Monday, January 18, 2010

The Joy of Senior Horses

Often when I leave the house in the early morning to walk to the barn to do morning feeding and turnout, my heart lifts. The barn in the morning is a place where I'm often deeply happy, being with the horses. One of my special pleasures in the morning is Noble. He usually nickers when I open the barn doors - he has a deep, demanding nicker. I open his door and put up his stall guard and he supervises my morning work with great interest. His sweet face and lovely curved ears gladden my heart. If you're new to this blog, here's a couple of pictures of Noble that I love (I believe the first one was taken by one of the other boarders):

Noble was my first horse when I got back into riding as an adult, when my children were small. I took some lessons on him, and as soon as I found out his owner wanted to sell him - he made her nervous because he's on the high-strung side - I knew he and and I were meant to be together. He was 17 when I got him. I couldn't have chosen better - he was responsive, forward and just a delight to ride and be around. He did have his quirks - he was occasionally spooky and hated being in the ring with lots of other horses moving at speed - but he was perfect for me. Even my non-horsey husband could easy groom and lunge him when I was out of town.

As those of you who have been following along know, Noble, who will be 30 next May, has had some health issues that started (or should I say that I noticed - they were probably creeping up on us before that) last fall. Thanks to our wonderful chiropractor/vet, who also knows a lot about endocrinology, the mysteries have been solved. It turns out he was starting to be insulin resistant and also had low thyroid. He also had a possible dental issue that seems to be resolved for now. He's completely back to normal now - he picks up his feet easily and it doesn't hurt him to do so, he's feisty, opinionated and active, he's eating well and just seems to feel great.

We have several other senior horses in our barn - Fred, who is in his early 20s but has special issues in part due to having had Lyme, Joe, who is in his late 20s and Blackjack, who is somewhere in his 30s. All of them have faced challenges, but right now (knock on wood), they are all doing very well. This made me think about the value that older horses have - I think they're often undervalued in our horse cultures - and the challenges of taking care of them.

To me, older horses can be of such value. I remember all the children and teens at several of the barns I was at who had young show horses that were really too much horse for them and actually impaired their ability to learn and progress in their riding, much less form relationships with their horses. There was too much emphasis placed on winning in the show ring or pen and not enough on solid learning or having a horse that was appropriate to the child's or teen's skill level. So many of them would have benefitted from the chance to learn from an older, steady horse, so their own skills could develop and flourish with the instruction an older horse can provide. Older horses can also be great partners for adult beginners, or adults who need a steady, reliable horse to help them learn and build confidence (not that all older horses are steady and reliable!).

Older horses can also be wise, and some of that wisdom, if we're lucky, can cross over to us. They are often patient, and kind, and forgiving, and even helpful - all traits that I think many of us would like to develop in ourselves. They have a quiet authority and a dignity of their own. And their weathered faces are special too. But I've learned through experience that senior horses take special care to flourish and be happy and comfortable. Here are some things I've learned that are extra important when dealing with the senior horse - many of you probably know a lot more about this than I do, so please chime in - I'm still learning from our old horses.

I think the most important thing I've learned is that, until a final illness, it isn't inevitable that a senior horse will be thin, or worse emaciated, or unhappy, or listless, or uncomfortable. But to prevent these things, care is required in a number of areas:

Nutrition - As horses get older, their digestive systems change and they may need feed changes to stay healthy. If you have a senior horse at one of those barns whose feeding philosophy is "one scoop" of whatever it is, plus two flakes hay, for every horse, regardless of age, workload or condition, you're going to be in trouble with a senior horse. Senior horses, in addition to adequate high-quality forage, may need fewer available carbs, particularly if they're retired, and may need more easily digested foods. Some senior horses do well on adequate forage alone, but some need supplemental feed to maintain their weight. There are a number of quality senior horse feeds out there. And horses with dental issues may need to have their feed soaked, and may need a forage substitute such as beet pulp. I've found that unfortunately many vets know relatively little about equine nutrition and feeding - you may have to educate yourself (there are a series of guest posts from Paradigm Farms on equine nutrition - see the sidebar - that might be a good place to start) - there are some good books out there on caring for the senior horse.

Dental - Many senior horses have dental issues due either to poor dental care in their early years, or just due to advancing age. Dental problems aren't a death sentence unless they remain unaddressed. But it's also important to have a dentist who is sensitive to the issues of older horses - I've had personal experience of having older horses overfloated - since very old horses aren't really growing much if any tooth any more, a too smooth surface can make it very difficult for them to chew properly. Also, due to age, the cartilage in their jaw joints (TMJs) may be worn or almost non-existent - a dentist who is rough or who forces the jaw open too far can cause significant pain and damage. If a horse has missing teeth or other dental issues, feeding soaked feed and possibly a forage substitute may be essential to maintaining health.

Farrier care - Senior horses need good farrier care just like any other horse, but the farrier also has to be sensitive to the needs of the older horse. Some older horses can be a bit "teetery" with a foot off the ground, and some may have arthritis which makes holding their legs bent for a long time or in a position too far off the ground very uncomfortable. A good farrier will make allowances for this kind of thing and do everything possible to make the horse comfortable.

Movement and socialization - All horses need to move, but old horses need it more. The more they move, the more comfortable their joints will be. Some senior horses may benefit from aspirin or joint supplements. But some senior horses have trouble staying warm and may need to be stalled, or at least in a sheltered environment, to be comfortable. Horses need to socialize with others, but old horses may be at risk of being harassed by younger horses, or even kept away from food or water - sometimes older horses lose their rank in the herd.

Eyes - Some horses develop cataracts or other eye problems such as a partial loss of peripheral vision, which can make them more spooky. Uveitis can be an issue for some horses and may take preventative care to control.

Metabolic issues - Old horses, even if in proper weight, often have more trouble staying warm in cold weather and keeping cool in hot, humid weather. Blanketing may be necessary when it wasn't before, and shelter from the sun may be needed in the hottest weather. Many older horses can develop metabolic issues like insulin resistance (young horses can too, especially if they come from the race or show world where steroids may have been used) or low thyroid. I was surprised to learn that overall body soreness, or reluctance to pick up feet for cleaning, can be due to insulin resistance, and that a thin horse with a normal coat (not just a fat, cresty horse with a heavy coat and poor shedding) can be insulin resistant. I also was surprised to learn that "failure to thrive" can be due to low thyroid (not just getting fat as I thought).

I just love old horses - being with them, caring for them, grooming them, and even taking them for walks!


  1. Well said. I too believe the "senior horses in our lives deserve all the TLC we can provide. THey have given so much

  2. Our "senior citizens" can be a challenge! And it's hard when it comes time to say good-bye, but they deserve everything we can provide, as they have provided everything they can for us! Nice post.

  3. A big Amen! from me.
    Love my old Joe!

  4. Well said! I love my older guy (most days I forget that he is 19-20!) and just like you said, he has been a wonderful confidence builder for me. He also has a bit of an attitude, which makes me chuckle most days.


  5. The vet has repeatedly said that I have had the most senior horses in one place for years. I love them to pieces and have addressed everything you stated. From 6/08-7/09 we lost three of them.
    Shennandoah, a 36 yo appendix quarter horse (eventer that I took in for retirement in her mid 20s), Joe, a 32 yo Belgian (great riding and driving horse) and Target, 26 yo Thoroughbred, who seemed to be in excellent shape and suddenly had a colic that could not be turned around (my daughter's boy). My remaining herd...30, 29, 24, 12 and two (not mine) that are 21 and 25. They are all spoiled rotten. Get their teeth done, regular farrier visits, all get beet pulp, Vit. E and Sel (mag) and some get additional supplements. My 29 yo Pony gets soaked hay cubes every evening and does very well on them. I wish all owners of senior horses could read what you wrote. Thanks for all your educational posts.

  6. Katie, I can only hope my two live to be in their 30's. That would be awesome, as long as they remain in good health, of course! Lena's older brother is in his mid-20s, and is one of the best trainer-of-riders I've ever met.

    Obviously, you have given Noble a great life!

  7. Kate, perhaps I've missed it, but is Nobel still sound? He seems like a wonderful horse. His ears are much like Lily's, a bit short and stout.

    I'd agree with your assessment of senior horses with one caveat - some tend to get honery if they aren't ridden. Our senior horses in the barn who still work regularly are solid citizens and the most healthy, the two who don't get worked much at all are like a pair of old geezers on the porch, yelling at the kids playing in the street to pipe down.


  8. Breathe - Noble's been completely sound from the day I got him, and still is, although he's a little bit arthritic now and doesn't move as fast as he used to - he used to be incredibly fast and was the fastest horse at our barn into his mid-20s.

  9. What I love most about older horses is their wisdom. All you need to do is stand next to one, with your hand touching him/her and all the truths of life will flow into you. There is an absolute quiet knowledge and depth of soul you can feel.

  10. When I first learned to ride at 12 or 13, I learned on two older (20-something) horses. I loved them but they definitely had their quirks. There was Tar Baby, the cranky half-draft mare who always headed for either the gate or the person in the middle of the arena, no matter who was on the ground and who was on her back, but who was bombproof enough for a beginning horse for a little girl. Then there was Toffee, the grey Arab who would spook just for the fun of it, but who was otherwise the sweetest, gentlest horse in the world.

    I never thought that a young horse would be so different until I got Panama. When I get discouraged about riding difficulties, my trainer always reminds me that not only am I having to relearn how to ride, but I'm also having to learn to ride a baby, which is harder. I hope he is like Noble, however, and doesn't lose his spirit as he ages -- I'd miss it, as much difficulty (and as many falls) as it causes.

  11. Your barn sounds like a wonderful place for the seniors. And Noble sounds like he lives up to his name.

  12. Well, you know I love the seniors! You make so many valid points, but especially the fact that the seniors have so much to teach us. I agree that too many people are over mounted to have a fancy show horse, when they really need a solid citizen to help them become confident and competent in their horsemanship.

  13. What a perfect name for him! :) I love a senior, they do capture the essence of the true majestic beings they are! Seems they look around and 'just know' things :)

  14. Hi, I really like your post, Ive never had an older horse before last fall. The oldest one was 7 and I got him as two. I traded my Belgians and got a 14 year old mare and I am so excited to ride her and learn from what she knows, rather than teaching young ones (although I love that).

  15. I love the oldies too. One day I would love to own large acreage and have a sanctuary for the oldies. All those people who can't look after their old mounts once they have retired or just don't want too. I will take them in and love them!!!!!!

    My first horse Strides was with me from age 9 - 24. I loved him even more in his older years. Yes his needs changed and he taught me alot about caring for an old boy but I loved every minute of it!

  16. Absolutely wonderful post. We have a few seniors in our barn and they just have a look about them that's hard to explain. Their eyes just speak volumes and they are so wise. I enjoy our older horses as you do. Thanks for bringing up what a pleasure it is to have these seniors in our lives and how much they have to teach us.

  17. Love the post. Senior horses deserve all the care and love they need, and I love to see the wisdom in their eyes. I am very happy to have Tie now in my life and watch his amazing abilities to open latches and spit out wormer! He has been around the block a few times!

  18. wonderful post!

    Which reminds me, I need to take some photos of our old guys.

    We've got six at the rescue who are all right around 30.

    Two are quite thin, they were fostered out and not taken proper care of at their foster homes. They are slowly putting weight back on, but have had issues with teeth and nutrition, so it's been a struggle. That's the things about the old ones--you have to keep up with their care. It's harder to get them back to health than the younger ones if they encounter problems.

    We also have a paint mare who we recently found a foster home for as a lesson horse. Maggie is 24 but definitely doesn't look it! (Here's a picture of her from last spring )

    You are so right about older horses being great for riding. They've got a lot of sense and wisdom to them.

    Everyone wants to ride the cute, energetic young horse. But, what many riders would really benefit from is a steady older horse who can be a good teacher.

    thanks for this post, I enjoyed it!


  19. Excellent post. I have a 27-y/o boy myself and he has brought more joy to my life than I could have ever imagined. Senior horses are truly a gift and I hope I always have one to care for. We can learn so much from them!!


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