Many people wonder what workload an older horse can maintain. Can it be ridden the way it always has been, should you give it a less-rigorous workload, or should an older horse be ridden at all? Chances are unless your horse is very frail and elderly, your horse will benefit from light work regularly.
Exercise With Your Senior Horse
Regular light exercise will help your horse maintain its health. Your horse might not be as agile, nor as supple, as in its younger days, so keep this in mind. A horse that has worked all of its life, however, may not benefit from becoming a complete pasture potato either.
Sliding stops, all-day trail ride/drives or jumping may have to go by the wayside, but regular light riding may be beneficial. Just as with human seniors, exercise can help keep its muscles strong and its joints flexible. The activity even benefits its digestive system, as a bit of light exercise can help keep gut motility going.
Many people are only able to ride our horses on the weekends, but your senior horse would probably be better off ridden lightly a few times a week, rather than just one long, hard ride on Sunday afternoon. It may be time for a performance horse to become a kid’s horse that carries a lighter load a few times a week.
Perhaps an older rider that just wants a quiet hack is a good match for a horse nearing retirement. Of course, some horses don’t know they are older and act like silly 2-year-olds. So, the type of semi-retirement suitable for any given horse has to be based on its capabilities. Most often, light work is good for both the horse’s body and mind.
If you do work your older horse a bit longer or harder than you expected to, remember that it may take a bit longer to recover. Its muscles don’t recover from fatigue as quickly as they once did. If your horse has arthritis in any of its joints, hard work can make it more uncomfortable. Plan on giving your horse a few days off after a long or hard ride.
Medication for Your Senior Horse
It is possible to give your horse pain relievers if aching joints are a problem, but talk to your veterinarian about this and carefully consider the possible side effects of giving drugs. Some drugs like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be hard on a horse’s stomach, causing equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS). Just because your horse doesn't show pain once on the medication doesn't mean it's OK to put it back into full service.
Painkillers don't heal older horses, they just mask the pain they may feel. It’s important to remember there are side effects to most medications, even ones deemed natural. There are many natural preparations formulated for seniors, but be sure to do all of your research before adding "a little something" to your horse’s diet.
If your horse becomes arthritic or otherwise unsound, it may be time for full retirement. Of course, just because your horse doesn’t work anymore doesn’t mean you can skimp on care. The best exercise at this point is a nice pasture with good grass or hay, easily digestible concentrates, and forgiving footing. A large area, where it must walk around to get its water, food, and shelter is ideal, as this gives it gentle exercise it can do on its own. Continue to provide all the best basic care and give your retired horse the golden years it deserves.
Mature, Senior & Geriatric Horses: Their Management, Care and Use. Texas A&M University, 2020
Caring for your senior horse. University of Minnesota Extension, 2020