Last Updated on February 28, 2022 by Allison Price
How can you tell when a horse is too old to do the job you want? You can learn to recognize when it’s time for you to let go or to slow down.
My client says that “Cruzer” is her favorite horse. He’s stable, reliable, and still wins at every show. He will be 18 next year so it is time to retire. Sure gonna miss him….”
Wait I think He’s not getting old yet, but that doesn’t mean he should quit. We’ve actually seen 21-year old horses competing in World Cup Jumping in recent years. You might also consider giving the horse a job that is less demanding than retirement.
There’s also the second type of owner.
She’ll tell you, “There’s something wrong in my horse.” He’s only 24 years old and has trouble keeping up with his friends’ horses when they go on trail rides. It’s a mystery to me. Is there any way we can help him give up his energy?
“Hmmmmm,” I respond. “Twenty-four. Perhaps he is just feeling old.” After all, a horse’s 24-year-old life is equivalent to approximately 3-4 human years. That means that a 24-year-old horse can be compared to a 72-96-year-old person. Imagine your grandpa 80 years old riding down the trail. Even if your horse is healthy and strong, chances are he will have slowed down.
How can you tell if your senior horse is ready for a change? The answer to this question cannot be determined by merely looking at age. This article will explain what happens to your horse as he ages. Next, I will give you five questions to consider when you are considering reducing your horse’s workload or retiring.
He is dependent on you for his happiness and health as he gets older.
Your horse will not be spared from the effects of Father Time no matter how hard you try. With age, there are inevitable physiological and structural changes that occur. It all starts with your horse’s teeth.
The “reserve crown” underneath the gum line is what your horse’s teeth are made of. This reserve crown gradually erupts to replace any damaged tooth surfaces from grinding his food. He eventually uses all of the reserve crown as he gets older.
He’ll find it harder to chew his food properly. He will lose weight due to the difficulty he has with digestion from larger food particles.
His digestive system is also being stressed by his compromised chewing. His ability to absorb nutrients (proteins and vitamins) is affected by chronic damage from parasites as well as wear and tear.
The difficulty in digesting proteins can cause a variety of problems, most notably muscle atrophy. He may experience a drop in his back and lose strength. He could also get chronic diarrhea.
Chronic lameness can be caused by wear and tear to your horse’s joints, soft tissues, and the cumulative effects from old injuries. Uncomfortable horses tend to be less mobile, which can lead to a loss of strength and condition.
And if he’s been administered a lot of medications (such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories–NSAIDs) over the years to help manage musculoskeletal pain, he may even experience kidney compromise or other organ damage.
This pony was loved by children even into her 30s and was a favorite walk-trot mount. She is living proof that age doesn’t necessarily determine how old you are.
Your horse’s immune system is less efficient as he gets older, making him more susceptible to parasite loads and infectious diseases. You also have a higher risk of your horse developing endocrine conditions (such as Cushing’s or insulin resistance), which can accelerate the aging process.
As many as 30% of horses aged over 20 years old have Cushing’s Disease.
How old is an old horse? Experts agree that a horse is considered to be geriatric when it reaches 18-20 years old. But the bigger question is: How old is too? This requires a multifaceted answer.
Is my Horse Too Old To
Consider each horse’s individual circumstances when making decisions about whether or not he is too old. These five questions will help determine what your geriatric horse is capable of doing.
Question #1 – Performance is still up to par? Are you finding that your once solid reining horse is now slowing down in his lead changes? Is your trail horse having difficulty keeping up with the rest?
You can determine if your horse is experiencing sudden performance declines by having a veterinary exam. If your vet is positive, it might be time to make some changes.
Example: Dasher, a 20-year old Quarter Horse gelding who’s been a top barrel runner for many years, is . He qualified for and participated in the NFR numerous times. He was consistent in adding a second to his time this season. He’s not disabled and his lab work (including Cushing’s disease testing) were normal.
Is he too old for a barrel horse? No! He may not be able to compete at the highest levels. As he gets older, it may be time to decrease his workload. This former high-level performer might be able to have a rewarding second career as a teacher of youth riders or an older amateur.
Question #2: Does he have lameness? Has your horse been diagnosed with navicular-bone degeneration or a chronic high-suspensory-ligament injury? You might have been managing your horse’s condition for years using medications, injections or shockwave therapy. If his lameness is so severe that it needs more frequent medication and ongoing treatment, or he has reached his golden years, then it may be time to give up.
Same applies to the trusted old performer who sustains an acute, severe injury that will require intensive treatment and months of rehabilitation.
Example: trooper is a 22 year-old roping horse who suddenly became severely paralysed in his hind leg. His stifle had a severe tear, which could take up to a year to heal.
Is it too late to plan for a complete recovery and a return-to-work? Probably. The elderly gentleman is able to relax and enjoy retirement without having to worry about a long-term plan to return to work.
Question #3: How do you maintain your horse’s weight and condition? Is your 20-year old horse happy, healthy, and shiny? Is he becoming a bit sluggish and swayy, even after you have increased his feed and switched him to a senior diet.
Do you lose weight quickly when you travel long distances to attend events? Is he able to bounce back right away or does it take him a few weeks before he feels normal again?
It might be a good idea to cut down on the work that your horse does if he is having difficulty maintaining his weight.
Example: Cedar, a 22-year old Arabian gelding with serious dental problems, is . His chronic diarrhea was recently diagnosed and it is still possible to see his ribs even with a senior-formulated diet. When he was younger, he participated in a few 100-mile endurance races. In recent years, he has returned to 50-mile and 25-mile rides.
Is he too old for endurance racing? Fair enough, yes. He may not be able to maintain his weight if he is having difficulty sustaining it. Cedar might be ready to go light trail riding.
Question #4: Are there any other health issues? Is your horse suffering from a chronic condition, such as kidney disease or Cushing’s syndrome? Chronic health problems can accelerate the aging process. Depending on the condition, you may need to avoid certain activities in order to keep your horse as healthy and happy as possible.
Sinbad, an 18-year old Thoroughbred Thoroughbred mare, was recently diagnosed with chronic renal failure. He drinks a lot and doesn’t keep his weight down. His veterinarian advised him that Sinbad’s health is best protected if he has good hydration. Can the gelding be used in his lesson program at the barn, given this?
He’s probably not, unless he is used very lightly. Sinbad should avoid fluid loss via sweat due to his condition. He also needs to eat all the calories he can to maintain his weight. Sinbad, who has a chronic illness that complicates his aging process should be retired from work.
Question #5: Are you happy to see me at the barn? The most important question is whether your horse seems happy. Do you see him smile when you approach his stall? Or do you feel like he is avoiding you. Is he happy with his job? Or does he resist your commands and wiggle his tail?
Your horse should be happy and enjoying his work. If your horse is grumpy, sore, or sour, it may be time to retire.
Suzy, a 37-year old pony that is used in a therapeutic riding program as a walk/trot horse. She is in great shape, and even though she was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease twenty years ago, her condition can be managed with medication. She greets her young riders with a smile and a nicker and then trots around the arena with them all.
Is she too old for her job? No! Because “how old you are” is dependent on much more than just years.
A well-cared for oldster, such as this one at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center can go on to be therapy mounts.
Is my older mare too old to breed?
American Quarter Horse Association records a 42-year old mare who gave birth successfully. Is that what you should be expecting? It is not.
A mare’s fertility starts to decline between 15 and 20 years of age due to a variety of factors, including poor egg quality, irregular heat cycles and compromised uterine health. Like everything else, each mare’s answer to the question “How old is too old?” will vary.
Your mare is more likely to conceive and bear a healthy foal if she has given birth to foals in the past than a maiden mare. Your mare must be in good health.
Consider two things before you decide to breed an older mare. It may cost more to breed an older mare successfully than one that is younger. She will likely need more intensive care and may need to be bred in multiple cycles before she conceives.
Zweiten, she is at higher risk for complications during pregnancy and foaling, including a potentially fatal rupture her uterine vessel, which is more common in older foaling mares.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!