By Patricia C. Held and Anne-Louise Bonda, DVM
Few people look forward to being "put out to pasture," but that's exactly what an old horse needs.
"I have seen older horses just flourish in turnout situations," says Bruce Connally, DVM, an associate professor at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "I think that in some cases, it can even add years to their lives."
Older horses who live outdoors are typically healthier than those who spend the majority of their time in stalls, says Connally. "There's a tendency to want to ‘protect' older horses by shutting them in barns," he says. "It's well-intentioned but really misdirected. All the benefits of pasture for young horses apply to older horses, and in some cases to a greater extent." These include:
• Arthritis management. Movement benefits older joints, even in horses with some degree of arthritis. Simply walking around a field helps distribute synovial fluid within the joint and stimulates cellular repair processes. "Studies have proven that moderate exercise is an important part of managing arthritis in humans," Connally says. "The same applies to horses. I know from experience that arthritic horses kept out on pasture do much better than those kept in stalls."
It may be unsettling to watch an arthritic old horse move stiffly, or even limp, around a field, but that's exactly what he needs, says Connally. "You don't need to worry about him overdoing it. Unless they are in a bullying situation, horses regulate their own exercise very well."
• Respiratory health. Older horses are more likely to have recurrent airway obstruction (RAO, also known as heaves), a chronic respiratory disease triggered by the inhalation of dust particles. Not surprisingly, the fresh air of turnout is one of the most effective therapies for heaves. "Unless the horse has pasture-associated heaves, letting him live outdoors 24 hours a day is one of the best things you can do for a heavey horse," says Connally.
• Overall fitness. As a horse ages, he loses muscle mass and strength. This process is exacerbated if he is ridden less frequently and spends more time in a stall. And a lack of fitness isn't just an athletic concern: Eventually, an old horse can become so weak that he has trouble rising after lying down. "We've all seen older horses who have trouble getting up," says Connally. "It's a big problem, and for some horses, a fatal one." A horse kept at pasture will likely be more fit than one confined to a stall and exercised periodically. "Just walking around as part of his daily activities will keep an older horse in better shape than you can with hand-walking."
• Mental and social stimulation. Living at pasture in a friendly herd provides horses the companionship and social interactions they crave. An older horse needs these things as much, if not more, than a younger one. "A horse is never too old to develop vices like stall kicking and weaving from being cooped up in a stall too long," says Connally. "An older horse may not be ridden as much or travel to shows, so he really needs the activity and interaction with other horses that pastures can provide.
Making the Most of It
Helping an older horse reap the benefits of pasture turnout takes a bit more work than simply turning him loose and shutting the gate behind him. It's important to ensure that he will have easy access to appropriate resources in his field. You also need to monitor the social dynamics of his herd and be prepared to make adjustments to protect his safety. "For the most part, the things that matter to an older horse also matter to a young one," says Connally. "So many of the issues are the same. They just may take on more urgency when the horse is older." Keep the following points in mind when evaluating your aging horse's turnout situation:
• Social dynamics. The ideal herd for an older horse is small and active, yet peaceful. Hostile pasturemates can cause an elderly horse to lose weight or even injure himself. "An elderly horse may not be able to move quickly enough to escape a bully," says Connally. Even without outright harassment, an aggressive horse can subtly damage an old horse's well-being by restricting access to hay, grain or shelter.
The best way to determine the social dynamic of your older horse's herd is to simply sit and watch the horses interact for a few hours. Or you can more quickly see who is in charge by observing the horses when feed or hay is set out.
It's natural and important for the herd to have a leader, but if the style of the top horse puts the older horse at risk, you'll want to make changes. "The best idea is to split the herd into two so the bully isn't kept with the older horse," says Connally. "What you don't want to do is punish the older horse by keeping him in."
Keep in mind, however, that an older horse isn't necessarily going to be the lowest man in the pecking order. "It's not at all uncommon to have the oldest horse be the dominant one in the herd," says Connally. "I had a 24-year-old gelding that was 5 or 10 years older than his herdmates. Physically he couldn't beat them, but mentally he had them dominated."
• Footing. Stiffness and a loss of coordination can make it difficult for an older horse to safely and comfortably negotiate slippery, deep or rocky footing. "If you've got a rocky pasture or one that is very steep, and the horse has an orthopedic issue, that might be a problem," says Connally. Of course, it isn't always practical or even possible to change the footing of your pasture. But you can take steps to ensure that your older horses are turned out on the best possible footing available on your property.
If possible, keep a small, level paddock available for your senior horse to use when conditions are too slick in his normal pasture. Or use electric tape fencing to temporarily cordon off the worst areas until conditions improve. You can help an old horse negotiate particularly steep inclines by building low steps---set down railroad ties and fill the spaces between them with gravel. Also, keep a close eye on footing around high-traffic areas such as gates and water troughs. Put down gravel or stone dust to keep mud at bay.
• Shelter. Every pasture-kept horse needs a place---a run-in shed, windbreak or even a thick stand of trees---that provides refuge from the elements. This is even more important for older horses, whose health issues and/or loss of conditioning make them more susceptible to cold.
An ideal shelter is large enough for all horses in the pasture to escape from inclement weather with plenty of room to spare. Remember that geriatric horses may need to compete with the younger horses for a spot in the run-in shed. You'll want to watch to see if a more dominant horse is hogging the area, particularly in nasty weather.
If you decide to blanket your older horse, Connally urges caution: "You can very easily over-blanket an older horse, particularly one with Cushing's," he says. "They grow a thick hair coat and tend to sweat more, which can make them miserable underneath a blanket." Blanket conservatively and regularly check the condition of the horse underneath, particularly in spring and fall when the temperature can fluctuate during the day.
• Water. An older horse living outdoors with a herd may face some challenges in gaining access to water. "An older horse shouldn't have to walk a mile to get to the creek or trough for water," says Connally. "He's just not going to drink as often as he should." In addition to location, consider the ground conditions around a water source: If it is boggy or slippery near the edge, or rocky and steep, an older horse may not attempt to reach the water or could injure himself in the process.
• Feed and hay. Many aging horses have a hard time competing with younger herdmates for food. The oldster may be injured in skirmishes or simply give up, losing weight and growing weaker. To avoid this, you may want to bring the old horse into a small paddock or stall at mealtimes so he can eat in peace. Or put out more feeding stations than there are horses in the field: eight piles of hay for four horses, for instance. If you leave enough space between the piles, there will be less fighting, and once a horse has finished one ration, he can move on to another available pile without disrupting the meals of the other horses.
Considered individually, the benefits of pasture turnout are important enough, but taken together they can make a world of difference in the quality of life for an older horse. "I've seen a bunch of grumpy old horses in my years," says Connally. "They are sore from standing still in stalls and just plain bored. They are miserable in their retirement, and all because they are stuck inside."
Instead, consider turnout---even if your horse requires more care than he did in his younger years. "Older horses do require more management, but it doesn't mean you should lock them in a padded room," says Connally.