Written by: Marcia King, Green Grass Syndicated Features

Older horses thrive when given a job to do – such as taking care of weanlings and yearlings.

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Pam Mackenzie photo

As your horse moves through his senior years, he’ll likely need changes in his environment and routines to keep him happy and healthy. Karin D. Bump, MS, PAS, professor of equine studies at Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, N.Y., offers the following advice:

Introduce new routines and activities slowly. Sometimes horse owners feel that turning a horse out to pasture after a long life in the show ring is the best way to thank them. For some horses, however, this might not be the best approach. Horses become accustomed to their surroundings and their routines; a dramatic change can be a hard adjustment for an older horse. Introduce new routines and activities slowly, judging how he is responding with each change.

Provide more bedding for sore joints. Extra bedding can be very helpful for the older horse, particularly in cold climates, but watch to see if the extra bedding makes it harder for him to get up and down or to move around.

Turnout. The older horse is more likely to drop down in the pecking order status in the herd. This is especially important if his feed intake is reduced because other horses are keeping him away from the hay and/or grain.
But unless you see pecking order aggression, don’t automatically remove the senior horse from the younger horses. A personal example: We had one old gelding who was the best baby-sitter for the newly weaned colts and the two-year-olds in training; when weaning and training time rolled around, he was happiest.

Provide appropriate exercise. Although older horses usually become more limited in what they can do, exercise is still very important. Keep an eye on your horse’s condition and soundness, and change his routine as necessary. Go for quiet hacks or ride in the arena with lots of walking and light jogging/trotting, in addition to the exercise he gets during turnout. For a show horse that’s accustomed to the showing lifestyle, riding him regularly can keep him feeling like he has a job to do.

Pay attention to the weather. In cold weather, the older horse should either be allowed to grow a thick winter coat or have blankets on if he’s been clipped. Horses stay healthier when the barn temperature is not dramatically warmer than the outside temperature, as it’s hard on a horse to go from hot temperatures to cold. The air quality in hot, closed-up barns can also be poor, which can lead to respiratory (breathing) problems. During hot weather, dehydration, electrolyte loss, bugs, and skin problems can be issues: Provide lots of fresh, free-choice water, groom regularly to look for skin and dehydration issues, and provide fly protection or turn out during times when the bugs are not a problem.