Ready for Retirement?

Ready for Retirement?

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

In the 1993 movie Grumpy Old Men (and its 1995 sequel Grumpier Old Men), two ornery curmudgeons curse, whine, and complain their way through senior citizenry. In the 1985 feel-good flick Cocoon, a group of old age home residents escape to outer space to reclaim their youth. For humans, the aging process can be cruel, undignified, painful, and downright depressing. Some grow bitter about it; others try to outrun it.

Horses certainly are not immune to the physical problems associated with geriatric living--slowed digestion, arthritic aches and pains, susceptibility to infections and illness, and increased sensitivity to climatic changes. As the average lifespan for a horse increases--with more living well into their 30s--the onus is on us to make retired life as comfortable as possible for our faithful friends.

But what, exactly, does "retirement" mean when applied to horses?

Different Strokes for Different Horses

Tom Lenz, DVM, MS, immediate past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and an owner of a geriatric horse, notes that there are several different forms of equine retirement. Some horses are put out to pasture, never to be ridden again, while others are retired from the show ring, but used for light pleasure riding.

"I see a lot of horses that are in their 20s that were good show horses now being ridden by grandchildren on the weekend," he says. "Those horses are retired, but not completely."

"A horse that is retired from the show ring may not be ready for full retirement," notes Gayle Beller, manager of Promises Kept Equine Retirement Farm in Summit, N.Y. "A lot of horses that are retired jumpers do fine on the trails--they may even be okay for a hunt. A lot of them become therapeutic horses. I have also seen them become lesson horses."

For Lenz, the best equine retirement program involves plenty of turnout. "The ideal retirement for a horse is out in the pasture with some companions of his age, where he is well cared for and well fed, and has good medical care," he says. "What I don't like to see is when they are confined to a stall or dry lot, where they are in a kind of storage until they die. I know that because of cost, sometimes this is the only way that horses can be retired, but it's not the best deal."

When applied to a horse, the definition of "old" is dependent on whom you ask. Some consider 17- or 18-year-old mounts a little "long in the tooth;" others wait till a horse passes his 20th birthday before labeling him a senior citizen. As a horse approaches his "golden years," he'll start to show the classic signs such as swayback, gray hair, and a saggy lower lip. Some horses lose weight as their appetite decreases.

Weight and Health Management

One of the easiest ways to keep weight on an older horse is to ensure that he receives regular visits from an equine dentist or a veterinarian who does dental care. "Their teeth grow their whole life, and they wear against each other, creating sharp points that hamper their ability to chew food," says Lenz.

It can also make eating downright painful. "The molar surface of a horse's teeth is at an angle--not flat like ours," Lenz explains. The outer edge of the upper arcade and the inner edge of the lower arcade are prone to developing sharp points and spurs. "When they chew, those spurs stick in their cheeks, and they can cut their tongues. Horses with this condition tend to tilt their heads a bit when they chew, or they will drop a lot of feed out of their mouths."

To ensure that horses with few or no teeth left can properly consume food, one can mix plenty of water with either hay cubes or grain to form a thick, palatable gruel.

Of course, many of these problems can be avoided earlier in life by ensuring that your horse has regular dental check-ups on an annual basis (and even twice a year as the horse grows older). Marty Ginsburg, owner of Anchor Ranch, an equine retirement facility in Azalea, Ore., says, "A lot of the horses that come in to our facility haven't ever had their teeth checked by an equine dentist," she says. "In the long run, if you have an equine dentist do your horse's teeth, you are saving money--there is no way just floating the teeth can take care of all of the dental problems."

Feed programs in general are extremely important when it comes to maintaining retirees. When they get to be over 20, they have decreased utilization of fiber and phosphorus, so you need to adjust their rations accordingly, Lenz advises. "You would probably feed a horse that is 25 a lot like you would a yearling," he continues.

According to Lenz, average adult horses require a 10% protein diet; that protein level should increase to 12-14% for geriatric horses. "You want that diet to be fairly low on calcium and fairly high on phosphorus," Lenz explains. It's important to make sure the horse has the correct calcium-phosphorus ratio. "I tend to stay away from alfalfa hay and lean more towards grass hay along with some type of highly digestible pellets. Almost every feed company has got a senior diet that is easily digestible."

If you are placing your retired horse on pasture for the first time or after a long absence from pasture, it's advisable to introduce him to it on a gradual basis. At Ginsburg's, this process takes about two weeks. "We keep them on the same feeding program when they first arrive, I even try to get the same hay," she explained. "I gradually wean them off their old hay and have them spend a little more time each day in the pasture, and within a couple of weeks they are out on the grass with the rest of the horses."

Nutritional supplements provide the necessary vitamins that your older horse might not be producing. Vitamins B and C are good additions to your horse's feed program.

Sometimes an older horse might need periodic anti-inflammatory medications for arthritic animals. "Sometimes you have to give them anti-inflammatory medication--not all the time, but when the weather gets cold," Lenz says. "You don't want them on this all the time because, like aspirin, it can cause stomach problems. But when those joints are stiff or if the weather gets really cold, or the horse has trouble getting up and down, there is nothing wrong with giving him an anti-inflammatory to keep him comfortable."

The general health and well-being of all horses should be closely monitored, but this especially applies to older horses. As is the case with humans, the older a horse gets, the more prone he is to developing an illness.

"Also, they probably need to be vaccinated a little more frequently. Respiratory problems are also a bigger concern," says Lenz, although there has not been a lot of research on this. "It is not uncommon for an old horse--especially if he has been stalled most of his life--to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)."

Decreased immunity as a result of aging increases the chances for geriatric horses to become afflicted with various respiratory diseases, such as COPD. You should feed older horses on the ground to force them to drop their heads and drain mucus more naturally.

Beller noted that the number of horses that are afflicted with Cushing's disease (hyperactivity of the adrenal cortex) is higher than she originally thought before establishing her equine retirement facility. "One thing that really surprised me is how many Cushing's cases there are, and how many of them are undiagnosed," she says. "The other problem is if they have been in a stall where there is no grass turnout, Cushing's can flare up very easily. Now when they come in, we have a list of specific questions to get an idea as to whether or not they have the clinical signs." (See page 83 for more on Cushing's disease.)

Retirement Away From Home?

In an attempt to provide the best life possible for their retired horses, some horse owners opt to place their old friends in equine retirement facilities such as Beller's. Much like an old age home, these businesses cater to the unique needs of geriatric horses.

As one would with a regular boarding facility, Lenz cautions horse owners to conduct thorough background research on the stable of your choice before signing up. "I have seen some retirement facilities that are like heaven on earth, and I have seen some that are not managed very well," he says. "Horse owners really need to talk to the facility managers and determine exactly what kind of health program the horses are on, and what the expectations are."

John Duckworth, a farrier and proprietor of The Blacksmith Shop in Shawnee, Kan., is the owner of JD Spur Ranch, an exclusive retirement facility for horses in the area. Shaped like a pentagon or pinwheel, the barn is encircled by covered run-in sheds. The pastures are divided to accommodate up to three horses each; they can access water any time through the automatic watering system. Only about 22 horses reside on the ranch.

The horses at JD Spur Ranch are on 24-hour turnout, although they can access shelter at any time. "We put them out on pasture, but they are not on pasture with 15 or 30 other horses," Duckworth explains. "They have their own individual pasture, or we partner them with someone they can get along with."

By getting outside and stretching their legs, these older horses can look and act quite young, according to Duckworth. "They say a horse will walk eight to 10 miles a day," he says. "Some of the horses when they first arrived here were kind of swayback and run down. Their backs have straightened up a bit because they get out and move and walk."

Ginsburg has observed a similar phenomenon at her facility; however, exercise does not always improve a horse with swayback. "A lot of the horses that come in are very sick because they are confined to small areas where they can't walk around," she says. "I have 150-acre pastures and 60-acre pastures, and they graze all day long. They get enough exercise because they are constantly walking. It makes a big difference. It's the same as it is with humans--the older you get and the less you exercise, the more muscle tone you lose."

The gently rolling hills out at Anchor Ranch give Ginsburg's retired horses the workout that they need without placing undue stress on their aging bodies. "They go up and down the hills; they are well muscled," she says. "It's how horses should be."

During inclement weather, the retired horses at Duckworth's ranch are brought inside. "We have stalls that we can put them in during the winter if it gets really, really cold," he says.

At Promises Kept, which Beller operates with her husband, all of the horses are groomed on a daily basis. "Because it is a retirement facility, people aren't going to see the horses as regularly," Beller explains. "We normally groom them and give them treats, then we turn them out one at a time."

As with Duckworth's facility, Promises Kept is equipped with a large indoor space that the horses can access if they don't wish to roam about on the pasture. At night, Beller brings the horses inside to check them over and administer any medications. "Almost everyone here is on something," she says.

Take-Home Message

As with people, each horse is an individual, so what's right for one might not necessarily apply to another. Some horses can go for many years without demonstrating the characteristics of an animal ready for retirement, and those horses will be healthier mentally and physically if they are kept in some form of light exercise. Lenz, who trail rides, points out that a number of his riding companions have horses that are over the quarter-century mark. "There are people riding horses that are 25 years old that look as if they are 12 years old," he says.

About the Author

Carolyn Heinze

Carolyn Heinze ( is a freelance writer/editor. She currently works from her pied à terre in Paris, France, where she continually dreams of convincing the French Republican Guard to let her have a go-round on one of its magnificent horses. One can dream, can't they?

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