How to Keep an Older Horse Going

Age often equals wisdom, but if you have a golden oldie horse (say, 15 or older), it might take more effort to keep him going. Find where your horse belongs athletically---you're in it for the long haul, so you should have appropriate expectations.
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Age often equals wisdom, but if you have a golden oldie horse (say, 15 or older), it might take more effort to keep him going. Find where your horse belongs athletically---you're in it for the long haul, so you should have appropriate expectations.

Dr. Alan Ruggles, a partner and surgeon at the renowned Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, has several suggestions in mind when maintaining an older horse, or keeping a horse sound and healthy as he ages.

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  • Find where your horse belongs athletically and don't try to do too much with him. Bear in mind that you're in it for the long haul, so you should have appropriate expectations.
  • Don?t be averse to giving him some time off now and again. Time off doesn't have to be an absence of any activity, but try to avoid prolonged stall rest without any pasture or light exercise. Think about what the horse is like in nature and allow him to do that when he's having his time off.
  • For the horse's general health and well-being, have at least yearly evaluations by your veterinarian to check for things that might not be obvious to you.
  • Avoid over-feeding him. ?Excessive weight is not good for them in general, and it's not good for them athletically,? Dr. Ruggles says.

There is no magic bullet in preventive care, and the results in each horse are going to be variable. ?If you want to try a product you're comfortable with, give it an honest try for at least 30 day,? he says. ?If you think it's helping an injury or lameness, then keep using it. If you don't think it's helping that horse, then stop.?

?I truly don't like the idea of having joint injections done on a schedule,? Dr. Ruggles says. ?The horse tells you when he needs it. You may learn in any particular horse that every six months he needs it, but just because Horse A did it, I wouldn?t necessarily do it on Horse B. There are some risks to injections and there's the expense, so wait until he tells you he needs it.?

If your horse has some type of lameness issue or injury, take the time to figure out exactly what it is, then make the best choice with the long-term health and soundness of the horse in mind. People tend to get impatient with injuries, and you can't rush the biology. They can only heal at a certain rate. ?Spend the time and, unfortunately, sometimes the money, to find out exactly what's going on with him,? Dr. Ruggles says. ?I think that what happens sometimes is people make presumptions about where the horse is injured, and then because they don't know specifically, maybe go down the wrong course, then end up with a long-term problem.?

Roll It!

Older horses are more prone to soft-tissue injuries, such as significant damage to a flexor tendon or suspensory ligament. The soft tissue tends to become less elastic over time, Dr. Ruggles says, and can get damaged in the pasture or with regular activitiy. The injuries can become much more severe, and the lameness is usually more dramatic than you?d see in a younger horse.

Degenerative arthritis, especially ringbone, also goes up as the horse ages. ?We?ll see older, mid-teen and higher horses that have been able to deal with mild arthritis of the joints,? he says. ?Arthritic changes might be more dramatic than we?d see in younger horses. Maybe it's been pre-existing for awhile, and that's where the preventive maintenance and careful exams come in. If all of a sudden he gets to the top point and he's very lame, you might never be able to bring him back to athletic soundness. That's why you need to be on top of it and be aware of it as he ages. And also be aware that you sometimes have arthritic changes that he's able to live with, so just because you see it on an X-ray doesn't mean it's important for the horse?you have to put it together with a lameness exam.?

Make sure he gets regular dental visits (at least once a year, or as recommended by the dentist) to avoid poorly chewed (and poorly digested) food, choke, weight loss or sinus problems.

Avoid dramatic shoeing changes just for the sake of changing. It's especially common if you switch trainers or blacksmiths ? somebody can always do something better than the person before. It might be done for all the right reasons, but if a horse is used to going a certain way for a very long time and you start changing things, you tend to create problems that didn't exist before.

For more information on this topic, go to AQHA.