BarnManager Horse Health Series: Caring for the Senior Sport Horse, Part 2

From a veterinary perspective, horses can be considered “middle-aged” starting at age 13 years old and “seniors” by age 20. Although many sport horses may just be coming into their prime for training and competing during these years, horses show signs of aging at different rates just like humans do. As horses age some physiological functions start to decline, and they require extra care to maintain their overall health and condition.

Current advances in equine medicine enable horses to perform longer in their athletic careers than ever before. Palm Beach Equine Clinic in Wellington, FL, is experienced in helping senior sport horses stay comfortable and competitive. Together with proper veterinary care, educated owners can offer senior horses a happy and pain-free life as they age into their senior years. While many of the same health factors apply to horses of all ages, several considerations are highly relevant for seniors.

Read on for details and be sure to catch up on Part 1 of Caring for the Senior Sport Horse here.

Provide a Safe, Comfortable Environment

Making sure your aging horse has a well-bedded, sanitary space with an adequate amount of water and protection from the rain, snow, direct sun, and biting insects is essential to keeping them healthy. Additionally, middle-aged and senior horses can be more susceptible to respiratory irritants such as mold, fungus, dust, and pollen. As a result, it is best to do all barn and stall cleaning while your horse is in turnout or being ridden so they do not breathe in the irritants that can be stirred up during the cleaning process. Minimizing their exposure to these factors by maintaining a clean and well-ventilated stable will go a long way toward keeping your older horse healthy and comfortable.

Schedule Regular Veterinary Performance Evaluations

Like all athletes, horses can experience physical setbacks and do not always bounce back quickly as they age. Osteoarthritis and laminitis are two common medical conditions that become more prevalent as they get older. The middle-aged and senior performance horse needs to be managed with proper veterinary and farrier care and a suitable training program.

Routine performance evaluations by your veterinarian are a useful tool in detecting subtle changes in a horse’s gait and movement before issues become injuries. They will be able to suggest an appropriate treatment plan that can maintain and even increase your horse’s flexibility, range of motion, and balance, as well as ease any discomfort they may be experiencing. Some of these options to better your horse’s quality of life can fall under anti-inflammatories, joint injections, biological therapies, and alternative medications. 

Many owners begin consulting their veterinarian on regenerative and alternative therapies well before their horse has reached senior years as these therapies may help support both longevity in performance and better health for the horse’s organ and musculoskeletal systems.

Pay Attention to Changes in Behavior and Contact Your Veterinarian

Changes in your middle-aged or senior horse’s behavior or energy level, even when minor or seemingly unimportant, can be indicators of underlying issues or disease. Exercise intolerance, poor coat condition, weight loss, stiffness, dropping feed, or changes in water intake can indicate that something might be wrong and should be communicated to your veterinarian. The sooner issues are identified, the sooner your horse can receive the right care and ward off serious illnesses.

Periodic preventative care checkups, performed at least bi-annually, can be key to catching age-related conditions and diseases that owners may not notice in their day-to-day care due to gradual onset. Involving your veterinarian in the management of your senior horse will help ensure their health and happiness throughout their golden years. 

Reach out to your Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarian for any questions about your horse’s health at any age by calling 561-793-1599 to schedule an appointment.

NOTE: These guidelines are only suggestions, and you should always follow the specific instructions from your veterinarian.


BarnManager is designed to be a part of your team, with the compatibility and credentials necessary to improve communication, simplify the management of horses, and get you out of the office, off the phone calls, and into the barn with the horses you care about! Click here to get a free demo and find out more!

BarnManager Horse Health Series: How Environment Affects Equine Gut Health

Anyone who has equine experience is aware of the very real threat of losing a horse to colic or other gastrointestinal disease. Looking back on the history of equine death causes, colic still holds the same percentage as it did 20 years ago, standing firm as the second highest cause of death behind natural causes. The good news is that veterinarians and researchers have learned a lot in the last decade about the role of the equine gut microbiome on numerous health outcomes, including colic, maldigestion, dysbiosis, and more. Board-certified internal medicine specialist Dr. Peter Heidmann of Palm Beach Equine Clinic, in Wellington, FL, shares some of his extensive knowledge of the equine gut microbiome.

The equine gut microbiome is an ecosystem composed of quadrillions of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and even viruses that interact and coexist in the gastrointestinal tract and contribute to overall gut health and well-being. In equines, when the microbiome is disrupted in such a way that populations of beneficial bacteria and yeast have declined and/or populations of harmful pathogenic bacteria and yeast have increased, it is not unusual to see colic and colitis, laminitis, and other serious conditions.

Microbiome and Nutrition

“When we’re working to improve overall gastrointestinal (GI) health, we are basically trying to increase the population of ‘good bugs’ and crowd out the ‘bad bugs,” remarked Dr. Heidmann. The combination of probiotics, prebiotics, and diet are all key factors that influence what happens on the inside of a horse’s gut. According to Dr. Heidmann, a well-balanced diet is most important, but the sources of nutrients also play a huge role in promoting gastrointestinal health.

Excessive amounts of starch-rich grains can reduce populations of healthy flora, decrease the types of bacteria that are present in the colon, and also promote overgrowth of unhealthy flora. In turn, overly homogenous populations limit a horse’s resilience to stress, dietary changes, and other unpredictable changes such as those in the weather.

Oats and other starch-rich grains cause increases in propionic acid-producing bacteria, while hay-only diets increase acetic acid-producing flora, and therefore promote more diverse and stable populations of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. On the flip side, feeding hay and no grain means the nutrients are being digested much more slowly and will promote more diversity and stability of flora populations.

“At the same time, some ‘good’ bugs are also decreased when a hay-only diet is fed, especially ones thatrely on easy-to-digest starchy grains,” noted Dr. Heidmann. “One type of organism, the Lachnospiraceae, is among the most prevalent type present in a healthy horse’s hindgut, and its population also diminishes when grain is not being fed.”

Ultimately, some easily digestible concentrate feeds promote healthy bacterial populations and release lots of energy quickly, yet it is fairly easy and risky to over-do the easily digestible feed. Not only do abrupt changes in diet increase the risk of upsetting a horse’s healthy microbiome, but feeds that are high in carbohydrates can also promote gas formation, lactic acidosis, and other types of colic. “Simply put, garbage in equals garbage out,” Dr. Heidmann explained.

Other Microbiome Stressors 

Aside from what goes into the horse, other factors can determine the behavior of the microbiome and the overall functionality of the gut. Genetic makeup almost certainly plays a role in the way organisms manage the nutrients going in and, in turn, impacts the horse. Stress is another significant factor that has a relationship with the gut, though it remains difficult to draw clear lines of “cause and effect” when studying all the ways stress affects a horse’s gut health.

It is common knowledge among trainers that horses with anxious, “stressed-out” personalities seem prone to developing stomach ulcers. Separate from stress caused by riding, changes in surroundings, or even changing stablemates can make a difference in the organisms in a horse’s gut.  Even when the feeding program remains consistent, a change in workload or their neighboring stall-mate invites stress and can promote ulcers.

“The relationship between stress and gut health isn’t as simple as a cause-and-effect relationship, where stress leads to a direct change in the behavior of the bugs, or where a change in flora directly increases a horse’s stress levels,” explained Dr. Heidmann. “It is a complex, dynamic interaction; it’s a constant feedback loop.”

It is difficult enough to separate cause from effect when looking at the relationships between gastrointestinal flora and factors like diet, exercise, pre-and probiotics, or supplemental digestive enzymes. Explaining the relationship between a horse’s behavior and their GI flora is inherently subjective, and therefore even more difficult to confirm. 

Still More To Learn

Veterinary science and research still have a long way to go to draw firm associations between illness and the microbiome. According to Dr. Heidmann, “It’s not known yet if the disease is the cause of the change in microbiome flora or if it is the result of a change in the flora, but for sure there is a strong relationship between these things. For now, we don’t yet know if the horse has an unusual balance of organisms because of its problems with chronic colic, or if it is the reverse: that the colic is rooted in an unusual balance of GI organisms.”

In the interim, a consistent regime of diet and exercise, where the workload is tailored to the horse’s skillset and stage of training, remains the best way to minimize risk and promote healthy GI flora. “Prebiotics and probiotics and other micronutrients are sometimes necessary,” said Dr. Heidmann, “but the most important things remain hay and sunshine, water and exercise, and consistency most of all.”

For a more in-depth explanation of how the environment affects horses’ gut health, click HERE to read the full article from Palm Beach Equine Clinic. 

NOTE: These guidelines are only suggestions, and you should always follow the specific instructions from your veterinarian.

BarnManager is designed to be a part of your team, with the compatibility and credentials necessary to improve communication, simplify the management of horses, and get you out of the office, off the phone calls, and into the barn with the horses you care about! Click here to get a free demo and find out more!


BarnManager Horse Health Series: Shipping Fever


Shipping fever is a respiratory disease complex associated with the transport of horses. This is a common problem horse owners should be aware of, especially if your horse is shipping south for the winter. Dr. Ryan Lukens of Palm Beach Equine Clinic in Wellington, FL, discusses the symptoms, treatments, and ways to prevent shipping fever in horses.

Causes of Shipping Fever

A common scenario for shipping fever is when a horse is transported from its barn to another state to attend a show. The horse may be healthy and well-hydrated before entering the trailer, but the stress of travel can weaken the immune system. Another leading factor is tying a horse’s head up while trailering long distances. The mucociliary apparatus of the trachea, which clears dirt and debris from the lower airway, is interrupted due to dehydration, a change in temperature, and the inability of the horse to lower its head. The introduction of foreign material into the lower airway can lead to pneumonia, fluid in the pleural cavity (surrounding the lungs), and associated respiratory distress.

Signs and Symptoms To Watch For

Common symptoms noted are hyperventilation, increased rectal temperature, coughing, and nasal discharge after travel. The horse may seem depressed, not willing to work, and not interested in food or water. It is important to call the vet immediately if any of these symptoms are observed after a horse travels. The faster an infection in the lower airway is treated, the quicker and more likely the horse can recover. Shipping fever, if left untreated, can lead to severe pleuropneumonia, which can be life-threatening.

Treatment of Shipping Fever

Initial treatment includes antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and hydration. If pneumonia progresses without treatment, surgery may be indicated, which can include removal of a rib and placement of chest drains (to drain fluid around the lungs). The vet should be called, and it is crucial to begin treatment at the earliest sign.

Prevention of Shipping Fever

There are several preemptive steps that can be implemented to reduce the risk of a horse developing respiratory disease related to travel:

  1. Split up long trailer rides over several days. Also, be sure to take breaks and let horses out of the trailer at least every 6-8 hours, if possible. 
  2. Ensure the horse is properly hydrated before travel. Common preventative practice includes the administration of oral or IV fluids by a veterinarian prior to travel. 
  3. Discontinue any immunosuppressant drugs 48 hours prior to travel. This includes steroids such as dexamethasone. 
  4. Ship horses in a box stall or similar enclosure so their heads do not have to be tied during travel. 
  5. Ask a veterinarian about immunostimulant drugs that can be given prior to travel.


The most important step is to contact your veterinarian immediately if your horse shows signs or symptoms of shipping fever.

For a more in-depth explanation of shipping fever, click HERE to read the full article from Palm Beach Equine Clinic.

NOTE: These guidelines are only suggestions, and you should always follow the specific instructions from your veterinarian.

Have questions about utilizing BarnManager or want to give it a try for yourself? Request a live demo here!

BarnManager is designed to be a part of your team, with the compatibility and credentials necessary to improve communication, simplify the management of horses, and get you out of the office, off the phone calls, and into the barn with the horses you care about! Click here to get a free demo and find out more!