10 Tips for Caring for the Older Horse
Advances in nutrition, management and health care are helping, horses are living longer, more useful lives. It’s not uncommon to find horses and ponies living well into their 20s and 30s. While genetics play a role in determining life span, you too, can have an impact. You may think that turning your old-timer out to pasture is the kindest form of retirement. But horses are individuals. Some enjoy being idle; others prefer to be a part of the action. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the horse. Proper nutrition, care and exercise will help the animal thrive.
Follow these guidelines to develop a total management plan for your older horse:
- Observe your horse on a regular basis. Watch for changes in body condition, behavior and attitude. Address problems, even seemingly minor ones, right away.
- Feed a high-quality diet. Avoid dusty and moldy feeds.
- Feed your older horse away from younger, more aggressive ones so it won’t have to compete for feed.
- Feed at more frequent intervals so as not to upset the digestive system. Two to three times daily is best.
- Provide plenty of fresh, clean, tepid water. Excessively cold water reduces consumption, which can lead to colic and other problems.
- Adjust and balance rations to maintain proper body conditions. A good rule of thumb is to be able to feel the ribs but not see them.
- Provide adequate, appropriate exercise to maintain muscle tone, flexibility and mobility.
- Groom your horse frequently to promote circulation and skin health.
- Be aware that older horses are prone to tumors. Look for any unusual lumps or growths from head to tail as well as beneath the tail (especially on gray horses).
- Schedule routine checkups with your equine veterinarian. Call immediately if you suspect a problem.
A quick response to ailments, injuries or a decline in fitness can keep your older horse from having a serious or prolonged setback. That means less worry for you and a better quality of life for your old friend. Visit the AAEP website, www.aaep.org, for additional information about caring for the older horse.
10 Tips for Choosing the Best Hay for Your Horse
High-quality hay can be an important source of essential nutrients in your horse’s diet. A horse’s protein and energy requirements depend on age, stage of development, metabolism and workload. A mature horse will eat 2 to 2.5 percent of its body weight a day, and for optimum health, nutritionists recommend that at least half of this should be roughage such as hay. For a 1,000-pound horse, that means at least 10 pounds of roughage each day.
Hay generally falls into one of two categories – grasses or legumes. Legume hay is higher in protein, energy, calcium and vitamin A than grass hays. While hay alone may not meet the total dietary requirements of young, growing horses or those used for high levels of performance, high- quality hay may supply ample nutrition for less active adult horses.
Once you’ve determined the best category of hay for your horse, most people select hay based on how it looks, smells and feels. Use the following tips from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to select the best hay for your horse:
- It’s what’s inside that counts. Ask that one or several bales are opened so you can evaluate the hay inside the bales. Do not worry about slight discoloration on the outside, especially in stacked hay.
- Choose hay that is as fine-stemmed, green and leafy as possible, and is soft to the touch.
- Avoid hay that is overcured, excessively sun-bleached, or smells moldy, musty, dusty or fermented.
- Select hay that has been harvested when the plants are in early bloom for legume hay or before seed heads have formed in grasses. Examine the leaves, stems and flowers or seed pods to determine the level of maturity.
- Avoid hay that contains significant amounts of weeds, dirt, trash or debris
- Examine hay for signs of insect infestation or disease. Be especially careful to check for blister beetles in alfalfa. Ask the grower about any potential problems in the region.
- Reject bales that seem excessively heavy for their size or feel warm to the touch, as they could contain excess moisture that could cause mold, or worse, spontaneous combustion.
- When possible, purchase and feed hay within a year of harvest to preserve its nutritional value
- Store hay in a dry, sheltered area out of the rain, snow and sun, or cover in the stack to protect it from the elements.
- When buying in quantity, have the hay analyzed by a certified forage laboratory to determine its actual nutrient content.
Remember that horses at different ages and stages of growth, development and activity have different dietary requirements. Consult your veterinarian or a qualified equine nutritionist when formulating your horse’s ration. He or she can help you put together a balanced diet that is safe, nutritious and cost-effective.
More information about nutrition also can be found online on the AAEP’s website, www.aaep.org.
10 Tips for Fighting Fungus-Infected Fescue
Tall fescue is a grass which grows on over 35 million acres of land in the United States. As many as 700,000 horses may graze fescue pastures or be fed fescue hay each year. Many of these pastures contain fescue that is infected with an endophytic fungus that is toxic to horses. When the horse ingests the grass, it is steadily poisoned by alkaloids produced by the fungus.
What many owners may not realize is that there are some significant health risks associated with horses eating endophyte fungus-infected tall fescue. Some of these problems can be minimized with careful management of horses and pastures.
Follow these management tips from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to reduce the risks of health problems caused by EI tall fescue:
- Have your pasture tested to determine the level of infection.
- Mow fields prior to the development of seed heads, which contain the highest levels of toxins in the plant.
- Remove horses from EI fescue pastures in conditions of extreme heat and drought.
- Remove broodmares from EI fescue pastures 30 days prior to breeding and 60 to 90 days prior to foaling.
- Keep accurate records of breeding and anticipated foaling dates.
- Notify your veterinarian for initiation of drug therapy if your mare has been grazing EI fescue prior to foaling.
- Monitor the mare closely during late pregnancy.
- Contact your veterinarian if impending signs of birth, including udder development, relaxation of vulva, and muscles around the tailhead fail to develop within the expected timeframe.
- Attend the birth. If the mare fails to show signs of normal birth progression, contact your veterinarian immediately.
- Keep mares and foals off EI fescue until after weaning to prevent poor milk production.
If replanting a pasture, it is extremely important that all infected plants and seeds be destroyed prior to sowing. Discuss the best methods for eliminating stands of infected fescue with an agronomist, toxicologist or your county extension agent.
For more information about treating EI fescue problems in your horse, contact your equine veterinarian. Additional information can also be found on the AAEP’s website, www.aaep.org.
10 Tips for Preventing Colic
The No. 1 killer of horses is colic. Colic is not a disease, but rather a combination of signs that alert us to abdominal pain in the horse. Colic can range from mild to severe, but it should never be ignored. Many of the conditions that cause colic can become life threatening in a relatively short period of time. Only by quickly and accurately recognizing colic – and seeking qualified veterinary help – can the chance for recovery be maximized.
While horses seem predisposed to colic due to the anatomy and function of their digestive tracts, management can play a key role in prevention. Although not every case is avoidable, the following guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) can maximize the horse’s health and reduce the risk of colic:
- Establish a daily routine – including feeding and exercise schedules – and stick to it.
- Feed a high-quality diet comprised primarily of roughage.
- Avoid feeding excessive grain and energy-dense supplements. (At least half the horse’s energy should be supplied through hay or forage. A better guide is that twice as much energy should be supplied from a roughage source than from concentrates.)
- Divide daily concentrate rations into two or more smaller feedings rather than one large feeding to avoid overloading the horse’s digestive tract. Hay is best fed free-choice.
- Set up a regular parasite control program with the help of your equine practitioner.
- Provide daily exercise and/or turnout. Change the intensity and duration of an exercise regimen gradually.
- Provide fresh, clean water at all times. (The only exception is when the horse is excessively hot, and then it should be given small sips of lukewarm water until it has recovered.)
- Avoid putting feed on the ground, especially in sandy soils.
- Check hay, bedding, pasture and environment for potentially toxic substances, such as blister beetles, noxious weeds and other ingestible foreign matter.
- Reduce stress. Horses experiencing changes in environment or workloads are at high risk of intestinal dysfunction. Pay special attention to horses when transporting them or changing their surroundings such as at shows.
Virtually any horse is susceptible to colic. Age, sex and breed differences in susceptibility seem to be relatively minor. The type of colic seen appears to relate to geographic or regional differences, probably due to environmental factors such as sandy soil or climatic stress. Importantly, this indicates that, with conscientious care and management, we have the potential to reduce and control colic, the No. 1 killer of horses.
For more information about colic prevention and treatment, ask your equine veterinarian.Additional colic information is available by visiting the AAEP’s website at www.aaep.org.
10 Tips for Reducing Your Horse’s West Nile Risk
Since first being recognized in the United States in 1999, West Nile virus (WNV) has posed a serious threat to horses and humans alike. In the equine population, the virus is transmitted when a mosquito takes a blood meal from a bird infected with WNV, then feeds on a horse. While many horses exposed to WNV experience no signs of illness, the virus can cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. In some cases, especially in older horses, WNV can be fatal.
As a horse owner, prevention is the key to reducing your horse’s risk of contracting WNV. Follow these guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to protect your horse against WNV:
- Consider vaccinating your horse against the disease. In February 2003, a vaccine was licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Veterinary Biologics for use in healthy horses as an aid in the prevention of the disease. Talk with your veterinarian about the most appropriate vaccination schedule for your horse.
- Eliminate potential mosquito breeding sites. Dispose of old receptacles, tires and containers, and eliminate areas of standing water.
- Thoroughly clean livestock watering troughs at least monthly.
- Use larvicides to control mosquito populations when it is not possible to eliminate particular breeding sites. Such action should only be taken, however, in consultation with your local mosquito control authority.
- Keep your horse indoors during the peak mosquito activity periods of dusk to dawn.
- Screen stalls if possible or at least install fans over your horse to help deter mosquitoes.
- Avoid turning on lights inside the stable during the evening or overnight.
- Use insect repellants on your horse that are designed to repel mosquitoes to help reduce the chance of being bitten.
- Remove any birds, including chickens, located in or close to a stable.
- Don’t forget to protect yourself as well. When outdoors in the evening, wear clothing that covers your skin and apply plenty of mosquito repellent.
For more information about the virus, ask your equine veterinarian. Additional information about WNV can be found on the AAEP’s website at www.aaep.org.
10 Tips for Weight Reduction in the Overweight Horse
As a horse owner, you play an important role in controlling your equine companion’s weight. Sound nutrition management, a regular exercise program and veterinary care are key to keeping your horse fit and healthy. Maintaining the ideal weight is not always easy, however.
When implementing a weight-loss program for the overweight horse, it’s important to do it gradually and under the supervision of an equine veterinarian. Follow these guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to get started:
- Be patient. Weight reduction should be a slow, steady process so as not to stress the horse or create metabolic upsets.
- Make changes in both the type and amount of feed gradually. Reduce rations by no more than 10 percent over a 7- to 10-day period.
- Track your horse’s progress by using a weight tape. When the horse’s weight plateaus, gradually cut back its ration again.
- Step up the horse’s exercise regimen. Gradually build time and intensity as the horse’s fitness improves.
- Provide plenty of clean, fresh water so the horse’s digestive and other systems function as efficiently as possible and rid the body of metabolic and other wastes.
- Select feeds that provide plenty of high-quality fiber but are low in total energy. Measure feeds by weight rather than by volume to determine appropriate rations.
- Select feeds that are lower in fat since fat is an energy-dense nutrient source.
- Switch or reduce the amount of alfalfa hay feed. Replace with a mature grass or oat hay to reduce caloric intake.
- Feed separate from other horses so the overweight horse doesn’t have a chance to eat his portion and his neighbor’s too. In extreme cases of obesity, caloric intake may also need to be controlled by limiting pasture intake.
- Balance the horse’s diet based on age and activity level. Make sure the horse’s vitamin, mineral and protein requirements continue to be met.
Once your horse has reached its ideal body condition, maintaining the proper weight is a gentle balancing act. You will probably need to readjust your horse’s ration to stabilize its weight. Exercise will continue to be a key component in keeping the horse fit. Because obesity can affect a horse’s health, communicate regularly with your veterinarian. Schedule regular check-ups, especially during the weight reduction process.
For more information about caring for the obese horse, ask your equine veterinarian or visit AAEP’s website at www.aaep.org.
Be Prepared for an Equine Health Emergency
If you own horses long enough, sooner or later you are likely to confront a medical emergency. From lacerations to colic to foaling difficulties, there are many emergencies that a horse owner may encounter. You must know how to recognize serious problems and respond promptly, taking appropriate action while awaiting the arrival of your veterinarian.
Preparation is vital when confronted with a medical emergency. No matter the situation you may face, mentally rehearse the steps you will take to avoid letting panic take control. Follow these guidelines from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to help you prepare for an equine emergency:
- Keep your veterinarian’s number in your phone, including how the practitioner can be reached after hours.
- Consult with your regular veterinarian regarding a back-up or referring veterinarian’s number in case you cannot reach your regular veterinarian quickly enough.
- Know in advance the most direct route to an equine surgery center in case you need to transport the horse.
- Store the names and phone numbers of nearby friends and neighbors who can assist you in an emergency while you wait for the veterinarian.
- Prepare a first aid kit and store it in a clean, dry, readily accessible place. Make sure that family members and other barn users know where the kit is. Also keep a first aid kit in your horse trailer or towing vehicle, and a pared-down version to carry on the trail.
First aid kits can be simple or elaborate. Here is a short list of essential items:
- Cotton roll
- Cling wrap
- Gauze pads, in assorted sizes
- Sharp scissors
- Cup or container
- Rectal thermometer with string and clip attached
- Surgical scrub and antiseptic solution
- Latex gloves
- Saline solution
Many accidents can be prevented by taking the time to evaluate your horse’s environment and removing potential hazards. Mentally rehearse your emergency action plan. In an emergency, time is critical. Don’t be concerned with overreacting or annoying your veterinarian. By acting quickly and promptly, you can minimize the consequences of an injury or illness. For more information about emergency care, ask your equine veterinarian. More information can also be obtained by visiting the AAEP’s website, www.aaep.org.
Learn to Recognize the Signs of Laminitis
Every day, veterinarians across the country see hundreds of cases of laminitis, a painful disease that affects the feet of horses. Laminitis results from the disruption of blood flow to the sensitive and insensitive laminae within the foot, which secure the coffin bone to the hoof wall. While the exact mechanisms by which the feet are damaged remain a mystery, certain precipitating events can produce laminitis. Although laminitis occurs in the feet, the underlying cause is often a disturbance elsewhere in the horse’s body.
As a horse owner, it is important to recognize the signs of laminitis and seek veterinary help immediately. Signs of acute laminitis include:
- Lameness, especially when a horse is turning in circles; shifting lameness when standing
- Heat in the feet
- Increased digital pulse in the feet
- Pain in the toe region when pressure is applied with hoof testers
- Reluctant or hesitant gait, as if “walking on eggshells”
- A “sawhorse stance,” with the front feet stretched out in front to alleviate pressure on the toes and the hind feet “camped out” or positioned farther back than normal to bear more weight
Signs of chronic laminitis may include:
- Rings in hoof wall that become wider as they are followed from toe to heel
- Bruised soles or “stone bruises”
- Widened white line, commonly called “seedy toe,” with occurrence of blood pockets and/or abscesses
- Dropped soles or flat feet
- Thick, “cresty” neck
- Dished hooves, which are the result of unequal rates of hoof growth
If you suspect laminitis, consider it a medical emergency and notify your veterinarian immediately. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chance for recovery. For information about laminitis, ask your equine veterinarian.
Additional information can also be found on the AAEP’s website www.aaep.org.
Learn to Recognize Your Horse’s Dental Problems
Horses with dental problems may show obvious signs, such as pain or irritation, or they may show no noticeable signs at all. This is because some horses simply adapt to their discomfort. For this reason, periodic dental examinations are essential to your horse’s health.
It is important to catch dental problems early. If a horse starts behaving abnormally, dental problems should be considered as a potential cause. Waiting too long may increase the difficulty of remedying certain conditions or may even make remedy impossible. Look for the following indicators of dental problems from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to know when to seek veterinary attention for your horse:
- Loss of feed from mouth while eating, difficulty with chewing, or excessive salivation.
- Loss of body condition.
- Large or undigested feed particles (long stems or whole grain) in manure.
- Head tilting or tossing, bit chewing, tongue lolling, fighting the bit, or resisting bridling.
- Poor performance, such as lugging on the bridle, failing to turn or stop, even bucking.
- Foul odor from mouth or nostrils, or traces of blood from the mouth.
- Nasal discharge or swelling of the face, jaw or mouth tissues.
Oral exams should be an essential part of an annual physical examination by a veterinarian. Every dental exam provides the opportunity to perform routine preventative dental maintenance. Mature horses should get a thorough dental exam at least once a year, and horses 2 to 5-years-old should be examined twice yearly.
For more information about proper dental care, ask your equine veterinarian. Additional information is available on the AAEP’s website, www.aaep.org.
Protect Your Horse from EIA
Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) is a potentially fatal disease that threatens the world’s horse, donkey and mule populations. The virus that causes EIA reproduces in the white blood cells that circulate throughout the body. The immune system, via antibodies, may attack and destroy red blood cells, leading to anemia. Infected horses may die from the direct effects of the virus or from secondary infections. Despite testing and measures to eradicate the EIA, more than 500 new cases are identified each year in the U.S.
There is no cure for EIA. Although most horses show no symptoms, they remain contagious for life, endangering the health of other horses. For this reason, the United States Department of Agriculture and state animal health regulatory agencies require euthanasia or strict lifelong quarantine for horses testing positive for EIA.
Your horse’s only protection against EIA is prevention. Good management practices can reduce the potential of infection.
- Use disposable needles and syringes, one per horse, when administering vaccines and medications.
- Sterilize dental tools and other instruments before using them on another horse.
- Test all horses for EIA at least annually.
- Test horses at the time of purchase examination.
- Stable owners and horse show and event managers should require and verify current negative Coggins certificates for all horses entering the premises.
- New horses should be quarantined for 45 days and observed for any signs of illness, including elevated temperatures, before introducing them to the herd. They should be retested if exposure to EIA is suspected at a 45-day interval.
- All stable areas should be kept clean, dry and waste-free. Good pasture management techniques should also be practiced. Remove manure and provide adequate drainage to discourage breeding sites for pests.
- Horses at greater risk, such as those in frequent contact with outside horses or who live or travel in geographic regions known for EIA outbreaks, should be tested more frequently, every 4 to 6 months.
For more information about EIA, ask your equine veterinarian. Additional information can be found on the AAEP’s website www.aaep.org.
Learn to Recognize the Symptoms of EPM
quine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) is a master of disguise. This serious disease, which attacks the horse’s central nervous system, can be difficult to diagnose because its signs often mimic other health problems in the horse and signs can range from mild to severe. More than 50 percent of all U.S. horses have been exposed to the parasite that causes EPM. Horses can come into contact with the parasite while grazing or eating feed or drinking water contaminated by opossum feces. Fortunately, not all horses exposed to the parasite develop the disease.
The clinical signs of EPM can be quite varied. Clinical signs are usually asymmetrical (not the same on both sides of the horse). Actual signs may depend on the severity and location of the lesions that develop in the brain, brain stem or spinal cord.
If left undiagnosed and untreated, EPM can cause devastating and lasting neurological damage. Use this checklist of symptoms from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) when assessing your horse’s condition for the possibility of EPM:
- Ataxia (incoordination), spasticity (stiff, stilted movements), abnormal gait or lameness.
- Incoordination and weakness which worsens when going up or down slopes or when head is elevated.
- Muscle atrophy, most noticeable along the topline or in the large muscles of the hindquarters, but can sometimes involve the muscles of the face or front limbs.
- Paralysis of muscles of the eyes, face or mouth, evident by drooping eyes, ears or lips.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Seizures or collapse.
- Abnormal sweating.
- Loss of sensation along the face, neck or body.
- Head tilt with poor balance; horse may assume a splay-footed stance or lean against stall walls for support.
Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your horse has developed EPM. The sooner treatment begins, the better the horse’s chances for recovery.
For more information on methods of prevention and the treatment options for EPM, ask your equine veterinarian for a copy of the “EPM: Understanding this Debilitating Disease” client education brochure, provided by the AAEP. Additional information also can be found on the AAEP’s website, www.aaep.org.
Reduce Your Horse’s Gastric Ulcer Risk
Ulcers are a man-made disease, affecting up to 90 percent of racehorses and 60 percent of show horses. Stall confinement alone can lead to the development of ulcers. A horse’s feeding schedule also can be a factor. When horses are fed just twice a day, the stomach is subjected to a prolonged period without feed to neutralize its naturally produced acid. In addition, high-grain diets produce volatile fatty acids that can also contribute to the development of ulcers.
Stress, both environmental and physical, can increase the likelihood of ulcers, as can hauling, training and mixing groups of horses. Strenuous exercise can decrease the emptying of the stomach and the blood flow to the stomach, thus contributing to the problem.
The treatment and prevention of gastric ulcers is directed at removing these predisposing factors, thus decreasing acid production within the horse’s stomach. Follow these tips from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) to properly treat your horse’s ulcers:
- Allow free-choice access to grass or hay. Horses are designed to be grazers with a regular intake of roughage.
- If the horse must be stalled, arrange for the horse to see the horses he socializes with. Consider offering a ball or other object that the horse can enjoy in his stall.
- Feed the horse more frequently to help buffer the acid in the stomach.
- Decrease grains that form volatile fatty acids.
- Medications that decrease acid production are available, but are only necessary in horses showing signs of clinical disease or when the predisposing factors, such as stress, cannot be removed.
The prevention of ulcers is the key. Limiting stressful situations along with frequent feeding or free-choice access to grass or hay is imperative. Neutralizing the production of stomach acid is nature’s best antacid.
For more information about gastric ulcers, visit the AAEP’s website www.aaep.org.
Wage War on Equine Parasites
Internal parasites are silent killers. They can cause extensive internal damage, and you may not even realize your horses are heavily infected. At the very least, parasites can lower resistance, rob the horse of valuable nutrients and cause gastrointestinal irritation and unthriftiness. At their worst, they can lead to colic, intestinal ruptures and death.
Using deworming agents on a regular schedule in combination with good management procedures is critical to relieving your horse of most parasites. Since parasites are primarily transferred through manure, good management is key. In terms of management priorities, establishing a parasite control program is probably second only to supplying the horse with clean, plentiful water and high-quality feed.
To get rid of parasites before they attack your horse, follow these suggestions from the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP):
- Pick up and dispose of manure droppings in the pasture at least twice weekly.
- Mow and harrow pastures regularly to break up manure piles and expose parasite eggs and larvae to the elements.
- Rotate pastures by allowing other livestock, such as sheep or cattle, to graze them, thereby interrupting the life cycles of parasites.
- Group horses by age to reduce exposure to certain parasites and maximize the deworming program geared to that group.
- Keep the number of horses per acre to a minimum to prevent overgrazing and reduce the fecal contamination per acre.
- Use a feeder for hay and grain rather than feeding on the ground.
- Remove bot eggs quickly and regularly from the horse’s haircoat to prevent ingestion.
- Rotate deworming agents, not just brand names, to prevent chemical resistance.
- Consult your veterinarian to set up an effective and regular deworming schedule.
With the many safe, convenient products available today, establishing an effective deworming program is easy. Discuss a plan with your veterinarian and implement it without delay. A good parasite control program will go a long way toward maximizing your horse’s appearance, performance and comfort. The net result will be an animal that is as healthy on the inside as it appears on the outside.
For more information about waging war on equine parasites, ask your veterinarian. Information about equine parasites also can be found on the AAEP’s website www.aaep.org.