By Frank J. Buchman
“Older horses are often healthier and happier when they are continued to be used.”
Like people, every horse is different, and conditions sometimes demand retirement. Certain horse owners contend a 20-year-old is “past their prime, time to retire.” However, many of the best horses continue working much longer.
“Putting an old horse ‘out to pasture’ is unnecessary and even unwise,” two renowned horse veterinarians agreed.
“Instead, consider the horse’s needs to develop retirement keeping the horse active and content,” recommended David Trachtenberg, DVM
“End of a horse’s career is determined less by age than physical capacity and other intangible factors,” added Ruth Sobeck, DVM.
“Age is meaningless,” Trachtenberg insisted. “If a horse is in good shape and handling workload with ease, there’s no reason to retire. It is detrimental, physically and mentally, for a horse to suddenly go from being active to not doing anything.”
The best way to retire a horse, the veterinarians said, is to gradually decrease activity, based on changing physical abilities.
“It’s not always easy to decide when to make those adjustments and to what extent, “Sobeck said. “Of course, you never want to ask a horse to do work that the aging body can no longer handle.”
An acute injury usually leaves little room for doubt when it comes to planning a horse’s future. “On the other hand, when an older horse’s decline is subtle, it can be difficult to see,” Sobeck insisted.
A veterinarian can be helpful in such a situation. “I may see an older horse only two or three times a year. So I’m going to notice that its stiffer or losing muscle mass,” Sobeck said “That’s sometimes an eye opener for the owner who hasn’t seen or won’t admit their horse is slowing down.”
However, in other situations it becomes apparent that a horse can no longer handle a workload “It will tire faster and take longer to recover,” Trachtenberg said. “A horse may trip more or be sore after a long ride, both signs of slowing down.”
Too much work can also make an older horse behave differently. “When a horse is aggravated with a bad attitude, it may be telling you to cutback the workload,” Sobeck added.
Still any horse will have good and bad days. “Owners shouldn’t read too much into a single episode,” Sobeck continued. “Instead, look for patterns. Keep a daily diary to record just how your horse feels and evaluate it at the end of the month.”
Veterinarians can help distinguish age-related issues from problems that can be solved or at least made less severe. “Ninety percent of the time, arthritis is the issue in an older horse who is slowing down,” Trachtenberg said. “Yet chronic, low-grade laminitis, typically referred to as ‘founder,’ can be quite similar.”
Repeated soft-tissue stress can put a horse on a retirement track as well. “Many times an older horse injures the same ligament or tendon again and again,” Sobeck said. “The horse can be rehabilitated, but when it reaches a certain level of work, lameness will reoccur.”
Some horses will not reveal that they are hurting. “They’ll tell you I’m fine. I can run on these tendons, when really they can’t,” Sobeck said. “When x-rays tell one story, but the horse is giving another, owners must overrule the horse for its own good.”
Non-musculoskeletal conditions, such as heaves and Cushing disease, aren’t likely to drive a horse into retirement.
“Medications can usually control these problems,” Trachtenberg said. “Still untreated conditions can certainly lead to complications that make it difficult for a horse to perform a job.”
There are no rules of thumb for determining how much a horse of a certain age and with particular conditions can do. “That is done on a case-by-case and even day-by-day basis,” Sobeck informed.
Using an older horse sparingly won’t preserve soundness. “The adage that horses only have so many miles in them applies more to the extreme sports like barrel racing and roping,” Trachtenberg said. “Reduced riding can’t take five years off a moderately arthritic horse’s life, so continue to ride the horse for enjoyment. But, instead of going hard and fast, ride easier trails.”
Eventually, if the horse has the personality, it may just be led around with kids on its back. “That’s an important job, too,” Sobeck said. “The years that took a physical toll on the horse may have made it perfect for younger or inexperienced riders.”
Even when an older horse works less, or not at all, the task of caring for it won’t necessarily become easier. “The needs will be different, but still important,” Sobeck said. “The biggest mistake I see people make is just throwing a retired horse out in a field and assuming it’ll be fine.”
The horse still needs proper nutrition, regular dental and hoof care, vaccinations and deworming. “The horse can’t be expected to fend for itself,” Trachtenberg said. “A senior horse ration is advisable, but the horse probably doesn’t require supplemental vitamins and minerals when fed good forages.”
Simply looking at an older horse daily will go a long way toward keeping it healthy. “Continue to handle the horse and be aware of weight and overall health,” Sobeck advised.
Consistency is important, too. “If the horse received an oral joint supplement while he was working, continue to give it in retirement,” Trachtenberg said.
The horse’s mental health must not be overlooked either. “Companionship is still important to older horses,” Sobeck said. “They need the company of another horse if at all possible.”
Old horses might also miss their former routine. “Even if an older horse can no longer be ridden, it’s good to include it in previous activities,” Trachtenberg said. “Taking an old horse to a show as a traveling companion for a younger horse will make them both happier.”
Putting an old horse “out to pasture” is often unnecessary and even unwise, veterinarians contend. The horse still requires considerable care and attention. The years that took a physical toll on an old horse may have made it perfect for younger or inexperienced riders.