WHEN IS OLD TOO OLD?

WHEN IS OLD, TOO OLD?

I am often asked, “Is my horse too old to ride anymore?” The decision to continue to ride an old horse can become quite a quandary for an owner as they do not want to be doing the wrong thing by the horse, but also don’t want to retire the animal if it can still be ridden.

Like people, horses age and cope with ageing at different rates. The type of work they do now, how hard they have been worked in the past, previous injuries and the individual constitution of the horse will all play a role in how well a horse can continue to function in the later years of its life. The key to knowing when the horse should be retired is in the art of understanding your horse.

A geriatric horse was once described as one that was over 16 years of age. Now, as the equine population lives longer due to better husbandry and advancements in veterinary care, over 20 years of age is a more realistic guide to calling a horse geriatric. Some horse breeds have a life expectancy in the mid-20s whilst other breeds, particularly ponies, can live well into their 40s, meaning a 20-year-old pony is still relatively young and will not become a geriatric until much later in life.

A horse that has been relatively consistently exercised throughout its life is a better candidate for riding throughout the twilight years than a horse that has sat dormant in a paddock for several years. Research has shown that those horses that have done a lot of exercising in their early years (from weanling stage through into adulthood) are much better at maintaining an athletic usefulness than horses that are not.

As horses age, changes in the body occur, making them less able to deal with the same conditions and demands on their bodies as their younger counterparts. Simple husbandry requirements such as feeding (nutrition), dentistry and protection from the weather all become increasingly important when caring for the geriatric horse. In this discussion, we will concentrate more on the horse’s ability or inability to continue being worked as its ages, leaving the other aspects of geriatric care for a different article.

“The key to knowing…
is in the art of understanding
your horse.”

If we ignore the logical reasons why a horse cannot be ridden, such as illness, accidents or permanent disabilities, then the limiting factors that restrict the use of an aged horse are musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, optical and metabolic. The most common reason for the inability to continue being ridden or performing is usually musculoskeletal and is manifested as lameness. As the body ages, the ability of the cells to regenerate and recuperate diminish. From mid to late teens, the collagen in tendons and muscles weakens and deteriorates, making injury to the tendons and ligaments in the legs more likely and repair of these injuries less successful. This means old horses doing similar exercises to much younger horses are more likely to suffer from a soft tissue injury and are less likely for this injury to repair itself in a timely manner.

Many horses as they age begin to show signs of their fetlocks sinking as a result of one of the supporting apparatuses of the joint, the suspensory ligament, weakening and slowly breaking down. Soft tissue degeneration may also manifest as a sway back due to the loss of strength in the back muscles and support of the abdomen. Similarly, the density of bone starts to decrease in the mid-teens, making damage to the bone more likely. Cartilage also loses its ability to maintain flexibility and withstand the rigors of daily exercise as ageing occurs. These changes often contribute to degenerative joint disease (DJD) or arthritis. 

Whilst not all horses will end up with DJD, it would be the most common reason why horses are retired from riding. But having arthritis doesn’t mean the horse is useless as there are various ways a horse can be managed to help them cope with joint disease. By doing simple things such as giving your horse a good warm-up or a long walk before asking them to trot or canter will help many of them deal with work/riding much easier. By warming up the muscles and slowly stretching the joint capsules, they won’t be as stiff or as prone to injury as those that are jumped on and ridden out hard initially. Doing leg stretches can also help in limbering up and reducing soft tissue injuries. It is also better for old horses to be given access to paddocks for long periods of time and not left in yards or boxes for extended periods. Constantly walking helps prevent them from stiffening up. Doing a small amount of work on a constant basis is better than doing nothing for several weeks and then jumping on and being ridden for an extended period of time. 

Extra attention needs to be given to hoof care, making sure the foot is well maintained and attended to on a regular basis as any hoof issues can cause secondary issues further up the leg which can then exacerbate any arthritic conditions the horse may have.

There are a multitude of medications and nutraceuticals available that are said to improve joint function, and these can play an important role in maintaining your old horse and helping it retain good joint movement. Polysulphated glucosamines such as pentosan, cartrophen and arthropen are usually given as an intramuscular injection once weekly for four weeks initially and then as a monthly injection. It is also possible to continue giving these weekly or fortnightly if they are working their horses more intensely. There are many oral supplements which are marketed for improving joint health such as

Harley is a 25-year-old currently being managed for ringbone, and is still in light work.

epiitalis, chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine and MSM. These are fed daily with many owners describing an improvement in their horses’ movement once they commence treatment. Oral hyaluronic acid can also be given daily to maintain joint function. An injectable form of hyaluronic acid can also be used, but is given once a week or less frequently.

Medicating arthritic joints with anti-inflammatory medication such as cortisone and hyaluronic acid is another option for horses with low-grade lameness when used sensibly. This can be performed outside prescribed time frames that allow the horse to compete without fear of returning a positive swab.

Horses with tendon and ligament pathologies, such as tendonitis or dropped fetlocks from strained suspensory ligaments, should not be ridden as exercise can cause further tearing of these structures and result in further injury to the horse.

As horses age there are several heart ailments that may force it into retirement. Like any part of the body, the heart can acquire diseases later in life that will limit or put an end to any form of exercise.  The most common of these would be valvular disease, where the valves in the heart that stop the blood from flowing backward start to fail for various reasons. These changes are usually picked up initially as heart murmurs, but if the disease progresses, they may present as an exercise intolerance or cardiac failure. For this reason, if you are riding a geriatric horse, it is important to have your horse checked annually by a veterinarian who will use a stethoscope to assess heart function, so that any abnormalities can be identified early.

Identifying a murmur does not necessarily mean the horse is unable to be ridden, but it should alert the owner to a potential problem that may need further investigation, usually via an electrocardiogram (ECG) or heart ultrasonography. Unfortunately, once these conditions manifest into clinical signs of dyspnoea (difficulty in breathing), slow recovery or increased jugular pulses, there is little treatment available and exercise should be discontinued. 

Forum is a 29-year-old stallion at P.S.I who is still in light work with Bianca Kasselmann and still going strong! © Roger Fitzhardinge

There are two common ailments seen in ageing horses that can affect eyesight and, as an extension of this, impact the ability of a horse to be ridden. Cataracts can form in the eye’s lens of old horses, causing a blue colouration of the eye and limiting vision. Depending on the severity of the cataract, riding can be affected and jumping should be restricted due to the potential for horses to misjudge distance and heights. Retinopathy is a degenerative condition associated with the back part of the eye resulting in a slow loss of sight, which is not always recognised by the owner. These horses are often suitable to be ridden in familiar surroundings by an astute rider. However, if the horse starts exhibiting changes in behaviour such as shying at objects, hitting or stumbling over objects that it would not previously have done, it is recommended that the horse be checked by a veterinarian, and in many cases, checked by a specialist veterinary ophthalmologist to ascertain how much vision is still present.

Metabolic diseases such as Pars Pituitary Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) can restrict the use of geriatric horses, particularly when they show evidence of laminitis. Whilst treatment with pergolide has now improved the quality of life of many of these horses, allowing them to be ridden for a greater period of their lives, many will still have reduced use as a riding horse compared to their non-PPID counterparts. Some will grow a long hair coat that will reduce their ability to cope with the heat generated when ridden and cause exercise intolerance, even when clipped, limiting their ability to continue to be worked.

In all of the above situations, the owner, with the help of their vet, should assess the individual horse and decide what is best for the horse.

Age alone should not prevent a horse being ridden as long as the horse is relatively fit and healthy, and the exercise is modified to the ability of the horse. Most horses enjoy the attention of their owner during these times, and if the owner stays in touch with the responses of the horse to its workload, there is no reason to retire a horse just because it is old. EQ

“Age alone should
not prevent a horse
being ridden.”

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