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Keeping older equines healthy; stay aware, stay vigilant


A horse is a part of the family. And just like with any other family member, it can be tough watching your horse get old. In ideal circumstances, modern domestic horses have a life expectancy of around 25–30 years, and when their health starts to deteriorate, they require more attention and care to maintain a decent quality of life. That’s why Cherri Notarnicola of Locust Grove in Orange goes the extra mile to tend to her 29-year-old mare, Happy.

Nearly two years ago, Happy was about to be put down because of a calcified knee that made it hard for the old pony to get around. Notarnicola adopted her and brought her to live on her 10-acre Hidden Creek Farm in Orange.

“She’s still gimpy, but her quality of life is good,” Notarnicola said. “She isn’t in pain. For me, as long as they have a good quality of life, I’m content.”

Caring for an older breed is nothing new for Notarnicola. She recently lost a 25-year-old horse to cancer, the end of a 22-year relationship between an animal and loving owner. Throughout the years, she has seen almost every scenario, and knows a thing or two about caring for older equines. She offers her advice to those who are looking for tips on senior horse tending.


Older horses may not be as willing to eat large quantities of food as younger horses. That makes the type of food all the more important. However, that doesn’t mean older horses must eat senior food. Pick food that offers the same nutritional value only smaller portions. Like all horses, older breeds need a balanced diet, but they also need more protein and fat than younger horses. Notarnicola opts for alfalfa hay for her horses because of the high protein content. Variety is welcome. Horses enjoy a balanced diet.


Earlier this year, Notarnicola noticed that Happy was not eating much, and she was showing signs of depression (yes, horses can get depressed, too). She called the vet, who diagnosed the pony with pneumonia. Happy took daily medication and made a full recovery in about four weeks. Notarnicola says observation is key to discerning any significant changes in normal behavior. “You just need to know your horse and adjust to what its needs are,” she said. “Be vigilant and don’t put off taking action.”


Rapid weight gain, patches of thick curly hair, and swelling above the eyes can all be signs of another common threat to animals, particularly older ones: Cushing’s Syndrome. Cushing’s results in prolonged exposure to inappropriately high levels of the hormone cortisol. The symptoms can be vague, so blood work must be done to confirm the diagnosis.

That’s why annual visits to the doctor, optometrist and dentist are as important for your horse as they are for yourself.

Dental is particularly crucial for horses. As horses age, their teeth get ground down from chewing. This can lead to difficulty eating and other health issues.

Laminitis, a common but painful disease, can be detected early with regular leg and hoof exams. Check the animal’s thyroid to make sure it’s not swollen.

And keep the horse’s surroundings as clean as possible. Dirty environments can be hazardous, even to horses used to the outdoors. Horses can contract thrush—the animal version of athlete’s foot—simply by staying in a dirty stall. Mucking should be done often, and bedding should be changed regularly. Drinking water must be kept fresh. Also, take some time to brush the horse’s body and mane, especially during the cold months. And horse blankets are generally not needed for older horses. It’s actually good for them to grow a coat of hair in chilly temperatures so they’re able to conserve heat and don’t have to burn so many calories to stay warm.


When a horse gets sick and needs medical attention, it can be a very anxious time for the owners. Many times, there is more than one course of action. Not all of them have a clear right–wrong designation. Notarnicola encourages all owners to find out everything they can about their horse’s needs and to ask the hard questions.

“A lot of people don’t take the time to get all the facts and think about everything,” Notarnicola said. “They let the emotional part of it affect their decisions.

"Ask the vet up front: How treatable is it? What outcome can I expect? What are the estimated costs? And what will the quality of life be? These all need to be answered at the start.”

Kenneth Nasse can be reached at 540/374-5400



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