Horses are living longer, healthier lives, so knowing how to care for your aging horse is more important than ever before. Grooming is occasionally seen as a tedious step before riding, but it’s also a vital time of interaction, assessment, and wellness for your horse.
Here are a few tips for grooming your elderly horse, whether he’s retired to pasture or still enjoying competitive life.
Establish a Baseline
As horses age, small problems can quickly snowball into larger problems. With the added obstacles of hearing loss, cataracts, and stiffness, it’s even more difficult for older horses to communicate discomfort, and harder for you to notice when they aren’t feeling well.
Establishing your horse’s normal baseline could be the most important part of your regime. The baseline can be used to consistently check your horse, taking the guesswork out of the situation. While thorough checks with eyes and hands are a reliable way to assess your horse, the most accurate way to establish a baseline is to record your horse’s TPR (Temperature, Pulse, Respiration). Checks can be performed two or three times a week along with your grooming schedule.
The Horse Health Check from Equine Guelph provides an even more thorough tool for evaluating senior horses, including how to take your horse’s TPR, and how to look for other warning signs at motion and at rest. This sixteen-point check can be used as needed to assess your horse’s physical condition, or incorporated into your routine to establish your horse’s baseline.
Check for Sensitivity
Increased sensitivity poses one of the leading problems when caring for older horses. In general, older horses are more sensitive for a variety of reasons, such as thinning skin and decreased muscle capacity and increased sensitivity to hot and cold.
Body sensitivity may make your horse dislike grooming. Additionally, older horses may dislike being groomed because they associate it with intensive exercise. Make grooming his new happy place by creating an easy atmosphere where you can both relax and move at the pace that’s best for you both.
If you’re bringing your horse in from a cold pasture, let him warm up in the barn, perhaps under a blanket, for a few minutes before grooming. If your horse is grumpy or anxious in the presence of noise and commotion, make the situation less stressful by choosing to spend time with him when the barn is quiet and calm. In consultation with your vet or massage therapist, you might even want to incorporate simple stretches of the neck and legs into your routine, which also help to keep his mind active.
Your horse may, however, be suffering from increased body sensitivity because of undiscovered aches, pains, or skin ailments that become more common as he ages. It’s important to pinpoint the specific areas where your horse is experiencing sensitivity. Grooming can be an opportunity to determine if your horse’s sensitive areas are localized to a few parts of the body, or if he is experiencing increased overall sensitivity. Try to note if your horse flinches or stiffens when you begin to groom a certain area. (See this infosheet from Equine Guelph for more information on the behaviour and attitude changes that could mark the onset of sensitivity and pain in older horses.)
Typically, sensitive areas can occur where the muscles are prone to being stiff or tight, like the back and loins (located on either side of the lumbar), or where the skin is close to the bone, such as the withers, hips, face, knees, hocks, and lower legs. On these areas, try using softer brushes or grooming alternatives, such as fleeces. If your horse is sensitive to a traditional metal or rubber curry, there are many gentler options available, such as a curry mitt or rubber curry with soft, bendable teeth. Long-bristled body brushes also create less resistance and are generally more comfortable. When picking the hooves, if a horse is stiff, sore, or arthritic, it’s important not to elevate the legs suddenly. Establish a comfortable range of motion, and take the time to feel each hoof for heat.
Care for the Skin
Dandruff is sometimes increased in older horses because their skin is drier and more sensitive. To help with hydration, make sure your horse gets plenty of water, which also helps to prevent impaction colic — a common problem for older horses.
If you’ve noticed a layer of dandruff dust in your horse’s coat that won’t go away, no matter how much you curry or what products you use, the reason could be that older horses are more prone to developing reactions to allergens. You may want to avoid routinely using products that contain potential irritants or strip the coat of its natural oils.
An excellent alternative hydrator is coconut oil. It’s a cost-effective way to help itchy, dry, skin or to add a beautiful sheen to an already healthy coat. It also boasts many additional benefits for older horses: it contains essential nutrients for the skin like vitamin E, and vitamin C, which helps with wound healing. It also helps prevent bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. Coconut oil can help boost skin immunity as the natural immune system weakens with age and horses become more susceptible to conditions like rain rot. Try melting a half-cup and currying or massaging into the coat, or adding it to the mane and tail for a beautiful sheen.
The most important thing you can do for your elderly horse is give him your time and attention, and grooming is one of the best ways to do that. If you want to ensure you’re doing absolutely everything you can for your old friend, try taking Equine Guelph’s Senior Horse Challenge Quiz. Knowing the best way to care for your elderly horse will ensure both of you will reap the benefits of your enduring bond over many happy, healthy years of friendship.
Charlie Fiset is a former show groom who worked on the FEI circuit in Europe and North America.