There are 18 horses here at my stable. Ten of them are either nearly 20 years old or more than 20. Four of those 10 are 25 years old or more. When people learn this they always ask me, “How long do horses live?” and I answer, “Usually between 20 and 25 years.” A horse’s age can very roughly be compared to a human’s by tripling it. So a 3-year-old horse is sort of
equivalent to a 9-year-old child and a 30-year-old horse would be like a 90-year-old person. Approximately. It depends on how the horse’s life has been lived, the care and nutrition it has had, and work it has done up to that point.
Modern veterinary care keeps horses alive longer. Research has provided ways to feed horses to prolong their lives and having better tack, blankets and equipment available all contributes to the horse’s comfort and ease of existence. Horse owners have access to professional equine dentists, acupuncturists, chiropractors and massage therapists. There are better-educated farriers, nutrition experts, and trainers that can all provide care and advice for stretching a horse’s life span.
There will always be horses who have accidents or contract fatal diseases and pass away at a young age. There will always be people who through ignorance or cruelty don’t care for their
horses well enough to allow them to thrive and live into their 20’s. I have an 11-year-old horse
that looks like he is 30 and a nearly 30-year-old horse that acts half his age. So age is relative.
Senior horses have special needs, particularly in the wintertime. A horse’s teeth often wear
out before it does, which makes feeding senior horses tricky. They need a finer stemmed hay that’s leafy and easier to chew and digest, or even a hay replacement pellet or cube that can be soaked until it becomes soft and easy to chew.
Senior horses often need an increase in feed to maintain their condition. There are commercial feeds formulated for senior horses to help them keep their weight regulated. Horses that have trouble keeping weight on can benefit from being fed beet pulp, which is the dried, fibrous matter left after the sugar has been extracted from sugar beets. It comes in either shredded or pelleted form and must be soaked prior to feeding.
It can take several hours for beet pulp to fully rehydrate, so planning ahead is important. Corn
oil can be added to feed as a source of fat and rice bran is also a beneficial fat to round out an older horse’s frame.
Some senior horses have the opposite problem and are too tubby. With age comes metabolic changes and pituitary gland disfunction that can cause horses to develop fat deposits, unusual hair growth or loss, changes in personality, loss of muscle tone and laminitis. Laminitis is swelling within the walls of the hooves. The hoof wall is rigid and does not allow room for expansion so the pain and pressure from laminitis is tremendous and can even cause the bones in the hoof to rotate downward, making it unbearable for the horse to stand or walk.
A veterinarian can determine if a horse is afflicted with these disorders with an exam and blood test. Treatment can be just a change in diet or oral medication. There are homeopathic
remedies that also have proven to help in these cases. Exercise does wonders for a senior horse, as long as it is gentle. Exertion will only cause them pain but leisurely exercise keeps them fit and limber.
Arthritis is prevalent in older horses, so a little walk and trot daily will keep their joints moving. When joints get too stiff, a horse is at risk of falling or being unable to get up from the ground after a nap. I’m always relieved when I see sawdust in my old horses’ tails in the morning — iIt means they can still lie down, but more importantly, get back up again.
Senior horses make great mounts for kids or beginner riders because they are usually quieter, more complacent and steadier. They enjoy the attention without having to work hard, and are not as motivated to prance, buck and gallop as younger horses. Saying that, I have a school horse (a horse used for riding lessons) in my barn who is nearly 29 years old and took his young rider for a gallop a few weekends ago — without permission.
He got it in his head that he might be the next Secretariat and took multiple laps around the ring with a little girl clinging to him like a monkey. He had a grand time and was quite impressed with himself. His rider was very much less impressed.
Many people sell or give away horses of a certain age who can no longer compete as they used to or jump as high or trot as brilliantly. I just can’t do that. It has not been the wisest business decision — to keep all of my horses until the end of their lives — but I feel that they have earned their retirement and I like having them where I can keep an eye on them and take care of them.
It can be expensive and time consuming, but those horses deserve that much. For all the hours they’ve put up with people and all the foolish things we ask horses to do, the least I can do is let them peacefully recede. The trouble with keeping them until the end, is that there is an end.
It is always heartbreaking to have to say goodbye, but it is always worth it to have had their
companionship for that long.