I read today that Kibah Tic Toc (pictured), double eventing gold medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics has been put to sleep, aged 37. That struck me as a ripe old age for such an athlete, although he was retired at age 18 following a tendon injury.
The average age for a domesticated horse is anywhere from 18 to 22 years, although some live much longer. Wild horses, despite being left to their own devices, generally have a longer lifespan. Clearly we can’t change our horses’ genes or luck, but we can control their lifestyles. Here are a few ways in which you can help your horse to live a happy, healthy and hopefully long life.
If a horse’s teeth are not routinely checked and attended to, he may experience problems eating and chewing. This can lead to weight loss and even colic. Sharp, unevenly worn teeth are not only painful for the horse but can lead to a greater risk of choke because he cannot masticate properly. A large, partially chewed bolus of hay for example can easily cause choking.
Have your horse’s teeth checked by a qualified equine dentist or veterinary surgeon at least once a year, preferably more frequently in older horses. If your horse begins quidding (dropping food) or starts to lose condition, have his teeth checked immediately.
One of the reasons that horses are living longer than ever before is that we have such effective parasite control products available these days. A good worming regime is essential right from early age if the horse is to remain in good health. Irreversible damage from parasites is cumulative and if left unchecked, scarring can occur to the gastrointestinal tract which may lead to bouts of colic.
A worm burden can silently tax an aging horse’s system, compromising immunological and nutritional resources. No matter how well cared-for your grazing land is, it’s advisable to have a worm count carried out by your vet at least every six months to make sure that your elderly equine is not carrying unwanted and harmful passengers around in his gut.
Malnutrition is surprisingly common these days. People leave their horses to fend for themselves, sometimes in fields which have been overgrazed and poached so that little or no forage of nutritional value is left. Supplement your older horse’s food with vitamins and minerals to help support his immune system and keep him healthy.
Your horse’s nutritional maintenance requirements will vary depending upon his age, workload and breed. As horses age their digestive system finds it more difficult to break down fibre and becomes less efficient at absorbing some nutrients and proteins. Luckily, there are plenty of special ‘senior’ mixes available on the market that are specially formulated to support the metabolic requirements of the aging equine. If you are unsure what to use, just ask your vet for advice or call one of the free advice lines sponsored by most major feed companies.
Turnout as much as possible
Horses are not designed to be cooped up in stables 24/7. Simply turning your horse out for as long as possible every day will improve his health and mental wellbeing in many ways. Older horses benefit from maximum time outside as roaming around keeps their muscles toned and their joints moving freely.
Respiratory health will also benefit from all that fresh air and helps prevent the development of ‘heaves’ in older horses. Turn out encourages natural grazing patterns which reduces the risk of colic. If you’re worried that your older horse will be cold if he’s out in all weathers, rug him up well and provide a field shelter with a nice, deep bed. Supplement his forage with hay or haylage during the winter months and provide fresh water and a salt or mineral lick.
If your horse is turned out with a herd and you are afraid that he will be bullied by younger, stronger animals, keep a watching brief and if necessary, remove the aggressors or put the older chap in a field away from the crowd with just one or two quiet companions.
It’s important to have your elderly horse checked regularly by your vet as part of his care routine. Don’t just ask for help when something’s wrong. A routine examination could highlight a problem in the making that you weren’t aware of and early treatment could stop something trivial becoming something major. Prevention is better than cure!
My retired dressage horse is 22 years old this spring and is still going strong as a hack. I know of several horses at our local riding school who are well into their twenties. They are ridden every day for several hours and are happy, healthy and very fit.
Give your older horse a little extra TLC and there’s no reason why he can’t live to be a ripe old age.
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