Caring for your elderly horse or pony will require a little more attention on your part but mostly it is a case of being alert for signs that a change in care is needed. Different breeds mature at different rates and have different longevity averages. Thoroughbred yearlings look adult and are racing by the age of two – which doesn't mean it is a good thing!

Some breeds such as warmbloods are very slow to mature. Entry into endurance and eventing may be restricted until the horse has reached an age at which he is deemed to be ready for such stressful pursuits. A horse's natural speed peaks between two and six years of age; his strength is greatest between four and ten and his endurance between eight and fifteen.

Credit: Vince Evans

While older horses should have a peaceful retirement, a little light exercise now and again won't hurt!

At five, cellular reproduction maintains a slight lead over degeneration. He runs like a well-oiled machine. Food, water and oxygen are all utilised most efficiently. Hormone production is at a high with stallions most likely to impregnate mares and mares best able to carry a foetus to term.

By the time a horse is fifteen, he is entering a transition period between youth and impending old age. If he has been worked hard as a young horse, excessive force may lead to degeneration of the joints and cartilage. Joint capsules and bone coverings thicken. By middle age, there may be swollen or enlarged joints together with some evidence of arthritis.

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Haphazard or inadequate worming over the horse's lifetime can leave the older horse susceptible to attacks of colic. Initial cellular destruction of the gastrointestinal system may mean he makes less efficient use of the feed he eats. Old, grey horses become more susceptible to malignant melanomas.

By the age of twenty, he has reached the equivalent of man's 'three score years and ten'. His attitude usually mellows. If he is still the herd boss, he will rule with a more subdued supremacy. He may spend more time away from the hustle and bustle, spending his time quietly on his own. Less interest is shown in things that might have once elicited his attention.

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The face will become hollowed as the roots of the teeth move downward or fall out altogether. Infection at the roots may cause swelling on the side of the jawbone. Breakdown of elastin and atrophy of postorbital fat around the eye socket results in loose lips, sunken eyes and floppy ears. The tear glands may be over-productive resulting in runny eyes.

Stretched ligaments and bones succumb to gravity and his back will begin to sag. A pot-belly may develop as the abdomen begins to sag.  Hormonal changes mean the older horse may retain his winter coat longer than his younger paddock mates. Bad teeth and ulcerated gums may make chewing painful. A decrease in saliva may make him more prone to choking as he eats. Hormonal dysfunction can lead to Cushing's syndrome or Addison's disease.

Horse Dentistry
Credit: Wikimedia

Keeping your horse's teeth in good shape will help him utilise his food more effeciently.

Keeping your young horse youthful

Nothing will stop your horse ageing but implementing some factors will stop him growing old before his time. Keep him on a sound feeding program. Don't overfeed. No good will come of it. In later years it will cause digestive problems, possible cardiovascular failure and skeletal weakness. Excess protein, in particular, adversely affects the kidneys.

  • Keep vaccinations and worming schedules up to date. Infections and worm infestations have a cumulative effect over a lifetime.
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  • Don't overwork a young horse. Build up the intensity of work slowly. Give young ligaments, bones and tendons a chance to strengthen to their maximum.
  • Keep your horse fit. Strenuous weekend activity then idleness for five days will predispose a horse to injury and breakdown.
  • Treat injuries promptly. Young horses heal quickly if given the chance.
  • As the horse becomes less able to perform well at his particular discipline, choose an alternative that makes the most of his accumulated wisdom and knowledge.
  • Don't leave it too late if you want to breed from your horse.
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Caring for the older horse

  • Watch his condition. Poor teeth and decreased absorption in the stomach results in an inability to utilise the conventional feeds. Consider a gradual change to pellets which are easier to digest. For horses with few teeth, the pellets can be mixed with water to form a paste. Herbal remedies may also assist in keeping the metabolism on track.
  • While he might like a quiet hack along country lanes, don't let him be pestered by hordes of children or young horses.  Give him some peace and quiet in his old age. He may lose his place in the pecking order of his companions and may need to be fed separately.
  • He will need protection from the elements.  He will be less able to keep himself warm in winter and may need extra rugging. His metabolism will change as he ages. By knowing his normal pattern, you should be able to quickly pick up if he is starting to lose weight. It can be difficult to put condition back on an old horse.
  • Keep up a worming and vaccination programs. Keep his feet trimmed. Have his teeth checked regularly and filed if necessary. This will remove sharp edges and help prevent ulceration. Years of grinding food creates sharp edges on the teeth. Signs that his teeth need attention will include reluctance to eat, being slow to eat and 'quidding' or dropping bits of food as he eats.
  • Regular grooming will improve his circulation and help get rid of his coat. You will also pick up quickly on any injuries or abnormalities.
  • Examine his eyes regularly for signs of cataracts. Take his pulse every few weeks to detect deviations in his heart rate. Address any problems immediately.
  • Give him medication in moderation if it keeps him more comfortable and free of aches and pains. If his quality of life becomes too low, do the right thing and give him a merciful release.

A competition horse used to lots of attention and company may feel very 'lost' if suddenly pensioned off in a paddock on his own. Some can continue to perform useful duties as a 'school-master' and be kept in light work. This will give him physical and mental stimulation.

Continue to visit him regularly if he is out on his own. Take him an apple and brighten his day with your company. It is the least you can do for an old companion.