Providing the best quality of life for older horses with Julie Goodnight.
In a quiet corner of my facility is the geriatric wing. We do what we can for these wise old horses to make their final stage of life as comfortable as possible. They’ve given so much to so many riders over the years and I am happy to give them a noble and comfortable, albeit expensive, retirement.
Two elegant old mares currently occupy this part of my barn: Pepsea, a stately Morgan who was my number one horse for many, many years; and Jewell, a frail little Anglo-Trakehner who carried many young riders to the winner's circle and later taught hundreds of adult riders proper equitation. Both mares, by coincidence, are 28 years old and both have been in my barn for over 20 years. It will be strange when they are gone.
Pepsea and Jewell were definitely keepers for me and by the time I no longer needed their services they were too old to risk losing track of. I didn't dare think of selling them. Once they were ready to kick back and semi-retire, I had them out on free leases to nearby, hand selected riders who would pamper them and work them lightly and where it was easy for me to monitor their care. Now both mares are permanently retired from riding and are living out their twilight years with the two things horses want most in life: security and comfort.
Behaviour My senior horses have worked hard all their lives. From a young age they were trained to carry riders, helping them accomplish their equestrian goals. They've been ridden for thousands of hours and carried riders over all sorts of terrain and helped them pursue their interests. They’ve been trained in many disciplines and adjusted to the quirks and demands of many riders.
At this stage of life, the hard work is over and they deserve to rest on their laurels. They are ready to kick back, relax and enjoy the simple things in life (eating and sleeping). Their bodies are failing them: there's sagging where there didn't used to be, their joints are plum wore out and their minds aren't quite as sharp as they used to be. They've earned their status and both the humans and horses around them recognise that they deserve respect and peace.
The senior horses love bathing in the sun and waiting for the next meal. Exercising is not a high priority since they are dealing with the many aches and pains that come at the end of an active life.
Although the senior horses are ready to kick back and take life easy, they do not want to be disregarded and ‘put out to pasture.’ They remember the 'good ole days' when they were athletes in their prime - important and catered to - and they aren't quite ready to give that up. They like to feel needed and wanted.
Retirement The senior horses certainly are not in any need of training. They know more than most of us could ever hope to know about humans and the sport of riding. They can analyse humans more efficiently than Dr. Phil or Judge Judy!
Becoming a senior citizen sort of sneaks up on you. One day you are the cat's meow, at the pinnacle of your career - working hard, getting all sorts of perks and accolades, and the next thing you know you’re being passed by. Hmm, that’s a lot to think about.
The transition from prime time to senior is subtle. When exactly it happens varies greatly with the horse's breeding, history, conformation, temperament, training and soundness. Generally in the late teens or early twenties horses are slowing down and ready to shift towards retirement, although some horses go much longer.
My mares were 20 and 22 when they were ready for a break. I transitioned them from a full time working career to a semi-retired, easy riding life. I made sure they were with riders who would appreciate their wisdom and not make big demands on them. But at some point I had to make the decision to fully retire them. Since no human knew them better, it was up to me to know when it was time.
Fitness At no stage of life is fitness more important or more difficult to manage. Understandably, later in life, body parts change. Joints are flat worn out and the mind tends to wander. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Keeping a geriatric horse fit and sound of mind and body is quite a challenge.
A low back and weak abdominal muscles are the hallmark of a geriatric horse and, depending on the horse's conformation and use, this may happen sooner or later. That's why we try to keep a horse under saddle as long as they can take it, in order to keep them fit, their back strong and give them a sense of purpose.
Once riding is no longer an option we try to keep our older horses strong with exercise in the form of turnout and hand walking. Forcing exercise on an older horse is not always advisable and traditional methods like longeing are too hard on their bodies. Instead, leisurely walks, munching grass and looking at different surroundings, keep them fit both physically and mentally.
I prefer to keep my older horses together and separated from the younger, friskier horses whose idea of a good time might be chasing subordinate horses around. My senior horses deserve a break and protection from the sometimes stressful life in the herd. They don't necessarily want to be alone, but they don't want to be looking over their shoulders for bullies either.
Health and Nutrition Senior horses have very special needs regarding health and diet. My main goal is to keep them safe, comfortable and happy. A horse's teeth grow constantly all of their life until the age of 27-28. This allows them to grind tough forage but at some point their teeth wear away and they can no longer grind their food as well as they used to. In nature, this would signal the slow end to a horse’s life but with the modern advancements in livestock feeds and medicine we are able to keep horses healthy and alive much longer.
I try to keep horses on a high quality grass hay as long as possible (alfalfa is too hard on them metabolically), with a modest amount of oats to carry the supplements they need to stay healthy and comfortable. Once their teeth give out, we start feeding them soaked grass pellets - a delightful mash that keeps their bellies full without all the hard work of chewing. As horses age, they get skinnier and lose muscle mass and in our climate, with long, cold winters, we always blanket them in the winter to give them extra protection.
The most important extra my geriatric horses get is a joint supplement. Arthritis is a normal part of ageing and the harder a horse has been used, the more their joints wear out. The more we protect joints early in life the longer they will last. We monitor our seniors closely to make sure they can lay down and get back up and that they have a comfortable and soft place to sleep. Many geriatric horses prefer to get off their feet and rest more often than younger horses, so it is important that they can get back up easily.
My older horses are also on a yeast based probiotic plus prebiotic product, which aids digestion, and an Omega 3 fatty acid fish oil supplement to promote cardiovascular health. As horses age, their circulation is sometimes compromised - legs stocking up and fluid builds up on their under-line. The fish oil supplement helps with circulation and the added fat helps keep them in good flesh with a healthy coat. It also supports the respiratory system, joint health, and immune function of all horses. This is especially important in geriatric horses who need extra support of their overall wellness.
Horses give so much to us throughout their long lives. When I think back over the more than 20 years I've spent with these two mares - the adventures we've lived through, the memories we've shared and the blood, sweat and tears; I know how fortunate I've been to have them in my life (and many others that have come through my barn). I want nothing more than to keep them safe, comfortable and happy, and honour their lives. I am fortunate to have the resources to care for them at the level they deserve and it is an obligation I take seriously. One day it will be time to let them go and I'll know when that time comes I'll do my best to reduce their suffering and make the end of their lives honourable and painless.
Caring for horses has its own challenges in each stage of life. We all start out as precocious youngsters and hopefully we live a long, productive and comfortable life. It is important to me to offer the best that I can to my horses, in whatever stage of life they are in. After all, it is the least I can do considering all that they have given me.
Since writing this article we lost Jewell at the ripe old age of 28. She was truly a golden girl and a wise old lady. She will be greatly missed.