Horses and Aging: How to Care for Old Horses
5 Tips for Caring for an Old Horse
Old horses serve an important purpose in the horse world. It seems that the majority of the time, horses don't begin to slow down until they are older—mid-teens to even horses in their 20s. My whole program rests on the backs of horses that are almost all senior citizens. They are all great at their jobs, and I hope to keep them all working as long as possible.
1. Make Changes in Their Schedule and Workload
One of the best lesson horses I ever owned, Cory, lived to be 30. We used him for lessons up until a few days before he passed away (from colic, unexpectedly).
We got Cory in 2000 and supposedly he was about 12, though there were no registration papers to prove it. He could have been older or younger, who knows? Needless to say, he was stubborn and persnickety, but he was a wonderful lesson horse.
Gradually Reduce the Horse's Workload
In his early years, he worked hard doing walk, trot and canter lessons. He even jumped and competed in eventing and dressage. He began showing signs of aging—things like generally getting slower. He had a harder time maintaining his weight in the hot weather and cold weather months. Luckily, Cory never seemed to have any sort of aches and pains; he was always sound.
Since he was comfortable, we continued using him in his later years. He just didn't work as hard. We gradually reduced his workload to reserve him only for brand-new riders or those in need of a confidence boost. His running and jumping days were over.
Earlier in the summer before he died, I realized that his trail-riding days needed to end because the trailer ride to the park was hard on him, and he would be so exhausted that he had trouble negotiating hills that earlier in his life he would have trotted right up.
2. Be Aware of Your Horse's Physical Condition
Be aware of your horse's physical condition as they age. Do they still have their usual energy level? Are they able to maintain their appropriate weight? How is their muscle tone? All of these things are a good indication of how your horse is aging.
If your horse seems to be having trouble with keeping weight on, there are lots of options to help with that. Chopped forage can allow horses without good teeth to get the forage they need. Sometimes, if they can chew it, alfalfa can help keep weight on them. I have also found ground soybeans help a lot with putting weight on and keeping it on. Your vet can advise you what will be best for your horse.
3. Provide Supportive Care for Your Senior Horse
When you begin to see signs of aging in your horse, there are a lot of measures that you can take to keep them working comfortably and hopefully slow the aging process.
What to Do If Your Horse Lacks Energy
A horse that seems to lack in energy may need a change in the feed to something specifically made for seniors. There are supplements like red cell that can give older horses a little boost. It is very easy to administer on top the feed, and most horses enjoy the taste of it.
What to Do If Your Horse Is Stiff or Arthritic
If your horse seems to be feeling arthritic and showing signs of stiff joints or joint pain, there are a lot of joint supplements on the market that can help. Look for products with glucosamine and chondroitin—they are known for their specific ability to aid in joint health.
There are also choices your vet can offer, like joint injections. Or medications like Bute or Previcox. Bute is good for short-term use, like an extra stiff or sore day, but can have negative long-term effects on the kidneys if overused. Your vet should be able to make some recommendations about what is right for your horse.
Your farrier is also a good resource and may be able to help some pain issues with corrective shoeing.
4. Change Your Horse's Living Conditions
If you have an older horse that tends to get stiff standing in a stall overnight, changing them to a field board situation where they can move around as they chose could be helpful. I have found it very helpful for some of my horses.
Just remember: If your horse tends to struggle with keeping weight on especially in the winter, if you decide to go with field board, you may need to start blanketing them, depending on your climate.
5. Retire the Horse From Riding If Needed
Some horses, due to their particular ailments, may need to be totally retired from riding. Hopefully, if that is the case, you can find a nice pasture board situation for them and will still be able to spend time with them regularly.
In my experience, older horses do best if they are kept in work at whatever degree they can handle it. It is good to keep them moving and good for them to have a purpose.
Old Horses Are the Best Horses
Old horses are some of the kindest, most reliable horses of all. They are gentle, have been there and done that and are the best teachers. We owe it to them to meet their changing needs as they grow older.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.