Although the hoof capsule is purview of farriers, the next time you’re examining a senior horse, you might want to take a moment to also look over its overall frame and in its mouth.

Katherine Williamson, senior veterinarian, equine technical solutions for Purina Animal Nutrition, says a senior horse’s teeth have a major impact on its overall health.

“Dental condition plays a huge role in senior horse nutrition, body condition and overall wellness,” she says. “Deteriorating dental condition is the No. 1 problem for senior horses. It makes them less efficient chewers and chewing is the first step in the digestive process.”

If horses can’t chew properly, they’re not breaking down fibers and grains so that they can be digested farther along in the digestive tract.

That problem is further complicated, Williamson points out, because senior horses also often experience changes in the bacteria populations in the hindgut.

“Those bacterial populations are responsible, for example, for most of the production of the horse’s B vitamins,” she explains. “If you’re seeing an older horse that, over 6 months has a deterioration of hoof quality, it may not be producing biotin like it once did. In that kind of situation, it might be a good candidate for a biotin supplement.”

Older horses may also develop problems with poorer quality forges.

“Forages that have more fiber or stems typical of third- or fourth-cutting hay are less digestible,” says Williamson. “We often find that an older horse won’t be able to maintain body condition on a hay they did just fine with the previous 10 years.”

Monitoring a horse’s body condition can provide farriers with useful information, as well as providing warning signs of trouble.

“Body condition can let you know about metabolic problems like Cushing’s disease,” Williamson says. “A horse can be skinny as a rail, but still have those fat deposits or cresty necks.”

Williamson says any major change in body condition should be a red flag. A farrier who understands how to access body condition can pass that information on to a horse owner and veterinarian in a language the vet will understand.

She says veterinarians most often use the Henneke Scoring System, a 0 to 9 system in which 0 is emaciated and 9 is utterly obese.

“Once you learn to do this, it doesn’t take long,” she says. “You watch the horse walk up to you and run your hands over it. It’s one thing if a body condition goes from a 5 to a 6, but if I hear about a horse going from 5 to 7, that’s going to indicate a need to decrease calories or increase exercise.”

The ultimate goal in monitoring changes in senior horses’ dental health and body condition is to keep them in good health and head off problems.

“The hardest time we have with senior horses is when we get behind the 8-ball on them,” Williamson says. “Then they lose body condition, develop joint pain, arthritis or laminitis. Then we’re chasing. You’re much better off looking for ways to prevent those problems up front.”

For more tips for managing hoof care for senior horses, read “Old Horses, New Problems” in the September/October 2017 issue of American Farriers Journal.