Older Horses at Work

The aging process takes its toll on all working horses, but the rate of attrition can vary significantly. In this, horses are similar to humans. We all have met the person who is barely past middle age and because of mental, emotional, or physical impairment or stress is ready for retirement.


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Mr. Prospector, one of the perennial leading Thoroughbred sires, is shown here this summer at age 28. He has been breeding a full book of mares each year.

Conversely, we all have met the octogenarian who is still going strong despite the accumulation of years. One of my favorite people in this category is a classy lady named Louise Reidel from Dubuque, Iowa. She refuses to tell her age, but I'm guessing that she has walked this earth for about eight decades. Her passions are endurance and competitive trail riding, and she participates in her chosen sport with vigor and enthusiasm and is always in the hunt for winning honors.

While some of her mounts have been older horses, she just recently has moved on to a younger horse and has been in the thick of competition once again this year.

Louise has two characteristics that are essential to humans and equines if they are to remain active and productive in their later years--a positive attitude and enthusiasm.

The horse with a positive attitude and enthusiasm is one which relishes exercise and competition. It is the endurance horse which walks with light step and pricked ears toward the starting line, whether it is five years of age or 20. It is the jumper which swells with anticipation when entering the arena or practice course. It is the cutting horse which almost sends off electric vibrations when it faces a cow. It is the trail horse which loves being ridden outdoors and walks with a long stride and alert ears through old terrain and new.

Age will take its toll on these horses, but they will not succumb to it in the same way as the horse which moves only when necessary. They will shake off minor aches and pains and still do what they have been trained to do, and they will do it with a bright attitude.

With some, there will have to be an easing of strenuous activity with advancing years, but not a cessation of activity. Much, of course, depends on the discipline in which a horse is engaged. The racing Thoroughbred has a relatively brief career. For some it is over at age four or five, or even earlier. Rarely do we see a horse on the track whose age has reached double digits. The pounding from training and racing generally wears out legs and joints, forcing the horse into retirement at a relatively early age.

Grand Prix jumpers, on the other hand, are still referred to as young horses at an age when racehorses are considered ancient. If you watch Grand Prix jumping on television, the commentators frequently will refer to a horse that is an excellent prospect, but which is still quite young for competition--such as eight or nine years of age.

Many jumpers don't hit their prime until they are 12 to 14 years old. The same is often true of dressage horses.

Some cutting horses and reining competitors compete into their senior years, but in these two cases, a well-constructed and strong rear end is a key requirement.

Career Changes

With some horses, it is necessary to scale down the activity level as they age, moving them from one discipline to another. The range of activity often takes on the shape of a bell curve, with activity increasing as the horse matures, then hitting a plateau for the middle years, and dipping once again as the horse ages. A favorite case in point was a nice Arabian-Morgan mare which we owned. She won ribbons in the halter show ring as a youngster and went on to do the same for a couple of my kids in 4-H. When she was old enough to be trained, she became my daughter's Western pleasure and equitation horse.

When she reached maturity, she hit her real stride as an endurance horse. She had hooves of iron and strong legs that never yielded to lameness. She also had a positive attitude and enthusiasm. She relished competition. Both my oldest daughter and I competed on her. My daughter won a junior championship in 50-mile endurance competition, and the same year the mare carried me to the heavyweight winner's circle in the 100-mile Kettle Moraine Ride in Wisconsin. In addition to winning the race in that division, she was judged the best conditioned horse in the entire competition.

When she became older, we retired her from endurance racing. Not because she was unsound, but primarily because we had gone on to other pursuits. For many years she played the role of stellar trail horse and even pack horse (although the latter, she seemed to indicate, was a bit beneath her dignity).

Later still, we passed her on to a family with young children who were just getting involved in trail riding. She taught them all how to do it correctly and enjoyed it. Eventually, they moved on to younger horses and more challenging competition.

The mare became part of another family with young children. She spent her final years--she lived to be past 30--roaming a pasture with her daily routine occasionally interrupted by an attack of young children, who climbed on her back, often without benefit of bridle or saddle.

I tell this story because it is an example of a horse which lived a very long, useful life, with the level of activity being scaled to reflect her age. During those 30-plus years, she had three caretakers, and all of them were just that--caretakers. Therein lies one of the prime secrets to success in keeping a horse useful and active in its later years--giving it proper and ongoing care.

More about that in a moment. First, some comparisons between human and equine athletes.


Modern-day human athletes in sports like football, baseball, tennis, basketball, and hockey can be compared to racehorses. They burst on the scene as they reach athletic maturity; their stars shine brightly for a short time, then wane quickly.

With the equine jumper, a more valid comparison would be the golfer. While the golfer might reach his or her peak of prowess during early maturity, the mental and emotional development that comes with continued years of competition often more than makes up for any decline in athletic capability.

In both human and equine athletes, the length of time one remains at the peak threshold often depends on how well the body and psyche have been cared for. The athlete that abuses her or his body with drugs or a poor training regimen will pare off years of peak performance just as surely as a sharp knife in the hands of a whittler sends slivers of wood to the ground.

It is the same with the horse. Only here the decision on how the animal's body and psyche are treated is in the hands of its human handlers and trainers. The horse is left with little choice but to trust the people who own and care for it.

Key elements in keeping the older horse active and in strong competitive form are nutrition and good dental care. A great deal of information is available today concerning appropriate rations for active horses, but none of them will do any good if the horse is unable to chew and digest the food it consumes.

One might say that the same is the case for all horses, young and old. With each passing year, damage to the horse's system becomes a cumulative problem if dental neglect--resulting in poor digestive capability--is part of an ongoing scenario.

Deworming is another case in point. As the horse grows older, it develops an immunity of sorts to some parasites, but certainly not all of them. If deworming has been neglected during the early years, scarring and other damage might have occurred along the digestive tract. As the aging process takes its natural toll, normal digestive problems can be exacerbated if deworming neglect at an early age resulted in permanent damage. This also can be a causative factor in attacks of colic in the older horse.

Because we believe that the older horse is less susceptible to internal parasites, it often is easy to neglect a planned and ongoing deworming program. The truth is that the older horse must have its intestinal apparatus operating at maximum in order to have the energy required to keep it active and fit. There is no room for parasites in this equation.

Back to the horse's teeth. The ability to properly masticate the food it eats is a key element in a horse's maintaining good health and vigor. As we mentioned in an earlier article, the horse has unique teeth. When a horse reaches maturity, its teeth extend some four inches into the jawbone (see Dentistry Update article in The Horse of September 1998, page 43). That might sound like a lot of tooth, but we must bear in mind that the teeth are going to be worn down through the years. As the teeth wear off as a result of grinding against each other, they are pushed down or up, depending on which jawbone we are talking about, to provide a continued grinding surface. It is much like using up a piece of chalk on a blackboard. If a horse lives long enough, the time will come when nothing remains except some short stubs that can't properly grind normal hay or grain.

Usually, when this happens, a horse has reached an advanced age where a special diet might be required.

There are many horses in an advanced stage of maturity that would have the capability to perform competitively, but are robbed of the opportunity because of poor dental maintenance through the developmental years.

A graphic illustration of the magnitude of poor dental care in the equine population was provided by Khristina D. Kirkland Crowe, DVM, University of Illinois, at the 40th AAEP convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1994.

She presented a report on a "Survey of Equine Dental Disease and Associated Oral Pathology." She had this to say in her introduction, which sets the stage for the report that followed and underlines the need for ongoing equine dental care:

"Dental disease is an important and underdiagnosed cause of weight loss, poor performance, and clinical illness in the horse. Dental abnormalities can lead to sinus empyema, mandibular swelling, abscess formation, esophageal obstruction, colic, and death. Although few reports exist of the incidence and specific types of dental disease in the current horse population, it has been reported that the incidence of dental disease increases in older horses. This is particularly important as equine practitioners are faced with an increasingly geriatric population. The purpose of this study was to survey and compare the effects of aging on the incidence, type, and severity of dental disease in a random population of horses."

During the study, 500 horse heads were collected from a slaughterhouse and were aged according to AAEP guidelines. The teeth in each of the heads then were carefully examined. The horses involved ranged from six months to 30 years of age.

Oral pathology or dental disease was found in more than 80% of the heads examined.

Sharp enamel points were most frequently found in horses which were 10 years of age or younger. Abnormal wear of the teeth was found in horses from eight to 30 years of age.

Horses over the age of 15 were more frequently affected with periodontal disease, the severity of which increased with age. What that seems to demonstrate is that these horses suffered through years of dental neglect that resulted in tooth and gum disease. In the horses' later years, these problems were robbing them of the ability to properly masticate food and thus provide their bodies with nutritional fortification.

This underlines the point that while older horses need regular dental care if they are to remain active and vital, it will do little or no good if they have not had proper dental care during their early and maturing years.

Conformation and Care

There are many factors other than dental care and deworming figure into a horse's ability to perform well as an older campaigner. If one were to isolate the single most important limiting factor in a horse's ability to perform as it becomes older, it would likely be the supporting apparatus--legs and feet.

There is a continual war of attrition on tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, and even muscles when a horse is used in competition. When a racehorse runs at full speed, there is a split second when all of its weight is suspended on one forelimb. When a cutting horse drops low on its haunches and spins to left or right, tremendous torque is applied to the rear hocks. When a Grand Prix jumper soars over a six-foot fence, we know that there is going to be heavy concussion to the front limbs as its 1,200-pound body returns to earth.

There are two salient factors involved in whether the older horse will continue to perform on these legs and feet--conformation and care. While it is difficult to give precedence to one point or the other, conformation often is the more important of the two.

If a jumper, for example, has offset front knees, the best care in the world won't prevent that horse from going lame after a certain number of landings. The cutting horse with defective or weak hocks will be able to make only a limited number of stops and turns before becoming lame. The racehorse running on poorly aligned bones and tendons will be able to make only so many trips around the track before injury ends his career.

Thus, we can conclude, if a horse is to be an effective worker or performer during its latter years, it must be an animal with average or above-average conformation, particularly where the legs are concerned.

Each injury or insult along the way could have a lasting and cumulative effect. The joint injury suffered at three years of age might take the horse out of competition for a recuperative period, but then it will come roaring back, seemingly stronger than ever. What often is difficult to assess is permanent damage that might not manifest itself until the aging process, combined with other insults and injuries, takes its toll years later.

What this all means is that it is essential the legs and feet of a horse, especially one which competes, be given special care throughout the animal's lifetime.

Of great importance to the senior equine athlete are regular and proper trimming and shoeing. There is no room in the senior equine's life for low heels and long toes, for example.

Years of competition can produce a significant amount of wear and tear to tendons involving the coffin and navicular joints. Improper trimming and shoeing at any stage of the horse's life can have detrimental effects in this area, but the aging process adds still another dimension.

When humans become older, there is a tendency for joints and muscles to stiffen with inactivity. It is the same with a horse. This means that to get the body limber and ready to function, a warming up period will be necessary. Again, this is important at any age, but becomes even more important as the horse becomes older (see this month's Sports Medicine, article #550). The same would be true of a conditioning program after a period of inactivity. The older athlete should be brought back to form slowly.

The older horse also needs that extra bit of TLC when the competition is over. This is a time for a long, slow cooling out period and perhaps a rubdown. It is also a time for a careful palpation of all limbs to make certain there is no heat or swelling.

Post competition also is time for a thorough grooming and allowing the horse to settle into a dry, bedded stall for a well-deserved rest.

While we want that stall to be dry and comfortable, we do not want it filled with ammonia from urine, or dust from poor bedding or hay. The horse's pulmonary apparatus can be as fragile as its legs. If the lungs have been subjected to insults from dust and other particulants throughout its lifetime, the animal is a prime candidate for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or heaves). This is an affliction that is much more apt to strike the older horse than the younger one.

It is imperative that the older athlete be housed in a facility that is well ventilated and free of dust and airborne debris. It is equally important that the hay and grain being fed the geriatric horse are free of dust and mold.

Even if the hay itself is green and fresh, where it is fed can have a bearing on the dust that is inhaled. It is natural for horses to eat with their heads lowered. This also facilitates the clearing of mucus from the respiratory system. Because of this, many of us feed our horses on the ground when they are outdoors. Problems can arise in areas that are extremely dry and the hay is lying on powdery dirt. In such cases, as the horse noses the hay about in the eating process, it inhales dust particles from the ground that can damage delicate airways.

For older horses in arid areas, an elevated feeder might be the way to go when the feeding is done outdoors.

The older equine athlete also should have access to all of the water it desires. This is true for horses of any age, but as the competitive horse ages, it becomes even more important that its thermoregulatory system have all of the water required to properly handle the cooling process.

The only way a horse has to cool its body is through sweating, and when it doesn't have enough water in its system to facilitate the process, plus maintain the proper electrolyte balance, it is placed in a state of stress. The older the horse, the heavier the toll that this type of stress will take.

Plentiful water also is necessary to keep the kidneys functioning properly. Often, the kidneys are the among the first to falter during the aging process.

We talked earlier about mental and emotional good health on the part of the older performing horse. On the surface, it might seem that proper handling is more important in a young horse, and this is likely true. The older horse might have become desensitized to many of the stimuli that can create tension in the younger, inexperienced horse. However, if the older competitor has been subjected to abusive treatment throughout its life, it has been living in a constant state of stress that has compromised everything from its immune system to its ability to perform at peak capability.

The bottom line is that horses are capable of competing into their senior years, and doing it well. I know, for example, of a 22-year-old gelding that completed a 50-mile endurance race in a fast time and checked out A-okay with the ride veterinarians.

The key is to have a horse which is sound, healthy, and that, hopefully, has had good overall care throughout its career. We can't neglect the nutritional and general health needs of a horse for 15 years of its life and still expect that it should still be a capable performer in its senior years.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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