Common Health Issues to Watch for in Your Senior Horse

Two horses grazing

Like many animals in our lives, horses commonly feel like part of the family. We watch them grow up until, similarly to humans, the time comes when they enter their senior age. Senior age comes along with an increased chance of health complications, decreased mobility and agility, and possible new dietary requirements. Your horse is considered “senior” when they reach the age of 20. Nowadays, it is common for your horse to live for 25-30 years, so their senior age makes up almost half of their life. Senior equines can still live a full and happy life as they age, but they may need some help to handle new health challenges that come their way. Keep reading to learn about some of the common health issues to watch for in your senior horse. 



Unfortunately, colic is the leading cause of death in older horses. Colic is used to describe both mild and severe abdominal pain caused by a blockage in the gut. Mild colic may come from simple gas build-up or a smaller blockage, while severe pain can be caused by a larger blockage or intestinal tissue death. For milder cases, pain relief and other medical agents can be used to reduce the gas or release the smaller blockage. For more extreme cases, these may require surgery to remove. In these cases, surgery can be used to remove fatty tumors that have developed in the abdomen and caused pain for your horse. As horses age, the best thing you can do is integrate high fiber feeds into your horse’s diet and consider adding supplements recommended by your veterinarian to keep their stomach strong. 


Thin horse

Weight loss

Weight loss is another common health problem in older horses that can be an indication of a larger internal issue. Weight loss could be a result of your horse not getting enough nutrients. As they age, a horse’s teeth and mouth become weaker and have a more difficult time eating solid foods. If you have a group of horses that are various ages, your older horse may lose rank among the younger horses and be pushed to the side when it comes to eating. Weight loss could also be a sign of other diseases like gastrointestinal issues, immune dysfunction, or it may be a response to stress associated with abdominal pain. If you are noticing weight loss in your older horse, consider adding softer food to their diet, and if that doesn’t work, it is time to get them checked for a more serious underlying issue.


Grey horse in field

Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s Disease is a complex disease that impacts the pituitary gland in older horses. The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain and its purpose is to produce hormones that regulate body functions. If your horse has Cushing’s Disease, their pituitary gland will decrease the amount of dopamine produced and will cause the pituitary gland to swell. This then produces something called adrenocorticotropic hormone, which throws off your horse’s internal regulation system. Some signs of Cushing’s Disease include the development of a long, curly coat, increased thirst and urination, and excessive sweating. Your horse can be diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease through blood tests that show increased levels of glucose, insulin, cortisol, or ACTH in their blood. Your veterinarian can offer guidance on the best way to treat your senior horse, should they be diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease. 


Insulin dysfunction 

Insulin resistance is another common health issue among senior horses. It occurs when body tissue has a decreased response to insulin, which is a very important hormone needed for the body to regulate sugar. It is unknown exactly what causes insulin resistance, but obesity and an increase in sugar in your horse’s diet have been some of the most common occurrences. You may see abnormal fat deposits, excessive urinating and hydration, and pain in the hooves as early signs of insulin resistance. This issue should be tackled in more of a proactive manner rather than a reactive manner. Make sure your horse is fed a proper and balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise, and being checked by a veterinarian regularly to catch any early signs of insulin resistance. If your horse is considered insulin resistant, Equine Medical has a supplement to specifically help combat that! Check with your doctor before giving your horse any supplements or medication. 

The best thing you can do for your senior horse is to get them set up on a regular veterinarian check-up schedule. By taking your horse to see a professional, you can catch any issues early and get a jump start on treating them before they turn into major health setbacks. Give Dr. Reilly a call for a consult and get your senior horse on track to living a long, happy, and healthy life!