These days it’s pretty common for horses and ponies to live well into their twenties and even beyond. With the advancements we make in equine care and veterinary medicine, we are able to maximise their health and welfare and enjoy even more time with these wonderful companions. Many owners are unsure what is normal for their horse at this time and worry about how to make these years as happy and comfortable as possible for him.

Today, we’re going to look at a few of the most common concerns relating to older horses. From general care to health issues, your horse’s requirements may start to change.

My horse is getting older, how long can I ride him for?

Each horse or pony is different. Many that have worked happily for years will continue to enjoy doing so, and well into their older years (I was still riding my old cob happily into his early 30s! – Ed.). Just because your horse is the other side of 20, doesn’t mean you immediately have to stop exercising him. In fact, it’s probably not a good idea.

Those that have exercised regularly or are used to a competitive lifestyle will often enjoy the psychological stimulation that work brings. With nothing to do, they could develop unwanted habits or become unruly. We know many older horses who still have plenty left in the tank! 

That said, a horse or pony that has had a working life will often have some changes such as arthritis or discomfort from old injuries. Equally, they may have (or be developing) other whole-body problems. It’s important to listen to your horse as you work him, and pay attention to him showing signs of needing to slow down.

Many owners enjoy giving their horse an official retirement, choosing only to enjoy very light work like some hacking, gentle lunging or other forms of playtime. They choose to retire him completely from all hard work as a hard-earned ‘thank-you’ for being a loyal partner. In the end, there’s often no definite answer to ‘when to stop riding’, it depends on you and your horse.

Why is my older horse losing weight?

Weight loss in older equines is a common concern. It’s a good idea to keep a check on your horse’s weight using a weight tape, so you can pick up any subtle changes. Some weight loss may not be serious but it would be a good idea to get your vet out for a check-up, they might recommend some testing to make sure your horse doesn’t have a problem in any of his organ systems, that is causing poor condition. 

The normal ageing process can cause a reduction in weight. Often, what you see is a drop in muscle mass because the combination of reduced exercise intensity and ageing mean that muscles don’t have the same tone as before. In addition, digestion and absorption of food isn’t as efficient, causing older equines to drop in weight despite no change in their diet. Also, these animals can’t cope with colder temperatures well, so make sure they are well rugged up on cold and rainy days, to avoid using up their fat stores just to keep warm.

Weight loss may also have other causes. First, make sure he is up to date on worming or organise a worm egg count. Untreated parasite burdens can cause intestinal damage and weight loss. Next, get his teeth checked at least every 6 months. There are lots of problems that can be caused by poor teeth, even in horses and ponies that have previously had few dental problems. For example, ageing teeth can be lost or change in shape, leading to tooth problems like overgrowths, ulcers and trapped food. Older teeth often aren’t as good as chopping up long hay either. 

What should I feed my ageing horse or pony?

Although many older horses and ponies don’t need a specific change in diet, it’s important to make sure they receive both the forage and essential vitamins and minerals they need each day. This may just mean continuing with his routine access to forage. But, depending on whether you have changed his exercise level, it may mean changing his concentrate feed to one more suited to the older horse.

Dental issues, health problems and normal ageing may mean your horse or pony needs a change in diet to keep him in good condition. Even where an adequate amount of hay or grass (2% bodyweight per day) is being consumed, the horse or pony will usually benefit from a balancer or supplement formulated for the older equine. That grass or forage alone probably won’t provide essential vitamins and minerals that your older horse needs to stay healthy and maintain condition. 

Chopped hay or hay cubes can help an older equine who struggles to chew effectively, to help them get the forage they need. There are even fibre cubes that can be soaked into a porridge for horses who have lost all, or nearly all, their teeth. Although expensive, horses often do really well on this diet.

Take home message

In order for your horse and pony to stay fighting fit and enjoy his golden years to the full, it’s important to stay on top of regular healthcare, worming and farriery. Also, keep a close eye out for subtle changes that could indicate there’s something amiss.

Some horses enjoy the stimulation of light exercises well into their older years but it’s key to listen to your horse. Daily grooming and playtime are great ways to enjoy precious moments with your ageing horse or pony whilst making sure they are doing well physically and mentally. 

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