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Vital for Veterans

Kate Hore RNutr(Animal). Snr Nutritionist at NAF

Older Horses in the UK
Without doubt the equine population in the Western world, including within the UK, is ageing. Surveys within the UK find about 30% of horses to be over fifteen years old, with 11% being between twenty and thirty years, and 2% over thirty years of age.

The reason for this change is likelihood twofold. In part more of us keep horses purely as pets, and are happy to commit to keeping them well into their old age; and partly improvements in nutrition knowledge, routine health treatments and equine dentistry have all contributed to horses living happily and healthily into their twenties and beyond.

However that doesn’t mean we’re growing a population of equine retirees – far from it! As improvements in equine health continue, so we find that horses maintain fitness through their teens and well into their twenties. Research in 2001 showed that while older horses tend to take it a little easier, the majority are still enjoying their work, with many actively competing into their late teens and beyond.

So what can we do from a feed and dietary point of view to help maintain our OAPs – that’s, Old Age Performers, of course!

Feeding the Veteran
It’s traditionally thought that older horses will suffer with reduced absorption and digestibility of the diet, and so struggle to maintain condition. Therefore their diet needs to be changed accordingly, away from what you’ve always fed. However now that thinking is a little out of date, as it refers to horses born in the 1960s and 70s who had not had the advantage of modern diets and wormers throughout their lives. Now we find that ageing itself does not significantly affect digestive efficiency in horses until horses become decidedly geriatric, and not just older. In fact, just as with younger horses, a high Body Condition Score (BCS) should be avoided as it may exacerbate health concerns (see Keeping Sound, below).

The advice to owners of older horses, therefore, should be to certainly regularly review BCS and diet as the horse ages, but so long as the horse is maintaining condition and working well, then no radical changes are required. For those horses who do need a little help, ensure the diet stays fibre based but consider short chop fibres or cubed hays which are more easily digested, especially when soaked. Instead, look at how their existing diet can be fine-tuned to make sure they’re metabolising it to maximum efficiency, and covering all they need for old age performance.

Gut Health
One area where it is worth considering supplementary support is in gut health. Gastrointestinal conditions, such as colic, are a major concern in older equines. Research has found colic to be second only to musculoskeletal issues for reasons for mortality in older horses. It is recommended to balance the diet to support a healthy microbiota (microbes including yeasts, fungi, bacteria) of the hind gut.

Keeping Sound
Musculoskeletal conditions, particularly lameness and osteoarthritis, are consistently found to be the biggest concern in older horses. In one study at a UK equine charity, the average age of euthanasia was twenty years, with 66% of those being due to osteoarthritis. So it represents a challenge for owners who wish to keep their older horses performing.

Of course the joints of performance horses undergo stress as part of normal work, but that is not the whole issue. It is thought that horses, like humans, show evidence of 'inflamm-ageing’, that is, a raised pro-inflammatory state within their body, meaning aches and pains are far more likely. As obesity also increases circulating inflammation this is a principle reason why all horses, including older horses, should be kept ‘fit not fat.'

In conclusion, by keeping horses fit and active, monitoring body condition and ensuring gut and joint health are supported there is no reason why the competing life of performance horses can’t extend well into their twenties and beyond.

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