Senior horses are a joy to keep and have plenty to offer. They’re prized for their laid-back attitudes and experience. Of course, old horses also come with a lot of responsibility and special care.
If you are considering purchasing an older horse, you may be asking if it’s worth it. As a responsible horse owner, there are many things you can do to enhance your horse’s longevity.
How long do horses live? The average lifespan of a horse is 20-30 years. Most horses are considered “senior” between ages 18-20. Horses aged between 10-20 are the best horses for beginners.
As senior horses age, they require specific veterinary care, companionship, and exercise, even if they’re retired. Watch for common signs of aging such as grey hairs, reduced activity levels, and increased stiffness. It’s also wise to create a plan to help your horse pass peacefully.
This article will:
- Explore the benefits of fifteen-year-old horses for first-time owners
- Provide practical tips to keep your senior happy, healthy, and engaged
- Investigate signs of aging and death in horses
- Help you plan the most humane, compassionate passing for your horse
Can you ride a horse that’s 30 years old? Older horses can often be ridden if they have good care and regular exercise. Horses that are 20, 25, 30, and older can have easy, gentle rides and will enjoy the exercise. Make sure that your older horse is getting sufficient food and supplements for its needs. Older horses make great pets, companions and easy rides. They are often more patient than younger horses.
5 Reasons Fifteen Years Is the Perfect Age
As a beginner, you may be wary of buying a fifteen-year-old horse. In reality, the best horses for beginners range from 10-20 yrs old. Horses at this age aren’t “old” or senior citizens. They have many rewarding years ahead of them!
- Fifteen is often known as the “golden age” for horses. These horses bridge safety with fun so you can enjoy equine ownership to the fullest.
- Most fifteen-year-old horses (or in that age range) are bombproof. Unlike a young horse, fifteen-year-olds usually don’t spook as quickly, making them far more ideal. They also tend to be less stubborn and more open, receptive, and patient.
- Horses around this age usually have experience and training well enough that they’ll give you an immense advantage in learning to ride.
- In general, you should be able to ride a fifteen-year-old horse safely and comfortably. Many are trained as schoolmasters to teach beginners and children proper techniques.
- They’re also often excellent for light hacking, and some older horses even excel as performance horses.
Younger Horses are Difficult for Inexperienced Owners
Always consult your veterinarian about riding an older horse or senior. For some individual horses, riding is impractical and even dangerous for their health.
For example, our first horse, Indy, developed arthritis at fifteen, likely due to being overworked by previous owners. Continuing to ride him could exacerbate his arthritis and hurt him in the long run, so we retired him.
As a rule, don’t buy a young horse (under seven) if you’re inexperienced with horses. They’re almost always far too green, spirited, and even too dangerous for beginners. Young horses require an experienced handler to provide them with proper training.
|Tip: Buying or rescuing a horse? Have a professional (preferably a vet or farrier) check the horse’s teeth to determine his age. Some horse dealers, sellers, or even rescue organizations may mislead you about a horse’s age to sell more quickly.
Is 20 too old for a horse? At 20 years, your horse still has many years left. Horses are living into their 30s today. A 20 yr old horse has a decade or more of riding and life ahead. Many people prefer to purchase horses that are 15-20 years old because of their gentle temperaments and calm dispositions. You can think of a 20-year-old horse as being about 50 or 51 years old.
10 Crucial Care and Health Needs to Keep Your Senior Horse Engaged
Most horses become senior citizens between 18-20. Maintaining your senior horse’s health is vital to providing the longest and happiest lifespan he can enjoy.
Senior horses are more susceptible to diseases and health issues. A whopping 80% of older horses are estimated to live with Cushing’s Disease (PPID).
Arthritis is prevalent among seniors, although it is fortunately manageable. They are also at higher risk for colic, a leading cause of death in senior horses.
You can combat the likelihood of disease and manage existing conditions with these tips:
1. Schedule Yearly Vet Exams
Your veterinarian should perform examinations on your horse at least annually. Ideally, this should be twice a year. Your vet can identify health problems and nip them before they become serious with regular exams.
Senior horses should also have regular bloodwork to monitor Cushing’s Disease (PPID), Insulin Resistance, and Equine Metabolic Syndrome.
2. Vaccinate Regularly
Senior horses don’t have the robust immune system to fight diseases and illnesses like they used to. It’s crucial to vaccinate your horse from West Nile.
Also, discuss vaccination plans with your veterinarian. Individual horses may react to certain vaccines, so always use caution.
While vaccinations are essential, they aren’t the only way to minimize the risk of exposure to disease and illness. Antioxidant vitamins (especially vitamins E and C), minerals, and supplements help activate your horse’s immune system.
Another simple but effective measure? Quarantine all horses that arrive on your property. Horses frequently contract illnesses while traveling to other barns, clinics, or shows.
3. Plan Annual Dental Exams
As they age, senior horses require more dental care. You need to float their teeth annually. Give your senior horse dental exams twice a year to catch the onset of gum and dental diseases.
4. Deworm Strategically
Their resistance to parasites will gradually begin to dwindle. After performing a fecal egg count, use a deworming strategy to target specific parasites in your area.
Usually, horses need to be dewormed three times per year and tapeworms twice a year.
You can acquire dewormers at your local vet clinic or feed store. In my area, they cost about $15 each. That works out to $45 yearly for one horse, which won’t break the bank.
5. Try Massage Therapy
Equine massage therapy is rising in popularity as an effective treatment for horses. It can improve older horses’ quality of life, particularly if they have arthritis or injuries. It also benefits performance horses by preventing injuries and promoting athletic ability.
How does it work? Massage therapy relieves and soothes painful muscle tissue, tendons, and joints by stimulating a response from the nervous system. It also manipulates specific pressure points to improve circulation, increase energy, and lower heart rate and blood pressure.
We usually have an equine massage therapist visit Indy and Bubbles (our miniature senior horse) yearly. Therapy reduces Indy’s joint stiffness, which makes him more comfortable. It also benefits Bubbles, who was kicked by a larger horse in his past and sustained a permanent injury as a result.
6. Diet and Hydration is Different for Older Horses
Avoid sweet feeds and grains. Specially formulated senior feed will provide for your horse’s dietary requirements of macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Senior feed is also softer and easier to chew.
Soak all feed if your horse has a dental issue that makes chewing challenging. This helps prevent choking.
Soaking alfalfa pellets or beet pulp is also a great way to maintain an older horse’s weight. Locate fine hay that is easier for a senior horse to chew and digest. We also supplement our two senior horses with rice bran.
Your other horses may also bully your senior away from a water trough. We combat this with our miniature horses by installing several water buckets throughout the paddock rather than only one communal trough.
|Tip: As your senior horse’s place changes in the herd, you may decide to feed him separately – especially if your other horses become bullies at feeding time. We feed all of our horses individually in stalls and provide multiple hay sites in the paddock.
7. Hoof Care
Farriers are indispensable. Without proper trimming, horses are more susceptible to injuries and lameness. Longer hooves also stress your horse’s joints, causing arthritis to flare.
Trimming is an easy way to keep your horse mobile, active, and happy. Horses need their hooves trimmed every 4-7 weeks, depending on how active they are and other factors. However, most seniors don’t require shoes unless it benefits their footing in the paddock.
You should also clean hooves with a hoof pick at least weekly.
8. Seasonal Care
Older horses may require blanketing in the winter, depending on your climate. In Nova Scotia, we generally have mild winters, so we’ve never blanketed our horses.
Seniors rely on a shelter to protect them from the elements, even more than young horses do. Trees can provide some measure of protection from rain, wind, sun, and snow. Consider building one or two run-in shelters in your pasture.
In the summer, you can bathe your horse to keep her cooler. Your stable should have excellent ventilation, but you can also consider installing a fan.
9. Companionship Needs of Older Horses
All horses require companionship to maintain optimum health and happiness. Seniors, in particular, will succumb to health issues without it. If you board your horse at a stable, he’s likely receiving this companionship from other horses. But at home, it gets more complicated.
Another horse will provide your senior with the best companionship. Can’t afford a second horse but still have extra space? Consider boarding a horse in your paddock. This gives your horse a buddy and creates a small income stream for you.
Ponies between 12-14 hands are another great option. It’s often relatively easy to find pasture or companion ponies available.
Miniature horses, donkeys, llamas, and goats are other popular options for companions and come with advantages and disadvantages. There are risk and safety factors involved with keeping small animals with horses.
10. Mental and Physical Exercise
Senior horses still require regular light exercise, even (and perhaps especially) into their retired lives. Mental and physical work offers considerable rewards to your older horse’s health. Here are just a few:
- Stimulates the mind, keeping it active
- Improves digestive system
- Maintains flexible, healthy joints
- Strengthens muscles
- Circulates blood properly
- Reduces risk of colic
- Maintains overall body condition and soundness
- Prevents boredom and “problem” behaviors caused by it
- Improves attitude
Even with an hour’s turnout, horses confined in a stall suffer from boredom and increased health risks. But in an outdoor paddock, horses have the option to move freely – on their terms.
Turnout Isn’t Enough for Older Horses
Full-turnout is ideal for incorporating natural activities into your senior’s daily life. These include walking as they graze, playing with other horses, and even running. It’s an easy way to help them thrive.
However, turnout alone won’t fulfill all of your horse’s exercise requirements. Here are a few great activities to maintain an engaged and healthy senior horse:
- Riding (if approved by a vet)
- Walking in hand
- Trick training
- Light or free-lunging
- Basic liberty
Be careful that you don’t over-exert your horse. Allow a few days off for recovery if this does happen. Keep sessions short and sweet at 15-30 minutes daily to avoid overexertion.
You can also employ a rotating riding and exercise schedule for your horse. The goal is to keep them stimulated and refreshed, with an additional day or two off.
For example, you can adapt a sample schedule that includes riding like this one to suit you and your senior horse:
Riding Schedule for Senior Horses
|Groundwork (lunging/liberty/trick training)
If your horse is fully retired, you can create a schedule based on ground exercises. In that case, an ideal schedule can look like this:
Groundwork Schedule for Older Horses
|Walk-in hand, trick training
|Basic stretches, liberty
*Rotating schedules are valuable for horses of any age!
The Lifespan of a Horse
On average, most horses live between 20-30 years. However, some horses have lived into their fifties in exceptional cases. And today, more horses than ever are exceeding their expected lifespan and living into their thirties comfortably.
Every individual horse will mature at a different rate. Some age extremely quickly at eighteen, while other horses remain robust and continue performing at twenty-eight. This is primarily due to the explosion of new veterinary care, workload reductions, and breeds.
Historically, horses existed primarily to fulfill their duties as work or sporthorse. With the exception of Old Billy, overworked horses live shorter lives and develop more health issues.
Today, most of us consider our horse’s needs and limitations. We now know that they require breaks and days off just as much as we do. There are also weight guidelines so that horses can pull and carry riders safely, without risk of injury.
Individual horse breeds also have a different expected lifespan. Some breeds such as Friesians, draft horses, and Warmbloods are shorter-lived. Other compact breeds like Appaloosas, Arabians, Norwegian Fjords, and Icelandics often outlive their expected lifespan.
Pony and miniature horse breeds are also known for their robust longevity. The Falabella, for instance, is noteworthy for living into its forties.
Average Lifespan of Horses by Breed:
|Tennessee Walking Horse
Signs of Age
Aging is a natural, incremental process. Most old horses will take more naps than usual, develop grey hairs, decrease activity levels, lose their place in the herd hierarchy, and generally slow down. These are all typical signs of old age that you don’t typically need to worry about.
However, there are more severe signs you should watch out for:
- Diminished eyesight
- Lordosis (commonly known as swayback)
- Sunken eyes
- Loss of muscle mass and weight
- Increased stiffness
- Decreased mental alertness
- Loss of appetite
- Osteoporosis (bone disease)
- Dental disease
- Loss of energy and motivation
- Lack of coordination
- Diminished resistance to parasites, diseases, and infections
- Difficulty recovering from injuries
Indy is facing vision troubles, the onset of swayback, joint stiffness, grey hairs, and loss of muscle mass.
Another subtle sign of age is that he doesn’t chase foxes out of the paddock anymore. A beautiful, brazen black fox calmly sat a few yards away from Indy inside the fence just the other day. He merely stood in place, unfazed.
Because it’s easy to overlook any incremental differences in a horse you see daily, ask someone else for their opinion. Outsiders can sometimes catch things we miss, simply because they notice a more noticeable change since the last time they saw your horse.
Check out ways to help your horse gain weight here.
When It’s Time to Let Go Of An Older Horse
The most challenging part of horse ownership is death. It’s a fear most of us have – that our horse won’t be around one day. It’s natural to worry about questions such as:
- How long will I have with my horse?
- When will I know I need to intervene with euthanasia?
- Will I make the right decisions?
Even though it’s normal to think about it, try not to be so anxious you forget to enjoy your horse. Give him the best quality of life you can, and continue spending time with him.
Signs of a Dying Horse
How do you know your senior horse is dying? In most cases, you’ll be able to tell your horse is dying. Signs of age (outlined above) will become more prominent in your horse’s daily life.
Signs of death mainly include extreme lethargy, weight loss, and refusal to eat even favorite foods and treats.<span style=”font-weight: 400;”> Many old horses will find a secluded, quiet area in the paddock or barn.
Call your vet immediately if your horse can’t stand up, has extreme difficulty breathing, or is too lame to move. Do not prolong pain or suffering.
Creating a death plan for your horse sounds morbid, but it can provide some measure of comfort. A plan will help your horse pass on as easily and peacefully as possible. Your vet can help you make informed decisions.
Planning this ahead of time is incredibly difficult and painful. But ultimately, it’s in your horse’s best interest to make a plan. You don’t want to make last-minute decisions and calls when your horse is in distress.
Reflect on questions like these:
- Will you euthanize him humanely or let him die naturally of old age?
- At what point will you decide to euthanize, if that’s your choice?
- Will the vet travel to your farm, or will you transport your horse to a clinic?
- Will you be present for euthanasia? It can often be a very difficult process to watch. Your vet can advise you and help you manage expectations for this time.
- Will you bury, cremate, or render your horse?
- If you’re burying, where will the burial be? On your property or at a pet cemetery?
The Choice I Have To Plan For
We plan to have a vet come to our farm to euthanize Indy when it becomes clear that he’ll suffer if he lives on. He’ll be buried beside his beloved willow tree.
You should tailor your plan to your horse and external circumstances. For example, burial probably won’t be possible in the middle of a frozen, harsh winter. In that case, it’s wise to have cremation as a backup plan.
I’ve heard criticism of horse owners for euthanizing instead of allowing natural death to occur. Horses will eventually die of old age on their own, but the process is usually far more excruciating.
Euthanasia is Greek for “a good death.” You don’t need to feel ashamed for considering euthanizing a dying horse. Its purpose is to provide a peaceful, comfortable death and to end pain, misery, or suffering. Most veterinarians will affirm your decision to euthanize an old horse.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are senior horses used for? Beginners and children often ride healthy senior horses so they learn proper technique. Older horses are also commonly used as general pleasure horses, and some seniors enjoy driving and pulling carts. Both senior and retired horses are excellent for liberty work and companionship.
How can I tell the age of my horse without papers? The most accurate way to determine your horse’s approximate age is by examining his teeth. Your veterinarian or farrier can give you the most reliable professional opinion. Remember that you’ll probably receive an age range (20-23), not an exact age (22).
When should I retire my horse from riding? You need to consider retirement if riding becomes uncomfortable for your horse. If your horse appears to be in pain while riding, you should dismount immediately. Check your horse over for any obvious sources of pain or discomfort. Your vet or trainer will give you the most reliable opinion on when to retire. Be sure to follow his or her advice.
Can horses become senile? Horses don’t get senile or dementia. They do face other health problems as they age. Older horses will often face eating issues from worn teeth, loss of hearing or eyesight, and more prone to Cushing’s disease. Cushing’s can sometimes give symptoms that appear to be senility in a horse.
How does age affect a horse’s behavior? Older horses are often less aggressive and energetic. They usually have more patience and are calmer. Younger horses are higher energy and will often be dominant within a herd. As a result, younger horses can bully older horses. Older horses are fantastic for less-experienced riders because they are dependable, and often, less skittish.
Senior horses have many wonderful, fulfilling years ahead of them. They’re truly gems in the horse world and they have much to offer to any owner, from beginners to seasoned equestrians. Help your horse thrive by applying the tips in this article.
Also, be sure to have a gander around Best Farm Animals for more practical information on caring for your horses and other animals.
My Favorite Equine Resources For Horses and Donkeys
This list contains affiliate products. Affiliate products do not cost more but helps to support BestFarmAnimals and our goal to provide farm animal owners with accurate and helpful information.
Squeaky Chicken Toy is hilarious to watch and the horses love it! It’s not super tough so keep it away from dogs.
Manna Pro Apple Flavored Nuggets are a delicious smelling treat that my horses go crazy over.
Equinity Amino Acid Supplement for Horses makes a big difference for any horse that’s struggling with arthritis, hoof issues, or just generally. It’s great for older horses who can’t absorb all the nutrients in their food as well!
Manna Pro Weight Accelerator helps older horses gain weight and stay healthier! This was especially helpful when one of my older horses lost weight over the winter and helped her regain her weight over the summer!
Farnam Fly Control goes on the horse or donkey and will keep the flies off your sweet pet. It makes horses way more comfortable and will keep sores from getting infected as well.
Wound Kote protects sores and wounds. It acts as an antiseptic and helps wounds heal faster. It works on both my horses and goats.