Aged Horses

Horses thriving in their golden years.

Today’s horses are living longer, this is due to a number of reasons including a lighter workload compared to horses from a century ago, improvements in veterinary care and increased knowledge of equine nutrition. Parasite control programs for horses have also improved enormously.

Generally, a horse begins its 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

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 their 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.

A horses golden years are about quality of life

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

As an example, older horses are more prone to colic so they 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 the ideal and most compassionate decision is to simply retire a senior horse out to pasture. But all horses are different. Some thrive with light work or even full work; others are better idle at this time in their lives. But even if completely retired, horses must be maintained. More special consideration is required for our ‘golden oldies’.

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

Maintain the quality of life for your aged 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 they may be unable to eat hay. 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 with minimum stress. Be aware of ‘herd stress’: Feed your older horse away from horses competing for his food and hogging the water trough. Make sure he is not being abused in the paddock by younger, stronger paddock mates. 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.

Senior horses also need their feet taken care of. You may not shoe them anymore, but proper trimming is a must.

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

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 vaccination schedules. If you can afford it, schedule routine checkups with your vet.

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

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

Recommended reading

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)