Longevity has been a buzzword a these past several years in the realm of human lifespan. There have been many scientific advances in medicine, both preventative and curative, that have extended our lives. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that similar trends have occurred in the equine world. It’s not uncommon to see horses in their late 20s still being ridden, and even animals pushing 40 still grazing happily in their paddocks.
I’ve owned horses all my life but with the exception of my first pony and the family Quarter Horse, most of my horses were sold on to have second or third careers with other people. I did have one beloved dressage gelding who passed away suddenly at 20 after a singular bout of colic. But today, I find myself with my KWPN gelding, Bogart, who is turning 16 this year. He’s what I call “lightly-used” as my full-training and competitive years are behind me by choice. In fact, due to circumstances beyond his control, Bogart has had six months off; nothing to do with injury. And I find myself wondering as warmer weather approaches and I’m able to regularly ride again, how do I get him in shape? Is he considered a senior horse? And what impact does his age have on my exercise regimen?
I spoke with Dr. Kate Robinson from McKee-Pownall, a southern-Ontario based veterinary practice, about how I should approach getting Bogart back in shape so we could compete at lower-level dressage shows this summer.
Horse Canada: What defines a ‘senior’ horse?
Dr. Kate Robinson: There’s actually no exact definition of what a senior horse is. But I think most equine vets consider a horse to be a senior once they are between 18-20 years of age. We need to consider two major factors when defining the horse as a senior; first and foremost is their age, but we also need to look at their overall health status. Like people and other animals, individual horses age at different rates as far as their musculoskeletal health is concerned. Their dental health is also a big one. It’s pretty common for me to look in a horse’s mouth and make a comment such as, “their mouth is significantly older or significantly younger than they are.” We can’t just base it on the number of years that they’ve been on the earth.
HC: I would assume that horses are aging better and living longer due to improvements in how we manage them.
KR: That is a lot of it, and I think advances in science and technology has increased our ability to care for them. But I also think changes in the horse-human relationship has been a factor, where horses have become increasingly viewed as partners, pets, and companions versus decades ago when they were strictly livestock. Even if we did have the means to do a lifesaving colic surgery [back then], an owner might opt not to because it made more financial sense to not do that. But nowadays, I think our relationship with our horses is quite different for a lot of people, so that changes some of those life-or-death medical-type decisions and therefore leads to horses living longer.
HC: Is there a certain breed that live the longest?
KR: Arabians, to me, tend to be a longer-living breed compared to others, and that’s just based on my experience. The oldest patient that I have had was a papered Quarter Horse who was 42 when he passed.
If a horse is still having good amounts of turnout in a large space on varied terrain where they can maintain some of that fitness, it may not take as long to come back as a horse that’s been on stall rest for an injury, for example.
HC: I’ve described the situation with Bogart, and I think many of our readers might be in a similar boat: older horses who have had the winter off but are completely sound, not recovering from an injury, which has a different set of rules. How much does age play in how I, or any horse owner, bring their horses back into work?
KR: I think age plays a factor, but in general a good rule is to plan on at least half of the time that they were off to bring them back to full cardiovascular and muscular skeletal fitness [ i.e. three month’s conditioning after a six-month layoff]. Once our horses get to be around 15 or older, we do need to consider that it might take even a little bit longer ‒ probably more if you’re starting from ground zero. If a horse is still having good amounts of turnout in a large space on varied terrain where they can maintain some of that fitness, it may not take as long to come back as a horse that’s been on stall rest for an injury, for example.
HC: Lungeing is often the first go-to for many riders. It’s a great way to let an energetic horse blow off some steam. But can it be misused or overly used?
KR: I think one of the things to be really mindful of is as great as lungeing is for assessing horses for fitness and soundness, it’s a tool that’s easily overused. Think about it: running around on a small circle is not an easy thing. As much as we don’t think of it as being too demanding, it actually is. It’s asking more of the inside of the body, the back and the hindquarters are having to contribute more. If they’re going properly on that circle, their body is working on a curve the entire time, which is asking more of the nervous system of the spine, etc. It’s more difficult than working on a straight line and it can be harder on joints.
HC: Is there a way to incorporate lungeing when reconditioning that is easier on the joints and muscles?
KR: As I said, I think lungeing is a great tool for assessment, but I think we need to be cautious with using it as a main part of our conditioning program. I would recommend using the entire arena and lunge on long sides and make bigger circles and be moving with your horse rather than sticking to that 15- or 20-meter circle.
HC: How should an owner/rider approach starting their older horse under saddle? What would be a good fitness program?
KR: I might do five minutes of trot for the first couple of sessions to get a gauge of fitness. How willing is the horse to trot forward? Are they stiffer than normal, are they taking longer to warm up than normal? How do they respond as far as their respiratory rate and recovery respiratory rate? I think you can use those few first few lunging sessions to get a gauge of where you are at compared to the last time that you worked with the horse, and then set a program more based on that. I think it’s pretty reasonable to be asking almost any horse not coming back from an injury to do 20-30 minutes of walking under saddle and then adding your trot and canter work on top of that. Maybe you do a week of trot at five minutes, the next week you increase that to 10 minutes, then on third week maybe add on a couple of minutes of canter, and so on.
Next in the Senior Series: Nutrition and the Older Horse
Dr. Kate Robinson, who has taken over as medical lead at the McKee Pownall Equine Services Rehabilitation and Reproduction Facility after joining MPES in October 2020, spent 11 years in academic practice at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. She recently completed her Canadian Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy (Chiropractic) certification course, and when not working on cases at the MPES Rehab Farm, she may be found on the road caring for other patients.