Not so long ago, a 15-year-old horse was considered "aged" and a horse in its 20s was a curiosity. But horses, like humans, are now living longer. And not only are they living longer, but they are remaining athletic and functional well into their 30s and beyond.
There is proof of a pony stallion that was 54 when he died in Central France in 1919 and of a draft horse named "Monty" that died in New South Wales, Australia, at the age of 52. These and other exceptional horses are still uncommon, but it is not unusual to see many show horses in their late teens and 20s.
"For The Moment," a thoroughbred gelding, competed in the 1988 Olympics and returned to show jumping competition at the 1992 Olympic Games at the age of 20. "Custom Made," David O'Connor's 15-year-old Irish Sport Horse, won gold at the 2000 Olympic Three-Day Competition in Sydney.
Is it that time stands still for these "special" old-timers, or is there something else going on here? It is currently estimated that 10 percent of the U.S. horse population is 20 years of age or older. That number, like the number of baby-boomers now reaching their older years, is expected to increase.
There are many reasons for this increased life span and extended years of usefulness in today's horses. New knowledge and information in nutrition and feeding practices have helped. Improved veterinary and farrier care and advances in exercise physiology and conditioning have helped, as well.
It has become economically realistic for owners to prolong the useful life of their horses. Many of today's horses are well trained, have been worked with for years, and their owners are reluctant to retire these athletes. Finding a replacement for a long-time equine friend and co-competitor is difficult and there is an increased personal attachment that may not have existed to this degree in prior times.
Today, more horses are our friends and companions rather than just "beasts of burden." When these animals become older they are likely to receive the care and attention they need. Older Americans have become used to quality care in their later years and they are now demanding that same level of care for older horses.
Geriatric care for horses centers on good nutrition, good dental care and the care and maintenance of aging joints. These are the three areas in which aging changes seem to most drastically affect horses. Horses require a better diet as they age. Because they cannot digest and absorb as they once did, geriatric horses need quality sources of highly digestible protein. Because kidney function is sometimes impaired in older horses, this protein level cannot be too high and the horse's body must not overwork in the process of absorption and elimination of excess or non-digestible protein. Older horses also have a need for higher levels of vitamins and minerals. Many feed companies are adding probiotics to their geriatric feeds as well, in attempts to help aging horses with digestion.
Many geriatric horses cannot effectively chew hay or pasture grasses and must be given a dietary source of fiber. Alfalfa pellets, cubes, beet pulp and newer chaff products have greatly helped in this area. Owners are more informed and more willing to use gruels and mashes for their older horses.
These fiber alternatives are becoming more and more necessary because more and more horses are outliving their teeth. "What has happened," says David Foster, V.M.D., an equine dental practitioner in N.J., "is that you have an aging population that has a dental system that's not designed to go that far." Dental care becomes very important in older horses and many veterinarians recommend twice-yearly dental exams to catch and correct problems early. This recent emphasis on dental care and advancements in dental equipment have been a big factor in helping horses live better and longer.
Many older horses have problems with arthritis, which may cause a chain reaction. Arthritis can limit their movements at pasture, which can reduce their ability to eat enough food, which lessens their physical condition and weakens the immune system, which makes them prone to infection and disease, which can shorten their lives. The last decade has seen tremendous advancement in the products available to help protect the joints of horses. The increased use of these "chondro-protective" agents such as glycosamine, chondroitin and hyaluronic acid is another major reason why horses are living longer. Keeping older horses sound and maintaining their ability to exercise keeps them fit and yields substantial benefits to almost every physical system in their bodies. Undoubtedly, this provides psychological benefits as well, since these horses can be better herd mates and can still enjoy interaction with their owners.
It truly is a good time to be a horse. And, with newer research and better care options being developed daily, we will continue to see a trend toward older horses. They are not just living longer, though. It seems they are really healthier, as well.
Ken Marcella, D.V.M., is based at the Chattahoochee Equine Center in Canton, Ga.
Needs of the older horse:
• Adequate shelter from weather
• Regular deworming every 60 days
• Regular vaccinations
• Supply of fresh, clean water
• Access to hay
• Freedom from stress
• Annual health exam by veterinarian
• Regular hoof trimming and care
• Daily examination and love