Menu UF Health Home Menu

Geriatric horse care

Published: April 24th, 2012

Category: Medicine, News

Senior and Geriatric Horses

As we age, we must make changes to our lifestyle in order to maintain skeletal, muscle, and anatomical integrity. This is also true for horses.

While there are many tests that can be performed to assess a horse’s condition, horse owners should be proactive in their aging horse’s health care in order to prevent health problems from worsening and allow your horse to age as comfortably as possible. Below are some recommendations from the veterinarians at the UF Large Animal Hospital.

Regular Veterinary Visits for Older Horses

Many horse owners believe that regular examinations, vaccinations and deworming are not important for older horses, but just the opposite is the case as immunity wanes with age. Annual veterinary visits, vaccines, and parasite control keep horses healthy, and keep the horse owner informed of any veterinary-recommended changes to diet or exercise.


Vaccinating older horses is one of the key steps to preventative health care. Read the AAEP’s vaccination chart for adult horses.


Older horses require nutritious feed or supplements due to changes in their bodies, activity levels and eating behaviors. The majority of feed should be a high-quality, easily digestible roughage, or a complete pelleted feed, adding fat if necessary. Feeding easily digestible food is easier on the horse’s system and can trigger better eating habits, helping to keep weight on. Watch the video from UF IFAS Animal Sciences Equine Nutritionist, Dr. Lori Warren, about feeding fat to horses, which includes identifying a fat-added product, options for adding fat, practical fat-feeding guidelines and more.

Body Condition & Weight Loss

Keeping your horse a healthy weight and strength with proper exercise and diet is one of the best things a horse owner can do for their older horse. While keeping weight on can be difficult, a dedicated exercise routine, along with ample warm-up time and a good diet can make all the difference.

Possible causes of weight loss:

  • Dental disease
  • Parasitism
  • Intestinal disease
  • Systemic disease


The risk and severity of colic increases with age, along with the risk of colic that requires surgery. Read about the surgical colic program at UF, along with ways to help prevent colic from happening and what to do if it does.

Hoof Care

There is an increased risk of quarter cracks, abscesses, laminitis, and fractures as horses age, and knowing the early signs of these issues can save costly veterinary or farrier care. Be sure to schedule regular visits with your veterinarian and farrier to diagnose and treat hoof or lameness problems, or consult UF’s farrier. Shown right is a radiograph of a horse hoof with arthritis of the pastern joint.

Dental Care

Horse’s teeth change as they age due to natural development, vices, injuries or changes in eating behavior. Dental exams for older horses are recommended every six months, but you should schedule an exam with your veterinarian if the following clinical signs are present:

  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Quidding
  • Recurrent choke
  • Long fibers or grain in the feces

Aging Ailments


Older horses have a tendency to become arthritic. Diagnosing arthritis by a veterinarian first requires the horse owner knowing the clinical signs, such as stiffness or lameness. There are multiple treatment options available, and working with your veterinarian in the initial stages of arthritis can help prevent invasive treatment options.


Equine heave lineHeaves is recurrent airway obstruction caused by inflammation of the lower airways, typically due to hypersensitivity to inhaled molds and dusts. The clinical signs of heaves may include coughing, nasal discharge, exercise intolerance, post-exercise breathing difficulty, and a visible “heave” line. If any of these clinical signs are evident, call you veterinarian to discuss options for care.


The risk of diarrhea increases with age due to disruption of normal physiological processes. It is common and can be frustrating to diagnose and treat. Remember to keep your horse properly hydrated at all times and work with your veterinarian to treat diarrhea as soon as it starts.

Some causes of diarrhea are:

  • Parasitism
  • IBD
  • Sand
  • Lympohsarcoma
  • NSAIDs
  • Salmonella
  • Abdominal abscesses
  • Other systemic diseases


Neoplasia is the formation of growths, and the risk increases with age. Squamous cell carcinoma tumors or growths may form along the eyes, prepuce and stomach. Other forms of neoplasia are melanomas, lymphoma and adenocarcinoma. If you have a gray horse with melanoma, it may be eligible for our equine melanoma vaccine clinical trial.

Diseases & Common Ailments Associated with Aging Horses

Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease is the loss of dopamine production in the hypothalamus. Horses over the age of seven can get Cushing’s disease, but the average age is 19-21 and prevalence of the disease increases drastically after 30 years. It is caused by adenomas in pituitary, increased secretion of multiple hormones or compression of surrounding brain structures.


Clinical signs of Cushing’s Disease

  • Hirsuitism and poor hair coat
  • Polyuria/polydipsia (drinking too much and urinating too much)
  • Laminitis
  • Lethargy or docile attitude
  • Hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating)
  • Ravenous appetite
  • Muscle mass atrophy
  • Bulging eyes
  • Blindness
  • Immuniosuppression
  • Infertility

For more information about equine Cushing’s disease, read Management of Equine Cushing’s Disease and Equine Metabolic Syndrome, written by the UF Veterinary Hospitals Chief of Staff, Dr. Dana Zimmel.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Equine Metabolic Syndrome is a developed resistance to insulin. All horses over the age of five are at risk, and the most common breeds are morgans, paso finos, arabs, fjords and horses with a genetic predisposition.

Clinical signs:

  • Obesity
  • Regional adiposity (accumulation of fat in certain areas)
  • Prior or current laminitis

For more information about equine metabolic syndrome, read Management of Equine Cushing’s Disease and Equine Metabolic Syndrome, written by the UF Veterinary Hospitals Chief of Staff, Dr. Dana Zimmel.