By Rachel North
Getting older is an inevitable part of life for all of us.
If it wasn’t hard enough dealing with your own grey hairs and wrinkles, you may start to realise your horse is no spring chicken either.
Whether your horse has grown older with you, or you have purchased an older equine, caring for your four legged friend can be a valuable and rewarding experience. Many horses live well into their 20s and 30s, and providing the animal is healthy, age alone doesn’t have to be a barrier to riding, enjoying and even competing your horse. As my own horse started to get older, I began to adapt his care accordingly and I have come up with some tips based on my experiences, which may help others who are now caring for an ageing equine. Just like older people, older horses may require additional care and precautions to keep them in tip top condition..
Regular checks inside a horse’s mouth by a qualified equine dentist or vet are an essential part of any yearly care plan, but become all the more important when a horse is older. Failing teeth can be a common cause of loss of condition in an older horse, so having them checked regularly can help to pre-empt problems.
When a horse starts to become significantly aged, his teeth may gradually begin to expire. During most of a horse’s life, his teeth are constantly growing to replace what is worn away when he chews. Eventually, the life cycle of the tooth comes to an end and it stops growing. When teeth expire, new tooth ceases to be produced and the small stub of tooth which is left eventually falls out. This produces two possible side effects – Firstly, where a tooth has expired, the opposing tooth may continue to grow with nothing to grind against. If left untreated, the tooth can eventually grow into the gap or become sharp and cause serious problems. Secondly, the fewer teeth a horse has the more difficult he could find it to eat grass and forage. Although your older horse may still look like he is grazing, or pulling away at his haynet like he always did, if the forage is not being chewed enough before it reaches his gut, he may not digest it properly and could start to drop condition. “Quidding” can be a sign that a horse is starting to lose teeth, or that there are problems with the ones he has. Look for partially chewed clods or balls of grass or hay, under the haynet or in the pasture. When a horse “quids”, they are spitting out forage they have been unable to chew sufficiently enough to swallow.
Regular dental checks can make a huge difference to an older horse, keeping them comfortable and enabling them to get the best out of the feed you provide.
As with older people, older horses may feel the cold more. Although a horse may expend less energy if retired, they may require more hard feed to keep a healthy condition. Feeding additional concentrates becomes especially important if the horse no longer has enough teeth to graze effectively. I fed my older horse fibre based forage replacement products to maintain condition but avoid excessive protein. Soaking an older horse’s feed to soften it by adding water prior to feeding, particularly if you are buying cubed products, allows better digestion because it avoids un-chewed food going into the gut. Feeding soaked concentrates in a ‘porridge’ consistency can be a great way to ensure nutrition, but also reduces wear on the teeth the horse has left, making regular dentistry all the more important. Always seek advice from an equine nutritionist or vet if you are unsure what to feed an older horse, and what supplements might be appropriate to maintain peak health.
My own horse lived until he was 35, but after he turned 20, I found myself regularly canvassing opinion, and later trawling the internet, for the answer to the question many of us face at some point in our horse’s lives – When do I retire him? I was incredibly lucky in that my horse and I enjoyed rides together until he was 32, but even with his good health I constantly wondered what the right age to retire a horse was and whether it was fair to ride him in his advanced years. The answer, I am now of the opinion, is that there is no real “right age” for retirement – it depends entirely on the horse or pony and their health and happiness. If you are concerned about riding your older equine, seek the opinion of your vet, regular assessment of an older horse is advisable anyway, and make your decision based on their comfort. For some horses, stopping work abruptly can have an adverse physiological effect, especially if the horse relishes his job. Similarly, physically, it may not be a good idea to simply cease all work (unless a medical condition dictates), as horses with arthritic changes occurring may benefit from regular gentle exercise to keep their joints moving. My horse retired very slowly, we continued to do as much work as he wanted to do and seemed comfortable doing, until gradually his interest in his saddle faded altogether and his old bones appeared to have had enough. Listen to your horse’s body – what is he telling you through his attitude, fluidity and enthusiasm? Speak to your vet and/or animal physiotherapist – you don’t have to make the decision alone, and unless the horse has a serious or degenerative medical condition, retirement can hopefully be done gradually, at a pace which suits you both.
As your horse ages, the shape of their back may change, so it is essential to have regular saddle checks to ensure that no damage is being done. If you are gradually reducing the amount of work your horse does, they may start to lose muscle and a saddle which always fitted perfectly before, could need adjustment or even replacement eventually.
Even a retired horse will still require exercise to keep supple, regular hoof care and very regular health checks. The phrase “out to pasture” conjures up a romantic image of a horse enjoying liberty in their advanced years, but it is important to remember that if anything, an older horse will require more frequent checks to ensure that old age related ailments are not starting to arise. Because an older horse may experience age related changes in their joints, it becomes particularly important to ensure that their feet are balanced, to avoid long or uneven feet exacerbating joint conditions. Kidney problems, cataracts, Cushings disease and degenerative joint disease are just a few of the more common older horse ailments, but a vigilant owner who is tuned in to looking for any signs of change in behaviour or health, can make a big difference to how conditions might be diagnosed and managed. Regular vet checks, attention to the size and consistency of droppings, frequency of urination and regular assessment of condition, will enable you to spot changes as soon as they occur.
Whether its standing in the shade resting a hind leg, or flat out and snoring in the pasture, as your horse starts to advance in years, you may notice an increase in the time they spend sleeping and resting. Its all part of getting older, especially when the weather is warm. It almost sounds daft now, but when my older horse was asleep, I used to try and keep quiet and prevent my younger horse from bothering him too much to ensure he was well rested.
If your mare or gelding has been used to being the dominant horse, it can be quite hard for them, and for you, if in old age they no longer retain their position at the top of the herd. I used to find myself getting upset with my younger horse for what I perceived as bullying, but often it’s simply the way a herd structure works, once a horse is old or ailing they are often slowly downgraded in the pecking order- if it happens with your older horse it can be rubbish to witness.
However, you can help to reduce the effect of this process by keeping your older horse with other old timers, or by keeping them with a very young horse who is not in a position to challenge them as persistently. An older horse can teach a youngster a great deal about respect, human interaction and coping with scary situations.
It’s a horrible thing to think about, and it is easy to shy away from. However, your older horse will eventually reach a time where he or she lets you know, or in some cases it becomes quickly inevitable, that they have had enough of this world and are ready to move on to a place where their aches and pains are history. Although we all dream of our horse passing away in the field in their sleep, it is unfortunately far more likely that a decision will need to be made based on quality of life.
Because, when the day comes, you are likely to be upset and emotional, it is sensible if you can, to already have an idea of how you would like it to happen.
About a year before the final day came for my horse, I stood with my vet and we had the conversation. With my horse there and healthy and real, the vet and I decided how we would do it, where we would do it, where my other horse would be during it and what we do with his body. As hard as it was to make those decisions and plan for a day I hoped would never come, when that day came there was tremendous comfort and lack of additional hassle in knowing exactly what would happen without needing to think about it. As hard as it was at the time, knowing I had done my best for my horse, and done all I could to make his retirement a happy one, was of tremendous comfort. I celebrate the life we had together and I am so grateful to have had him for so long.
Caring for an older horse can teach you so much, and be so rewarding. With a little extra attention to their elderly needs, you can hopefully extend their quality of life. Unless ailment or injury dictate radical change, maintaining a watching brief, keeping a close eye and adjusting feeding and routine gradually may be all that is needed. Look upon it as a pleasure, to serve the animal who has given so much of themselves to you – they will appreciate it, I promise!