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AskHQ: Ageing horses

Q: What are the signs that your horse is ageing?

A: Horses don’t all age at the same rate. Some of this is due to genetics, and some to the care they have received throughout their lifetime. Horses are, generally speaking, labeled as ‘senior’ when they reach the age of 15, but this is a massive generalisation, as many horses remain youthful well into their mid-20s.

However, whatever the age, it is always worth observing your horse for signs of ageing, as external signs are usually mirrored by internal signs that need to be considered when it comes to work frequency, duration, and level. Signs of ageing do not mean that your horse needs to retire, but just that he needs optimal management for his stage in life. With proper care, attention, and consideration of your horse’s requirements and needs, many horses can continue competing at a high level, even at an ‘old’ age.

Signs of ageing

Signs your horse is ageing include the growing of grey hair around the eyes and muzzle. This is much more obvious in horses with a dark coat colour. Older horses also lose some skin tone, and the skin almost feels ‘loose’ to the underlying tissue. The hair may also become coarser, and the skin may feel thickened and dry under this coat. Skin wounds often also take longer to heal in the senior horse.

Some seniors develop a ‘choppy’ gait, resulting from weaker muscles and arthritic joints. In these horses, maintaining a reasonable exercise regime is more important than ever. Another key sign of ageing is a dipped back. This is due to slack musculature in the area and is called lordosis or ‘sway back’. Some horses suffer from it early on in life, so a dipped back is not a sign of old age in isolation. However, newly developed dipped backs are generally related to age. In many horses, the depression above the eye also becomes deeper and more prominent. This is again caused by slack muscles. In older horses, you can also expect energy levels to be lower, and warm-ups will definitely need to be longer, workouts more gentle, and aftercare will need to include joint care and maintenance.

A change in appetite can also develop with age, and older horses can become very picky and attached to their routine. An older horse may need more food for energy, but obesity must be avoided. Teeth are an issue in ageing horses – an older horse tends to have longer front teeth and may sometimes have worn or missing back teeth. A horse’s diet may need amending or changing entirely to accommodate his poor dentition. By the time a horse reaches the age of 15, the groove on the outside of the teeth (Galvayne’s Groove) will almost wholly have grown out, and the teeth will look more sloped and slanted.

Final thoughts

Even if a horse doesn’t look old, there can still be changes happening internally. Pay close attention to your horse and make sure you spot the signs when they arise so that they can be managed proactively. Managing your horse’s ageing process can give the two of you much more quality time together, and at least, in our opinion, there isn’t anything more important than that.