Exercise For Geriatric Horses

During the past century, the human life span has more than doubled. Living to an old age has come to mean surviving well into the 80s, 90s, and even past 100 years. Our increased longevity is attributable to better nutrition and medical advances, as well as to increased knowledge of how to keep ourselves in good mental and physical health. As our longevity has increased, so has that of the horse, and of other companion animals. Advances in all aspects of veterinary medicine can be attributed to the great growth in research, increasing the knowledge base in areas such as equine nutrition, exercise physiology, and treatment of disease. It is no longer rare for horses to live to 30 years of age, and some even to 40.

All living things deserve quality of life as well as quantity. If a horse is to be content into his advanced years, he needs to be given the opportunity to keep his body and mind active. Older horses have proven that, given the chance, they often can hold their own with their younger counterparts. The Thoroughbred John Henry raced competitively during his ninth year. The renowned Thoroughbred stallion Mr. Prospector is actively breeding at age 28.

If you have an older horse in your care, do not assume that he will be fine functioning as a pasture ornament. His mental and physical health will depend on attention and activity. Bring him into the barn on a regular basis for grooming and interaction with you. Carefully run your hands over every part of his body, feeling for areas of heat, swelling, or tension. If his haircoat is thick and long, this will take extra concentration (see related article on Cushing's Disease in The Horse of February 1997).

As a part of your regular visits with him, massage his gums. I like to do this not only to check the teeth, but some horses really seem to enjoy it. To accomplish this, wet your hand, hold your fingers together, and slide your hand under the upper lip from the side of his mouth. Gently rub back and forth over the upper gums, keeping the fingers out of harm's way. Remove your hand from his mouth; then slide it into the mouth again, to massage the lower gums. Keep your fingers together and rub with loving care. This can be a very pleasing experience for your horse and a stimulant for the tissues of the mouth.

Anything that you can do to stimulate your older horse to drink is good. He might not drink enough water, leading to constipation or impaction and the risk of colic. Always provide him with a source of clean fresh water, just as you would his younger counterpart. In the winter, his water should not be cold, as cold water discourages drinking in older as well as younger horses.

The older horse needs regular grooming just as much, or perhaps even more, than the younger horse. Many older horses have pituitary or thyroid dysfunction, causing them to have a long haircoat that does not shed. It might be helpful to clip these horses and to provide them with shade in hot weather. My 30-year-old gelding could come into a run-in shed and stand in front of a fan any time he chose, and I often would find him there in the summer. He also enjoyed a cooling bath on summer afternoons.

When the weather is damp and cold, the older horse should have shelter from rain and wind. A long haircoat will retain dampness next to the skin, reducing core body temperature in cold weather. An older horse which has free choice of a run-in shed will go in and out of it throughout the day and night. Allowing him the choice and the continuous movement will be more beneficial than stall confinement.

The Personal Touch

Last month, I discussed the idea of combining a grooming session with massage. Due to the wear and tear of a previous career, the older horse will benefit greatly from that approach. Older horses often are stiff and muscle sore due to chronic injuries. Flattened muscles, such as those along the lumbar spine and the gluteal muscles of the hips, are a symptom of chronic soreness. (This also can be associated with disuse in older horses without soreness; lack of muscle strength and some atrophy occur with the aging process.) Muscles can become fibrotic from years of use and strain and perhaps guarding muscle contractions. The horse is a master at protecting the lower limbs from concussion by tensing the upper body musculature. Chronic tension leads to ischemia in the muscles and eventual infiltration of fibrotic tissue. The muscle is less functional and begins to atrophy over time. Massage to the back, shoulder, and hip musculature will reduce muscle stiffness, and you certainly will provide your older horse with a well-deserved, pleasurable experience. He might even lean into you as if to say, "A little to the left. Ahh, right there, please!"

Do not forget the lower limbs when you are carrying out your massage. Therapeutic ultrasound and slow stretching movements, called passive range of motion exercises, can improve limb movement in humans, and seems to work in horses as well. Degenerative joint disease leaves the joints stiff and painful to move. When the peri-articular tissue is warmed with massage, therapeutic ultrasound, or hot packs (such as the instant chemical hot packs), joint movement is easier and more comfortable.

When an older horse is stiff and uncomfortable due to chronic injury or arthritis, it can be difficult to pick up his feet for trimming and daily hoof care. If you let this challenge keep you from picking up his feet on a daily basis, you will miss a golden opportunity for interaction with your horse and a chance to work on increasing joint range of motion. By picking up his hooves every day, you actually are taking him through flexion and extension exercises that can help to maintain flexibility. While you clean his hooves, make note of the ease or difficulty in weight shifting or flexing his legs into position for hoof cleaning. Before you let the foot down, take the fetlock joint through its comfortable range of motion. Do not try to over-stretch the joint. The goal is simply to maintain the range that you have at this point. Older horses, like older people, can be stiff due to changes in the joint surface and shortening and stiffening of the connective tissues around the joints. You might not be able to regain the flexibility of youth, but it is worthwhile to try to maintain the amount of joint motion you presently have.

A horse with chronic laminitis will find it uncomfortable to stand on three legs, especially on hard ground or concrete. Hoof cleaning and farriery should be done on a mat or a thick piece of Styrofoam for cushioning. It was a surprising discovery to see how much more comfortable my old horse was when he stood on a sheet of the thick, blue Styrofoam used for building insulation.

Your farrier can be a valuable source of information on your horse's flexibility, as he or she is keenly aware of stiffness in a horse when trimming it. Let your farrier know how interested you are in your older horse's well-being and encourage him or her to give you any information about the health status of the horse's body as well as its feet. Letting your farrier know you have a strong interest in your older horse will encourage him or her to suggest any therapeutic shoeing that could be valuable. When farriers know that you are interested in keeping your geriatric friend as active as possible, they will be encouraged to be patient and creative in solving disease or injury problems that affect the feet of older horses.

An important aspect of maintaining the physical and mental health of the older horse includes giving him a sense that he has a job to do and a purpose in life. Horses, like humans, can enjoy multiple careers as they pass from one age to the next. An older horse has much to teach the young rider about mutual consideration and patience. A horse which is too old to ride can instruct the novices in horse husbandry as they care for the ailments that go along with aging.

If the horse can no longer be ridden, he should be hand-walked on a regular basis, even if only for a short distance. This human-horse interaction can be a lifelong learning experience for the young rider as she helps the older horse negotiate poles on the ground or walking in figure-eights to maintain balance and flexibility.

The goal of physical activity with the older horse is not athleticism, but simply to maintain body condition and to prevent increasing stiffness. The older horse has paid his dues as an athlete and now deserves regular mild exercise. He does not need the same challenges of the young athlete, but he does need regular activity. Older individuals are not able to improve their strength and endurance capacity to the same extent as younger individuals. The reasons for this decrease in "trainability," I feel, probably are the result of a general decline in neuromuscular function (nerve-muscle activity) as well as an impairment in the muscle cell's capability for protein synthesis.

There are many studies showing that humans have an age-dependent decline in aerobic fitness and exercise capacity, but there are not many studies on the effects of aging on the horse. One study, published in 1997, sought to examine the exercise capacity of young and geriatric female horses (see References).

The hypothesis was that unfit older horses have a lower aerobic capacity and a reduction in exercise capacity when compared to younger horses. Six young (5-year-old) and six aged (22-year-old) Standardbred and Thoroughbred mares which were healthy but unfit were tested on a high-speed treadmill. During the test, the horses ran on a treadmill at a 6% grade, starting at four meters per second, with a one meter per second increase in speed until they reached fatigue. Maximal oxygen uptake was measured, as was hematocrit and blood lactate. (Maximal oxygen uptake is a measure of the amount of oxygen used by the muscle cells for fuel. It is a standard measure of physical fitness and amount of exertion. Hematocrit is a measure of the relative volume of plasma and blood cells in a given amount of blood. It is an indicator of the blood's capacity to transport oxygen. Blood lactate measurements indicate the amount of muscle waste following exercise.)

In this study, there was no significant difference between the young and old mares in blood lactate concentration and hematocrit, but there was a difference between the two groups in maximal run velocity attained during the test. Also, the older mares reached a higher level of blood lactate at lower speeds. The test results indicated that older horses, like older humans, have lower maximal aerobic and exercise capacity.

The caretaker of the older horse needs to adjust training programs for the older horse and redefine exercise goals according to the animal's age. Exercise routines for the older horse should be consistent, but shorter in duration and reduced in intensity.

Exercise goals for the older horse include maintenance of muscle tone, maintenance of cardiovascular fitness, and maintenance of agility. The value of walking--whether under tack, hand-walking, or ground-driving--should never be overlooked. Walking enhances blood flow through the muscles and oxygenation of muscle cells. Walking will improve oxygen delivery and waste product removal in the muscle cells. Walk at a speed that allows the horse's breathing to remain at a steady rate. Regular walking, even for short distances, will help the older horse maintain physical health and an overall sense of well-being. Warming his joints before walking with passive range of motion and stretching exercises will help prepare him for a comfortable walk.

Problems With Age

In a previous article in The Horse (February 1997), Aleta Walther listed the physical signs of aging. These include arthritis-related lameness, tooth loss, loss of appetite and vigor, weight loss and /or poor condition, protruding withers, and graying hair appearing around the ears, eyes, and forehead. She went on to point out that less obvious, but possibly more serious, problems can include anemia, increased blood sugar, pituitary and/or thyroid dysfunction, and kidney, liver, or respiratory failure. Because of chronic parasite damage, reduced activity, and reduced intestinal motility, some senior horses might experience digestive disorders.

Following a survey of the older horses which had visited the ambulatory clinic, veterinarians at the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University made a list of the most common problems diagnosed among horses 15 years of age and older. These problems fell under eight categories: digestion, lameness, tumors, respiratory disease, eye problems, reproductive disorders, parasitism, and tooth troubles. The caretaker of an older horse should make a mental note to observe these eight areas of horse health to minimize the degenerative process that can occur. It would be wise to ask your veterinarian to examine your older horse using the categories as a check list. This will give you and your veterinarian a baseline assessment of his current state of health to help you recognize a change when it occurs.

Older horses, just like older humans, feel the aches and pains of aging. The wear and tear of an earlier career might have left overuse injuries that result in arthritis and thickened, inflexible tendons and ligaments. This natural part of aging does not mean that an older horse's days of usefulness as a companion are over. The older horse needs exercise that is consistent and fun, but not necessarily athletically challenging.


McKeever, K. H. and K. Malinowski. Exercise Capacity in Young and Geriatric Female Horses. Proc 15th Equ Nut Phy Symp. 1997.

About the Author

Mimi Porter

Mimi Porter lives in Lexington, Ky., where she has practiced equine therapy since 1982. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as an athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky. Porter authored The New Equine Sports Therapy, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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