Aged Horses

Older horses can thrive in their golden years.

Today’s horses are mainly used for pleasure or competition. Their workloads tend to be lighter than for horses a century ago. There is not as much wear and tear on the body so they tend to live longer than in the past.

Also knowledge of equine nutrition has improved. Lastly, parasite control programs for horses have improved enormously.

At what age is a horse considered old? Just like people, it depends on the individual. Generally a horse begins their golden years from 18 -20 years of age. Because of the bodily changes associated with aging, older horses may require adjustments in health care, environment and diet.

Caring for Aged Horses: The golden years are about quality of life

Today’s horses are living longer and more comfortable lives as the workload has decreased significantly and due to improvements in veterinary medical technology, general management and knowledge of equine nutrition. One hundred years ago when horses were used for transportation, work and farming very few lived to see the golden years.

While genetics still plays a strong role, contemporary horse owners can have a major impact in determining life span.

The definition of a horse’s life span has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Formerly nine was considered to be ‘aged’ and retirement was on the cards by maybe 14 years.

These days we probably consider horses to be elderly when they enter the very late teens. In developed countries the average life span of the modern domestic horse is roughly between 20 and 30 years, depending on breed, management and environment. Just like humans, good nutrition and preventative care have lengthened the lives of horses. Of course equines are also individuals, so some are debilitated at 16 years and others are competing at the Olympics! Nowadays many performance horses are just getting settled into their work by the time they are in their teens.

The bodies of senior horses aren’t what they used to be, so they begin to need special care. Joints can get a bit arthritic and other parts of the body can begin to decline in functionality.

As an example, older horses are more prone to colic so must have access to plenty of water and very good quality feed. They can also start choking because their teeth are deteriorating so the correct ration is important so it can be chewed easily.

You may assume that the ideal and most compassionate decision is to simply retire the senior horse out to pasture. But all horses are individuals. Some thrive with light work or even full work; others are better idle at this time in their lives. But even if completely retired, he must be maintained. A bit more special consideration is required for our ‘golden oldies’.

As horse owners, we should continue to learn so that we can provide the highest level of care to our aging companions.

The responsible owner maintains quality of life for their senior horse

Observe your horse on a regular basis. Watch for changes in body condition, behavior and attitude. Address problems, even seemingly minor ones, right away.

Provide nutritionally appropriate rations created for senior horses otherwise weight loss or a lack of vitality may become apparent. Many older horses have few or very worn teeth so may be unable to eat hay to accompany hard feed. Try chopped or pelleted hay. Adjust and balance rations to maintain proper body condition.

Maintain mental as well as physical health. Physical and mental discomfort is lessened if a horse is cared for and allowed to age as with the minimum of stress. Be aware of ‘herd stress’: Feed your older horse away from horses competing for his food and maybe hogging the water trough. Make sure he is not being abused in the paddock by younger, stronger paddock mates. But having familiar paddock mates is psychologically important.

Provide plenty of fresh, clean, water.

Provide adequate, appropriate exercise. This helps to maintain flexibility and mobility. Groom your horse to promote circulation and skin health.

The senior horse also needs his feet taken care of properly as well. You may not have him shod anymore, but proper trimming is a must. Senior horses are prone to tripping and you don’t want them to trip because their feet are too long.

Have sufficient shelter so that body weight is maintained. Older horses may be more sensitive to heat and cold. Make sure your senior horse has draft-free shelter that will protect him from the elements, and rug when the weather calls for it.

Be aware that older horses are prone to tumors. Look for any unusual lumps or growths from head to tail as well as beneath the tail (especially on grey horses). Learn about common age-related ailments such as Equine Cushings Disease and arthritis. Your older horse has decreased reserves, increased vulnerability to serious infections, and increased risk of dehydration and impaction colic. So, don't treat colds lightly. Treat colds early and save your horse from serious health problems. Arthritis: Joint supplements may help your senior horse stay active and move around more comfortably. 

It is especially important to maintain regular worming and vaccinations schedules. If you can afford it schedule routine checkups with your vet.

Use a qualified equine dentist at least once a year so that your horse can successfully chew and digest food.

Be aware of some of the special considerations required by an older horse so that you can offer your old friend the most appropriate care. Whether he is still in work or retired remember that he has earned the right to have a good quality of life in his ‘golden years.’ 

More Information

Horse sense: The guide to horse care in Australia and New Zealand (book)
Huntington, Peter, Jane Myers and Elizabeth Owens, 2nd ed, Landlinks Press, Collingwood, Vic, 2004
Taking care of the senior horse (Kentucky Equine Research article)
Helping your horse through its golden years
Care of the older horse
Equine Cushings Disease (Video)