintaining a normal balance of potentially damaging enzymes in the joint fluid.

Regular antioxidant supplementation benefits the older horse by working with the body’s own antioxidant defenses to help alleviate potentially harmful free radicals. Ingredients in this category include grapeseed, bromelain, olive extract, Devil’s Claw, Curcumin and Boswellia.

Older horses are likely to benefit from additional support for soft tissue/connective tissue and bone from silicon (as the bioavailable orthosilic acid), vitamin C, copper and hydrolyzed collagen. Key nutrients for both collagen and hooves are L-lysine and L-methionine. Hooves also benefit from zinc and biotin.

Older horses may face several challenges in digesting their food. Natural wear and overaggressive dentistry can lead to loss of the enamel ridges on their chewing surfaces. There is also a change in the angle of the chewing surface which reduces the force of chewing. Although not investigated in horses, ageing can result in decrease in stomach acid production and pancreatic digestive enzyme activity. Older horses also often have reduced numbers and diversity of microorganisms in their intestinal tract.

When chewing is an issue, switching the diet to one based on hay cubes/pellets and/or a complete feed, fed thoroughly moistened or even as a “soup”, is highly beneficial.  Adding psyllium to every meal improves ease of swallowing and is also prebiotic.  You can leave hay available to keep the horse busy unless choke is a problem, but don’t count on it to supply significant calories.

Digestive support from digestive enzymes can help with small intestinal absorption of nutrients. These may come from enzyme preparations such as Pancrelipase and pepsin.  Bacterial and yeast fermentation products are also rich sources of digestive enzymes as well as growth factors for beneficial organisms.  The best probiotics are a blend of bacterial strains and yeast.  The number of live organisms is extremely important.  One  CFU = 1 colony forming unit = 1 live organism.  You need to think in terms of tens of billions to have an effect.

Ageing has its challenges in some key areas but the correct choice of supplements can help the horse maintain more youthful normal functioning.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions,, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition.
This entry was posted in Equine Nutrition and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Common Issues of the Older Horse

  1. Dr. Kellon says:

    All horses not on pasture can benefit from flax but it’s not for antioxidant support. Flax is fed as a rich source of omega-3 essential fatty acids.

  2. Billy Blackman says:

    Hello. I see you didn’t include flax in your list of antioxidant support. If flax off the list for a reason? Thanks.

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