Horse Health

Senior Horse Care Strategies: Common Problems and Solutions

Senior Horse Care

Most people are surprised when I tell them Derby is 24 years old. They’re usually even more surprised when I tell them I’ve had him for 17 years (maybe because to some people I look like I’m barely out of high school?). The signs of aging began creeping in the year he turned 20. He wasn’t able to deal with the heat as well as he used to, his coat was a little thicker, he began spooking at things he never spooked at before (he was diagnosed with mild cataracts, which he’s now grown accustomed to), that left hind with all the bone spurs and arthritis didn’t bend quite as well.

Despite all of this, he’s still on the go. I make plenty of accommodations for him, but in the end the best thing you can do for an older horse is to keep them moving. Motion is lotion to the joints! And if they’re game you should be too.

As we’re aging together I’m beginning to consider myself a “developing senior horse care expert”. Here are some of the steps I take/rules I live by to keep my aging horse thriving:

  1. Walk. You can do most things in the walk that you can do in the trot or canter. At the walk you’re not pounding on your horse’s (arthritic) joints, yet you can still develop strength and suppleness through exercises like shoulder-in, leg yield, haunches-in, etc. I typically do work in the walk for 20-30 minutes at the beginning of each ride. More time is spent there in the winter when arthritis is at it’s most painful. Being a Thoroughbred, Derby’s favorite gait is obviously the canter. He hated walking, but has learned to relax and concentrate on walk work. Good for mind and body!
  2. Canter. You’d be surprised how many horses, especially old ones, warm up better in the canter than the trot.
  3. Hills and terrain. Like with young horses, working on different terrain is good for bone density. Just because he’s old doesn’t mean I ride him on perfect footing all the time (I mean, once he’s ANCIENT I probably will if I’m riding him at all). Walking and trotting hills is a great way to improve strength. I’m trying to keep those muscles developed as long as I can!
  4. Body clipping. As mentioned above, he’s hairy. Derby’s never been the kind of horse to have a fine coat, but it has gotten denser in recent years. He’s not officially a Cushings horse yet, but we’re probably moving that route. Keeping him body clipped not only keeps him cooler, but looking younger. No horse of mine is walking around looking like a scruffy ragamuffin.
  5. Saddle fitting. My saddles are fitted annually, and could probably be fitted more frequently. I’m disappointed to report that this year the fitter’s measurements showed that Derby lost top line from the year before, despite being in constant work. Keeping the saddles fitted to his current state is important for his comfort and soundness and older horses, like growing young horses, can change shape rapidly.
  6. Keep routines the same. I tried to semi-retire Derby 2 years ago, but he did not take kindly to it. Shortly thereafter I read an article in Equus Magazine about how to slowly semi-retire an older horse. There was a sidebar that read something about how some older horses cannot fully retire because it stresses them out. This becomes apparent in new behaviors developing, like aggression. It makes sense when you think about it. The horse is used to having a program that includes riding or some kind of mental/physical stimulation. Take away that stimulation without replacing it and what’s a horse to do? Sure, plenty are happy to retire but perhaps the more Type A need to continue having a job. Derby is much happier being worked. To make him feel like his job is important I tell him every time we go to a schooling show “You’re going Grand Prix in the World Cup today.”
  7. Listen. By listen I mean look. Professionally I deal with behavior on a daily basis in the human capacity, but all the same principles apply to animals. Look at what your older horse is telling you. Is his posture different? Did he flinch when you brushed his back today? This is basic horsemanship, but for the older horse, his body is changing. Respect his day to day changes and respond accordingly.
  8. German Horse Muffins. Life is short, feed him the good stuff.

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