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Looking after an Older Horse

I had my horse Ziggy until he was 35, and in endeavouring to do the best for him and keep him as comfortable as possible, I learnt quite a lot about care of the older horse and also the emotional aspects of watching your friend grow more elderly.  I am no expert, but I wanted to share what I have learned in case anyone else with an older horse can take comfort or get some ideas from reading this..

The key aspect to my older horse's survival well into his thirties, was regular dental care and understanding how losing teeth affects diet and fibre intake.

When a horse starts to become aged, his teeth gradually begin to expire.  Until the horse is elderly his teeth are constantly growing and are ground down by grazing and eating hay or haylage, when teeth expire, new tooth ceases to be produced and the small stub of tooth which is left eventually falls out.  This produces two side effects - one is that where a tooth as expired, if its opposing tooth is continuing to grow it has nothing to grind against and will eventually grow into the gap left if not treated by your equine dentist and cause problems.  Secondly the fewer teeth a horse has the more difficult he will find it to eat grass and grass products.  Although your older horse may still look like he is grazing like he always did, if the grass is not being chewed enough he will not digest it properly and could start to drop condition.


Older horses feel the cold more and although they expend less energy if they are retired, they are likely to require hard feed to keep condition on them.  This becomes especially important of the horse no longer has enough teeth to graze effectively.  For Ziggy I soaked every meal he had for approximately 12 hours before he ate it to ensure it was a fluffy porridge consistency - effectively making it "pre-chewed".  I got into a routine and at each mealtime I soaked the next feed in readiness.  I used fibre based grass replacement products in addition to cereals.  Soaking feed not only allows better digestion because it avoids un-chewed food going into the gut, it also, to an extent, reduces wear on the teeth the horse has left.

I personally found retiring Ziggy one of the hardest things about his progression into old age.  I was very lucky because I was still riding him until he was 32 and his last show was the year of his thirtieth birthday.  I used to trawl the internet looking for a definitive answer - what was the right age to retire a horse?  The answer I discovered for myself eventually was that it depends entirely on you and your horse.  Every horse is different and you just have to listen to their bodies and to what they are telling you about whether they feel like going for a ride.  As Ziggy got older, until he was ready to retire, I balanced keeping his limbs moving to prevent his arthritis stiffening him up with taking things at the pace he was comfortable with.  Some days I would go to fetch his saddle and he just didn’t want to go so I put it away and groomed him instead.  Some days he would march to the gate with all the purpose and energy of his younger self - we did what suited him and gradually reduced his workload until it wasn’t too much of an emotional trauma for either of us when we came to a natural stop.  It doesn’t have to be absolute though, I would still hop on him bareback coming in from the field some days and he was still carrying very small children of friends of the family around the yard and up the drive right up until a few weeks before he went.  Those little bits of very light "work" kept him feeling like he had a purpose, and I believe, was part of the reason he was with me for so long...

Something I noticed more and more with Ziggy as he got older was that his need to sleep increased.  Ensuring your older horse has plenty of time to stand and doze helps to make up for the fact that laying down and getting back up is unlikely to be as comfortable any more.  Making sure they are in a quiet paddock and simply keeping a bit quieter while they are asleep is something I never would have thought of as a tip for caring for an older horse, but Ziggy loved to doze and long naps really seemed to improve his quality of life.


Pecking orders and whose boss

If your mare or gelding has been used to being the dominant horse, it can be quite hard for them when they are no longer able to retain their position at the top of the herd.  It’s easy to get angry with a younger horse for what us humans might perceive as bullying, but it’s simply the way a herd structure works, once a horse is old or ailing they are slowly downgraded in the pecking order until eventually if very weak they will be shunned - its rubbish to witness and really hard to deal with.  However, you can help to reduce the effect of this process by keeping your older horse with other old timers, or by keeping them with a very young horse.  An older horse can teach a youngster a great deal and will often naturally "look after" a weanling. 

Celebrating Your Horse

Although watching your horse become slower and start to look older can be really sad, especially if you knew your horse when he was very young, its time you are able to spend with them and give back care and love to your former mount. I cant stress enough how much appreciating the time you have with them helps once they are gone. 

When the time comes - Preparing for the end..

Its a horrible thing to think about, I know I shied away from dealing with it for a long time.  However, your older horse will eventually reach a time where he or she lets you know, or as in my case it becomes quickly inevitable, that they have had enough of this world and are ready to move on to a place where their aches and pains are history.

Because when the day comes it will be traumatic and you will be upset and emotional, if there is one thing that I can say definitely helped me through losing Ziggy, it was that I had already planned how the day would go and decided what I wanted to happen. 

About a year before the final day came, I stood with my vet and watched Ziggy grazing.  With him there and healthy and real, the vet and I decided how we would do it, where we would do it, where my other horse would be during it and what we do with him once it was done.  As hard as it was to make those decisions and plan for a day I hoped would never come, when that day came there was tremendous comfort and lack of additional hassle in knowing exactly what would happen.


Grieving - you and your old horse's companions

It’s a low time after your dear old friend has passed.  You will feel lost and lonely and maybe a bit angry - but I found tremendous comfort in remembering all the good times, celebrating my boy's life and knowing I had always done my very best for him - I have no regrets.  My younger horse has found it very hard, but he was helped through the process of losing his uncle Zig because we allowed him to sniff and see Ziggy while he was going and after he was gone, and let him accept that he was gone until he was ready to walk away..  If you are as lucky as me your older horse's companion will have learnt from and take on some of the traits of your older horse and will remind you of him, it allows them to live on.  Similarly the grieving companion horse will take tremendous comfort in you and you can help each other through the sad time.  I bought my younger horse specifically because Ziggy was getting older and becoming more mortal, and I knew when the day came I would be lost and possibly not be able to bond with another horse.  But by having my youngster with Ziggy for five years before Ziggy went, I haven’t replaced my number one boy, I am merely continuing to love a horse I already loved.