Caring for Your Older Horse

I am often asked by students and horse owners how to tell when it is time to retire a horse. They wonder if there is a particular age or sign that a horse should not be ridden anymore. My answer to most people is the same each time: “You’ll know when your horse is ready to retire.”

A conscientious, attentive horse owner will be able to tell when a horse has had enough. You know how your horse should feel when you ride him, and you can tell when he doesn’t feel well or is having an off-day. Likewise, there will be subtle hints that your horse will give that it’s time to hang up the bridle and go out to pasture for the rest of his years. But in case you are still sweating this issue, here are some signs that will tell you he’s ready:

Swayback – This means that your horse’s back sinks lower than it should in the center. It is usually an indication that arthritis is kicking in and that he is having trouble carrying weight on his back.

Tender Teeth – Older horses that shake their heads while ridden and who fight the bit when you are bridling him might be experiencing tender teeth from aging. When it is no longer comfortable for him to wear a bridle, he shouldn’t be ridden.

Crumbling Hooves – Just like humans, horses begin to deteriorate in old age. If their hooves are soft or crumbling, they may not be able to withstand the impact that comes with riding.

Nasty Attitudes – If your horse is usually kind and respecful, but develops a nasty attitude in old age, he might be telling you that he’s ready to retire. Older horses get cranky just like people, and they deserve to rest after long years in your service.

These are just a few indications, but you are the one who can best tell when it’s time.

When you do decide to retire your horse, it does not mean that you need to forget him. He may not be your constant riding compaion, but he is still your pet, and deserves daily care. You can still spend time with him and make him feel loved as he continues to age. You should also provide proper care for the older horse, which is different from a young or competition animal. Here are a few tips for keeping your older horse in the best shape possible:

Senior Feed – Older horses develop digestive problems and have trouble making use of soluble nutrients. To keep them healthy and fit, put them on a regimine of Senior Feed. Equine Senior is my favorite by far, which increases the fat and protein content, while decreasing carbohydrates since your horse will no longer be in work. Combining Equine Senior with a light sprinkling of sweet feed in the winter will keep his coat, hooves, and stomach in good health.

Exercise – Even though you can no longer ride your older horse, you can still let him exercise. Provide daily turnout in grassy or hayed pastures (except for inclement weather) and lunge him in the round pen once or twice a week for an opportunity to stretch his legs. You can also take him on walks around your property or barn to keep his muscles supple.

Regular Check-Ups – Just because your older horse will no longer be competing, he should still see the vet every six months or so. Ask your veterinarian about feed supplements and diet changes as needed, and keep him current on immunizations. You may also want to switch to a daily dewormer if you don’t already use one (Strongid C is my favorite) because older horses are more susceptible to disease.

Give Pony Rides – Some older horses (believe it or not) become depressed when they are no longer used for daily work. If this is the case, or just to provide occassional exercise, lead neighborhood kids around on him in circles. It won’t hurt his joints because children are so light, and it will give him a sense of purpose. Plus, you won’t have to bridle him, as you can lead him with just a halter and lead shank.

Grooming – Spend fifteen minutes every other day grooming your older horse’s coat. Don’t let him get ratty and tangled just because he no longer belongs in a show ring. Grooming is good, quality time to spend with your horse, and will keep his coat healthy long into his retirement days.

Find a Friend – I have two horses, both of whom are in their upper 20’s, who go everywhere together. I put them in the same pasture when I retired them both, and they are the best of friends. During the day, they play and graze together, and at night, their stalls are next to one another. You might not think that horses are social animals, but witness the change if you find your older horse a friend.

Older horses are still members of your equine family, and they deserve to be cared for until they pass on. If you cannot care for your older horse, there are retirement barns for equines all over the country, and your horse might be better off there. Either way, it helps to be educated about the care of older horses.

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