Although ageing is a very individual matter, as it is in people, there are some things that you can look out for.
Your horse won't be able to do as much work, or work as well, as when he was younger, because his energy production is reduced. However, it's better for older horses to have easy work regularly - say five or six days out of every seven, rather than irregular work. Gentle hacks will help him physically and keep him mentally stimulated.
- It's important that your old horse still feels wanted - so if possible continue to ride him and do spend time with him, grooming and making him feel he is still important. Leaving an old horse out at grass, especially in weather he finds difficult to cope with, is not being kind to him.
- As he ages, your horse's immune system becomes less efficient. This also means that if he is an allergy sufferer his immune system will be less able to cope with his allergies.
- He may be stiffer and less agile and could develop arthritis eg in the feet, back and legs
- Wear and tear on joints causes damaged joint cartilage, which will ultimately affect his ability and willingness to work.
- Old injuries can bring about a change in his action.
- You may notice that your horse's back has dropped. Look at his belly and fetlocks as well - these may also start to drop due to weakening tissues.
- He'll lose muscle tone more easily.
- When your horse has his annual jab, ask your vet to check the horse over thoroughly - bearing in mind the issues raised in the six points above. Your vet should also check your horse's eyes and heart.
- Some older horses will lose bodyweight and it is natural for appetite to reduce. Some horses, with particular clinical problems, may eat or drink more yet are still not able to maintain their bodyweight.
- You may notice grey hairs appearing on the face and the hollows above his eyes will deepen.
- The horse's teeth have been changing all his life - as he gets older the incisors, or front teeth, are more sloping (when viewed from the side) and look much longer. The molars (back teeth) can become badly worn down - if your horse has trouble chewing hay and other fibrous food you'll need to look at feeds that can be soaked. Remember to have regular visits from the equine dentist and always be aware of how your horse eats his hay and short feed so you can quickly pick up on any problems.
- Your horse may suffer from Cushing's Disease which can also bring laminitic problems.
- As horses get older they find it more difficult to cope with extremes of weather eg. wind and cold, hot sun etc. So consider your horse's lifestyle and changes you need to make to give him the best possible care. Use fly sheets in summer and have different weights of rugs for autumn and winter wear. Take note of the weather so you can take action in advance of a problem - for instance, your older horse will not appreciate getting soaked nor will he enjoy being out in very windy weather.
- All horses like routine and as they get older, horses tend to be reassured by a reliable routine.
- It's sensible to monitor any horse's temperature, pulse and respiration rates regularly but it's particularly important to do this with an older horse - get into the habit of making these checks weekly. You should also check his weight and consider his condition at the same time.
- Make yourself a chart on which to record your horse's vital signs and fill this in immediately you have taken his pulse etc. Leave this in a prominent place in your tack room so you are reminded to make the checks weekly.
- Remember that your old horse has served you well and it is vital you continue to give him a high level of care.
- The quality of life is important - it is hard saying goodbye to a much-loved horse but it is essential that you always do the best for your horse. Remember - the best for your horse not for you. Sadly, some people think so much about themselves that they do allow their horses to suffer needlessly. Think in advance about your options when it is time to end your horse's life - so you have a logical plan and are as comfortable as you can be with what needs to be done. Read more horse care articles click here