The Stables

Caring for an Older Horse or Pony

Over The Hill

How old is old? Some horses in their late teens and early twenties are still competing at the highest levels in all equestrian disciplines. Yet some riders consider that a fifteen year old horse is old. But equally, some humans seem younger and fitter than their years while others become old before their time. Horses are the same as humans in this regard their attitude to life plays a large part in keeping a young and healthy appearance. But, just as for humans, their past history, current management and lifestyle are just as important.

Ready to retire

Being around your horse or pony on a daily basis you will be aware of any subtle changes in their behaviour and attitude that will tell you when they are ready to live life at a steadier pace.  Be aware that the when your equine pal is approaching their late teens that they may not show quite the same enthusiasm for jumping and galloping as they once did! But care should be taken that the natural slowing down of your horse is not masking any other complaints that could be easily treated. A back problem, for instance, may cause a stiffness that could be put down to old age, when in fact, treated the animal could be perfectly sound. Older horses and ponies are happier to live a gentler life rather than just being turned out into a field and permanently retired. It could be that a retired eventer or hunter would make a safe and steady hack for someone who has no wish to compete. No horse should ever be just turned out into a field and forgotten about just because he is retired.


It is kinder to keep your aged horse in some kind of work, while ever this is possible. It will keep stiffness at bay and keeps the horse interested in life. This will also ensure that he will get regular attention which is essential. If the horse has arthritis and cannot be ridden, it would be beneficial to be led out in hand, or doing some gentle long reining to keep his muscles supple.


As the horse or pony gets older their digestive system works less efficiently. It is important to monitor his weight and be aware of any changes that will indicate that there are problems. Teeth problems may cause the horse not to be able to chew properly especially with an older animal so regular dental care is essential. Good worm control too is essential.  There are a number of feeds available that cater especially for the needs of an older animal and of course numerous supplements that can be added to the feed to improve their quality of life. A small dash of cider vinegar added to the feed is believed to help with arthritis problems.

Stable management

Older horses and ponies seem to feel the cold more than their younger counterparts and so it is vitally important that they are kept warm and dry, especially in cold wet weather. If the horse is stabled make sure that the bedding is adequate. Rubber mats are becoming very popular now, and these do cushion the horse, but it is important to have plenty of bedding beneath the horse to keep limbs from becoming cold and stiff.

With an older animal, you should still use plenty of bedding around the edges of the stable to keep out draughts.

The horn of an older horse’s hooves may deteriorate and so it is important to ensure that they receive regular attention from a farrier to prevent any problems occurring. Even if the horse is not going to be shod it is still important to have the hooves attended to. There are supplements on the market that are designed especially for hoof problems and it may be worth using these.

During the winter the cold and wet can play havoc with stiff legs and joints. It is worth investing in a good quality warm waterproof rug if the horse is turned out during the day. If the horse comes in with wet legs it is a good idea to use good leg wraps to make the horse more comfortable. You could also use the old fashioned method of bandaging the legs with a warm insulation of straw to dry the legs.

Massage and magnetic pads can also work wonders for relieving stiffness in an older animal. Magnetic wraps work by increasing the blood circulation to an area and promoting the removal of waste products. They can work wonders for relieving the pain of stiff and arthritic joints. Likewise, massage can help to relieve tight muscles and improve the circulation and lymphatic drainage. Another benefit of massage is that you are working your hands all over the horse’s body and will be able to feel for any signs of injury of pain.   

The final kindness

After a lifetime of pleasure from your horse or pony, it is up to the owner to take responsibility to end their life when the time comes. Observe the horse on a daily basis and ensure that his quality of life is still good. Do not put off the decision when you see their health begin to deteriorate. It is important to try to make the decision before he becomes miserable and in pain. It might be kinder to have him quietly put to sleep on a pleasant autumn morning rather than to let them go through another cold, miserable winter. Horses and ponies can be quietly and gently put to sleep with an injection that renders then unconscious before a final lethal injection is given. For everyone making the choice to put a horse down is a dreadful decision. It will be a miserable day for every owner, but really it is the least you can do for your faithful equine friend.

by Jacqui Broderick of Lavender & White Publishing

Image credit: Shutterstock