Guest Author - Susan Hopf
It used to be that any horse over 10 years old was considered “aged”. That was the definition when I was in 4-H and although I personally don’t like to think about how long ago that was, it is not, in the course of equine evolution, very long ago at all – 40 years or so.
Many horses easily live into their 30s these days with an active riding schedule as part of that extended life. However as our horses age we must alter our expectations and our schooling programs. For the mental health of both human and equine you need to look at working with your older horse from a different point of view – enjoying their good days, accepting their bad and simply finding joy in their company when riding is not an option on any given day.
Those of us humans that are a bit long in the tooth understand how important it is to stay active. The weekend warrior approach to physical activities takes a bigger toll on older bodies – both human and equine. A far better approach is to school the older horse lightly everyday. If this is not possible then at least 3-4 times a week. Any less than that allows the aging process to take a bigger bite. Arthritic joints become stiff, muscles first tighten and then lose tone, cardiovascular endurance is diminished and recovery time when you do ride becomes increasing longer.
This is the time to spend less on instruction and more on health care. Good nutrition and joint support are more critical for our older equine buddies. There are many senior feeds as well as a plethora of joint supplements all designed to keep our older horses in good form for as long as possible. Good worming programs also go a long way to keeping all of our horses living longer but as they age and their immune systems become challenged it is imperative to keep the internal parasite population down.
Longer warm-ups before hitting the trail or schooling arena and cool-downs afterward are an absolute must – or perhaps this will be your entire ride on certain days. Advancing an aged horse may be out of the question but if healthy and happy to work you can try to do so. Let your horse be your guide. If you do try something new be certain of your aids, ask very little and wait to see what happens in the next day or two. If the horse is sore for an extended length of time after a workout then it was too much.
A quarter sheet is a great idea to keep her muscles warm during cold weather workouts. I prefer wool quarter sheets to the newer micro-fiber or polyester materials. Wool is heavier and stays in place better and does a super job at pulling moisture away.
Turn out is critical for many reasons (true for all horses but even more so as they get older). A horse that stands all day in her stall is not ready to go out and work. If the weather is so severe that she cannot be turned out then at least hand-walk her for 20 minutes or so – twice a day if possible. This will help minimize stocking up of the legs and help alleviate stiffening joints. Breathing even the cleanest barn air all day is detrimental to giant sized equine lungs – both young and old – so get your horse outside for some fresh air even if its just a few minutes on those very cold days.
Keep your farrier informed of any changes in the way your horse moves. Some horses, as they age, need more support than they used to. Hoof quality may diminish and angles in some of the lower joints may change. If there is evidence of arthritic changes sometimes barefoot is a better choice – shoes increase the grab and this can increase the stress on joints. Any quality farrier will have an educated suggestion based on your horse’s individual needs.
Last but not least a discussion with your veterinarian regarding the feasibility of your horse’s continued work schedule is a must. Include what sort of plans you may have and what level of activity your horse has already been used to. Ask about supplementation and feeding and what if any special needs your individual old partner may require.
With care and a little planning your older horse can be a happy riding partner for longer than ever before.