Thanks to amazing advances in veterinary medicine horses today are living longer lives than ever before. It was not long ago that a horse was considered to be a senior at the age of 15. Today, most experts agree that there is not a set age when a horse becomes a senior. Genetics and care play a large role in when a horse begins to show signs of age. When pressed, most agree the age they would consider a horse to be showing physiological signs of aging is 20.
We often talk about horses staying sound and healthy longer if they are kept in work, but there is even research to confirm that older horses seem to feel better after excercise. Horses over the age of 25 who were involved in an exercise research trial were reported to show fewer signs of aging during the 12 week trial. They lined up to get on the Equicizer and when they were turned out afterward they bucked and kicked and reared, tails up in the air, running around the pastures. They definitely appeared to feel better after moving their joints according to Karyn Malinowski, PhD and Director of the Rutger’s University Equine Science Center wbere the study took place.
In the last few years I have had the pleasure to work on more and more senior horses who are still in work. This work is quite varied depending on the horse’s soundness and fitness level. Some horses are restricted to only walking in the ring and on trails while others are still going strong in the dressage ring or doing some lower level jumping.
It has been amazing to see some senior horses really thrive when there have been some minor changes made to their management. Most of the older horses who are still in work, do require some maintenance to keep them comfortable. This includes anything from oral joint supplements (eg Recovery) to injectable joint treatments(eg. Legend or Adequan) , specific joint injections, to regular dosing with anti-inflammatories (eg. Bute or Previcox). Quite often with the right help, the horse improves drastically as they are able to use their body more comfortably. When they are not in discomfort, they begin to use their joints in a better range of motion which helps build more correct musculature, which in turn helps to support the joints. It really is a win/win situation if the owner can find the right solution. I have been finding more and more owners of older horses are turning to massage as well to help keep their mounts comfortable. Massage doesn’t help with arthritis, but it does help with many of the muscular compensatory issues that arise from horses dealing with arthritis as well as other issues. Older horses also take longer to recover from exercise and massage helps to keep their muscles as supple as possible. As I mentioned previously, better working muscles mean less stress on joints, tendons and ligaments.
Another reason to keep older horses in work is the fact that as horses age they become more prone to Insulin Resistance. Exercise helps the body produce more cortisol which helps with insulin sensitivity.
If you have an older horse who has not been in work for a while, but he is looking more sound and you are considering bringing him back into work, here are a few things to consider. I would suggest starting out with a veterinary check up. As horses age they can develop more issues with their teeth and that is something to be even more conscious of if the horse is being asked to carry a bit. Your veterinarian can also suggest ways to keep your horse comfortable as he returns to work. Next up, double check that the tack still fits. If the horse has had considerable amounts of time off and has lost muscle, your old saddle may not fit any longer, or may need the additional help of a shock absorbing pad. If in doubt, get your saddle fitter to come have a look. It is important to keep in mind that as horses age, they will naturally lose some cardiovascular fitness in addition to muscle. If your horse has sat around in a paddock for a couple of years, begin work slowly. Take him for handwalks for a couple of weeks, then start walking under saddle, slowly add some lateral work at the walk and hills or walk over poles before returning to harder work. Older horses are more prone to injury and can take longer to recover, so in the long run you will get further ahead by taking the time to rebuild muscle and fitness at a slower pace.