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Thanks to advancements in veterinary medicine and horse owner knowledge, our horses are living longer and longer. But not only are they living longer, but they are able to maintain a good quality of life into their later years. However, looking after an older horse often requires more work or at the least, more consideration. This is because as they get older, everything they have done starts to catch up with them, slowing them down.
What age is considered a senior horse?
Everyone has a different opinion on when a horse is considered a senior or veteran. But most vets and insurance companies would start classing a horse as a veteran between 15-18 years old. After this age, you may have to change your horse insurance to a veterans policy, rather than a riding horse.
However, just because they fit into the age category, doesn’t necessarily mean they need to slow down just yet. If you look at the horses going around Badminton and Burghley 5*, so many of them are in their late teens and still in fantastic condition. This age isn’t the big deal it used to be.
Good management throughout their life
One of the keys to having a healthy, happy senior horse is being well looked after their entire life. One of the most common, if not the most common, problem faced by older horses is arthritis. Now most of this arthritis will be wear and tear from the jobs they have done throughout their life. Unsurprisingly jobs like racing and high level dressage put more strain on the horse’s body than those who have spent their life happy hacking. So we expect to see more arthritis in these horses.
But at the same time, those working at top level in professional yards, might have had better care throughout their career. Making the sure the horse is being fed correctly, trained at the right pace, receiving regular visits from the farrier, physio and saddler, can all help keep the horse in their best condition and can reduce the strain put on their bodies, in turn reducing the wear and tear on their joints.
Looking after an older horse
When it comes to looking after an older horse, there is no one method fits all. It will really depend on each horse and how they are doing. One horse at 20 years old might be a lot more uncomfortable than another horse at 25 years old. You will need to think about what is normal for your horse, when they feel comfortable and make more management changes when you need to.
Managing an older horse
There are a few management changes you might need to consider as your horse gets older.
The general consensus for older horses is that the more turnout they can get, the better. This is because with conditions like arthritis they can get stiff in the stable and usually stay more comfortable for being out and about.
They might not keep weight on as well or might get achy muscles from the cold as they get older. So you might need them to wear a slightly heavier rug than they would have done when they were younger.
More regular health checks
Most horses only need to see the vet, dentist and physio once a year. But as they get older you might want to increase this. Just like us, horses can develop problems with their eyes or heart as they get older which you will want to keep an eye on with the help of your vet. Many also start to have problems with their teeth, some will lose a few of their teeth as they get older, making it harder for them to eat and maintain weight.
While not everyone will get their physio to check horses who aren’t in work, they can still pull something in the field and if not picked up by the physio, this can put extra strain on the body, potentially leading to a more serious problem. The same goes for the farrier, it can be tempting to take their shoes off and let them be. But depending on their conformation, they might be better off in shoes to take the strain off achy joints. At the bare minimum they should still be seen by the farrier regularly for a trim and check for any signs of problems.
Feeding an older horse
As our horses get older, their nutritional needs change and we need to change their diet along with them. Common issues what can be improved with good nutrition are; weight loss and stiffness.
Forage should always be the bulk of your horse’s diet and this is no different when looking after an older horse. Feeding plenty of good quality forage is usually enough to help them keep weight on. Forage can come from the grass, hay or feed. My preference is always constant access to hay or grass, rather than big buckets of food.
But as they get older, they might lose some teeth, making picking grass or hay from haynets more difficult or it might affect their ability to chew. There are lots of products on the market to make up for this. You can supplement them with fibre based feeds what are more manageable. Chaff might be easier for them to pick up, or soaking fibre cubes into a mash or soup might be best for them. If in doubt, speak to your vet or a nutritionist.
Older horses often require a bit more good quality protein than a younger horse. This is because their muscles might be weaker and more prone to strain. They need this extra protein to keep their muscles in good condition. I recommend looking at a feed balancer to make sure they are getting everything they need. There are balancers made with veterans in mind.
Senior horses are also more likely to have lingering joint aches and pains. Putting them on a good joint supplement can help provide them with some extra nutrients targeting joint health and healing.
Riding an older horse
As long as they are still comfortable in ridden work, there is no reason why you can’t keep riding an older horse. But you will likely need to make some changes as they get older.
Longer warm up/cool down
They will need a longer warm up and cool down than they used to. They will probably be stiffer, so you will need to spend more time slowly warming them up, making sure they are loose before asking much of them. Then after the ride they will need more time to cool off, especially if they are going into a stable afterwards. Not cooling and stretching them off properly will make them stiffer.
Go down a level
You might need to drop them down a few levels or retire them from competing, depending on how they are coping with the workload. Dropping them down a level or two will also hopefully mean they will have more years left in them, as you will be putting less strain on their bodies.
Older horses find it harder to build up their strength and fitness. So whereas you might give your horses a month or two off over the winter before starting back up again, your older horse might be better off for being kept ticking along for those months instead, even if it is just light hacking or long reining a few times a week as a holiday.
Retiring an older horse
Retiring your horse can mean many different things. It might be dropping down from top level, retiring to happy hacking or giving up riding altogether. But ultimately, you will know your horse and you should know when it is time to take each step, they will let you know when they are struggling. It might be that you aren’t getting the results you were getting, it might be that it is taking them longer to recover after each competition or they might be starting to have more and more niggling problems. But there will be clear signs that you are asking too much of them and they are ready for a quieter life.
As hard as it can be retiring a horse, especially when you can’t afford to keep a second one to ride, I do not think it is an excuse to pass them on to someone else to deal with. There are exceptions, a horse retiring from top level competition could easily find a good home as a low level competition or a leisure horse. But those senior happy hackers or companion only horses can end up getting passed from pillar to post and I simply don’t think it is fair. They are spent their life working hard for their owners. Once they retire, they deserve to be valued and looked after.