I’ve known of horses that are ridden well past the age of thirty. One in particular comes to mind. His name was Chief and it was tradition for him and his owner to carry the flag in the local Memorial Day Parade. Everyone would clap and cheer. He was so proud. He had a good life and basically never wanted for anything. He was never sick, never cranky. He was happy as can be and simply laid down one night and passed in his sleep. For horses, and humans as well for that matter, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
But what about the horse who doesn’t age so gracefully? The one that requires a special diet, the one that can’t be ridden anymore for any number of reasons; an injury, a hoof condition, Cushing’s, frail, too thin, too heavy, blind, no energy…the one that needs daily medication.
First and foremost with respect to a horse aging is their appetite and attitude. They need to be eating well and in at least a relatively eager manner. Second, are they happy? We all know of elderly people who are as cranky as can be. By the same token we know of many others who in spite of their day to day challenges to just get up and move about, that still remain happy to be alive. They accept their every day challenges with pleasure in mind.
Horses don’t know what the next day will bring. They don’t know that eventually they will cease to exist. If a horse is feeling low, it’s not because they fear the end. It’s because of something they are dealing with at the moment.
As horses age, just like humans, their appearance goes through changes. They get a little white around the muzzle, the concave areas above their eyes sink deeper, their back ends fall off a little. Their teeth wear down, some lose their teeth. They lose overall body muscle tone, experience hormonal changes, and become more acutely aware of “their space.” Don’t mistake a frail older horse’s pinning his or her ears when bumped by a pasture mate as crankiness. It’s a self-surviving mechanism innate to animals. They are vulnerable at this stage of their lives and they know it. Gone are their days of roughhousing. The best they can do in their defense is to act tough. Choose their pasture mates carefully.
Horses of advanced age that are on grain need a balanced senior formula. They do not do well with too much protein; they do not do well with too little. They will not do well on either coarse or primarily chaffy hay. Dust is not any horse’s friend, but even more of a health hazard to the older horse. They usually do well on grass, but not an overabundance or grass that is too rich. You will also need to watch as they graze for signs of chewing difficulties.
An older horse may need to be encouraged to drink, so keep fresh water in front of them at all times. Don’t sweeten the water or add electrolytes unless advised by your veterinarian. Spare the older horse too many treats. Watch for signs of decline and react accordingly. Try not to think as a human when weighing your options of “time” and what’s best for the equine animal. Don’t ask, “What would I want?” Ask what your horse would want?
If they seem happy, albeit somewhat frail, if they have relatively little trouble getting up and down, and are still able to enjoy a nice rest, a nice day. If they still have a good appetite, even if you do have to get a little creative to keep them from becoming bored with their food. If they still enjoy your company and/or the company of other horses. If they still have “good plumbing” and are experiencing life, let them live on. Brush them with some soft brushes; make sure they have soft bedding. If possible remove their shoes and let them go barefoot. Be sensitive to their needs and cater to them. Give them lots of hugs, lots of attention and affection. Enjoy each and every day the two of you have together.