The Humane Society of Utah receives numerous complaints each year concerning horses 'in poor flesh.' Investigation into these calls reveals that many horse owners claim the animals are thin and ribby because they are "old." The term "old," to them, varies from owner to owner, but ranges from 12 to 34 years of age.
Historically, most horses didn't live much past 15 years of age because of inadequate or non-existent veterinary care, a lack of knowledge of proper nutrition, and inadequate hoof care. Because of advanced veterinary and farrier attention, increased knowledge of equine feed requirements, and an upswing in the number of individuals showing strong personal attachments to their animals, it is now not uncommon to find horses and ponies in the range of 20-30 years of age. A June 15, 1978, Salt Lake Tribune story documented a 43-year old horse named 'Prince,' belonging to Dr. Frank Tyler, a retired U. of U. professor.
One or more of the following signs can occur with advancing age: inefficient chewing of foodstuffs due to tooth wear or damaged teeth, drooping of the lower lip, swayed back, sunken hollows above the eyes, long-term coughing or 'heaves,' and graying of the hair. The kidneys, liver, heart, and immune system may lose efficiency.
It is critical that owners of older horses maintain regular veterinary examinations and treatment. This reduces the animal's parasite load, prevents disease through vaccinations, and maintains teeth in their most efficient condition. It is also important to maintain quality hoof care, including frequent 'picking' around the frog of the hoof to remove debris and allow proper flexing of the hoof structures. A farrier should be called to trim and adjust or replace shoes on a regular basis -- about every 8-10 weeks.
Older horses need to be maintained in good physical condition, as proper body flesh aids the animal to withstand physical and environmental stressors, such as hot and cold weather, disease, and internal and external parasites. Quality feedstuffs and free-choice fresh water are also needed.
You should be able to feel the animal's ribs, but not see them. Overweight animals suffer from arthritis, leg, and foot problems. Underweight animals are unable to withstand temperature and weather extremes, stress, disease, and parasites.
Horses should be examined by their owners on a regular, if not daily, basis to identify problems before they become severe, to notice changes in behavior, increases in water uptake or urination, or eating difficulties. Many horses lose considerable body flesh before a serious condition is noticed by an inattentive owner. Untreated cuts or injuries can result in life-threatening conditions. It is far easier, and less costly, to prevent problems than to correct them.
Older, pastured animals may not be able to compete with younger or more dominant animals. These animals may have to be separated from other animals to allow uninterrupted feeding. They should also be supplied with vitamin and mineral supplements.
In cases where the animal has been part of a family for many years and is suffering from non-treatable disease, injury, weight loss, or other serious condition, some well-meaning owners find it difficult to find the courage to make the decision to have the animal humanely destroyed by a veterinarian. Some close their eyes and refuse to see the animal's suffering and hope that the animal will die from natural causes so that they won't have to make this decision.
When a horse is suffering or past recovery, without a caring owner to call a veterinarian who can provide a humane death, animals are usually found on their sides, weak from thrashing for hours during their attempts to rise. In some cases, predatory birds will attack the eyes, rectum, and genitals of the living, but incapacitated, animal.
As long as an older horse is alert, healthy, eating well, and carrying adequate flesh, the owner should provide routine care. This would include veterinary exams, vaccinations, 'floating' of teeth, farrier attention, quality feed, water, and supplements, and appropriate exercise and protection from the elements.
Should the time come when the animal requires release from non-treatable pain and suffering, the owner should have the decency to provide a dignified and humane death to their animal which has served them well over so many years