A question I hear a lot from people who visit my farm is, “How long do horses live?”
Years ago, when a horse passed the 20-year mark, people generally considered them well past their prime. There’s a saying circulating in the horse world right now, though, that 30 is the new 20, and I think it’s mostly true with varying degrees of fitness and rideability.
Last week, I told you about realizing how far my 22-year-old mare, Chey, is into her senior years, and I sought out stories from other horse owners to better illustrate the equine aging process. As horse owners tend to do, they gave me plenty of information, so I’ve abbreviated their responses, but you can still get a good picture.
Nikki Hall, Jasper, Georgia
Horse: Heaven, Quarter Horse-Arabian mare who passed away just shy of her 34th birthday
“For the most part we were blessed with an ‘easy’ senior experience — Heaven had all her teeth until her thirties, was active and able to live out full-time with minimal joint maintenance.
Heaven was a full-time lesson horse well into her thirties, and I took her on a weekly trail ride up until her final year. A slip in the pasture in late 2018 left her with scar tissue in her hamstring and a mechanical lameness. After that, she became officially retired. I don’t think retirement suited her; she seemed to age much faster after she stopped working regularly.
We liked to joke with the dentist and vet about our “ageless wonder” but the truth is, Heaven was far from the norm. Most of the horses in our lesson program jumped and showed well into their 20s with several of them working happily into their thirties. Staying active with varied light work and LOTS of turnout seemed to be the key to helping them thrive. My experience with all of these “golden oldies” has led me to believe that good horses are like wine and only get better with age.”
Dawn Abbott, Kingston, Georgia
Horse: Classy, an Arabian-Quarter Horse who passed away at 37
“Classy’s biggest challenge was keeping her happy with feed. She was a picking eater and really didn’t like wet food. In her last few years, that is all she could eat because of a lack of teeth. She was also very arthritic. Keeping her comfortable in the winter months was a bit challenging.
Classy was just trail ridden and ridden lightly around the farm (as she aged). So not hard work at all. The biggest reward in keeping an older horse is just knowing that they are being taken care of and not forgotten in a pasture somewhere to be starved because it takes extra care for these older guys.
I got Classy when I was 13 years old. She was 8 when we bought her. She was my first horse … she taught my daughter to ride, too. She was 37 when I had to put her to sleep from a fractured leg. She just got up from laying down and it snapped … I have been in the animal industry for a long time and the quality of feed and care has improved so much over the past 35 years.”
Mary Catherine Chewning, Rome, Georgia
Horses: Appaloosa, 31; and Tennessee Walking Horse, 30
“My appy retired around 21 or 22 due to increasing blindness from showing and trail riding. I rode him occasionally just for fun around home. My TWH had been a pasture mate for years when he was returned to my family so he was just living life and loving it.
My biggest reward is giving my older horses pure happiness and quality of life. With proper care, horses are living longer! Proper nutrition is extremely important.
My appy was about 3 when I got him. I was in elementary school. I grew up with him as he aged. He was my everything. He and I did shows and lots and lots of trail rides. He went to college with me. He was the reason I bought a horse trailer with a ramp because he was going blind. The reason I wanted a horse farm to call my own was so I could look out my window and see him (and the others). He held on for me to return from my honeymoon so he could tell me he was ready (to go). He and I were that bonded together.”
Dawn Kemph, Powder Springs, Georgia
Horse: Fantasy — Polish Arabian, 34
“Fantasy had been enjoying the alfalfa/bermuda pellets that we could get at Tractor Supply that were slightly larger. After this last dental appointment we’ve had to change her to a smaller pellet size because she was dropping weight. Keeping the roughage to help keep the weight is probably the biggest challenge.
Fantasy was my first 3’6” jumper in our teens. She was 16, and I was 18 competing in Pony Club and qualifying for Champs East in 2003. From there Fantasy became my first lesson horse when she turned 18. She introduced several students to eventing. She competed in schooling level events and teaching lessons until her cataracts started to cause her to spook. We had a retirement ceremony at Chattahoochee Hills Eventing’s February schooling show that year. It was so beautiful and symbolic for all the school horses that compete there. She has earned her retirement after teaching so many young riders. She owes us nothing besides a bucket for her peppermint every morning.”
Susan Travis, Conesus, New York
Horses: Moose, Thoroughbred, 34; and Tigger, Quarter Horse, 27
“I find their teeth are the biggest problem as they age. Both horses get second cutting timothy, volumes of 12% sweet feed and soaked alfalfa cubes in the winter. Tigger has no problem eating the hay, but Moose quids all the time. I have started giving Tigger an amino acid supplement that I believe will help her to gain weight. I think that is one of the reasons why horses are living longer — their owners are more conscious of their nutritional needs.
Tigger became lame about four years ago. She has a small lump on her knee that the vet said might be a bone chip, but he said she was too old to have it operated on at Cornell University Vet Hospital. Before she became lame, she was my husband’s personal riding horse — as distinguished from sale horses and boarders — and he used her to give lessons. She was a fabulous lesson horse. Moose sustained a mysterious injury one night about 7 years ago that had him walking on three legs and dragging the left front. The vet said to put him down, but I felt that wasn’t the right thing, so I doctored him. He recovered completely and is very often galloping around the pasture (seldom deigns to walk) trying to get the rest of the herd to play. Still, I haven’t felt positive about riding him, so he is retired. He has a job though. He is the ‘Hall Monitor’ and is loose in the barn when the others are out in the pasture or when they are in their stalls. He does an excellent job!”
I thought these were some very insightful responses that painted a vivid portrait of owning a senior horse. I hope my horse-owning readers are able to enjoy their friends for a long time to come, and I hope those who don’t own horses liked learning a little more about the subject!