Today’s dressage horses seem to improve with age. Here’s how to keep your senior equine partner feeling and performing his best.
By Patti Schofler
Reprinted from the September 2018 USDF Connection magazine
It had been a great run for Wendy Luscombe and Aastrakhan.
Luscombe, a longtime adult-amateur dressage rider and Arabian-horse enthusiast, had bred the 1991 Arabian mare (Multir Ibn Al Malik – Courtney) and later competed as a rider or owner through Fourth Level. But eventually the physical demands began to be a bit much for the then 16-year-old mare. Aastrakhan was ready to step her workload down a notch, but she was in good health and still had valuable years left to play the role of schoolmistress for other riders.
Having for years owned horses for and trained with Bedford, NY,-based Olympian Lendon Gray, Luscombe, of Craryville, NY, was well acquainted with Gray’s Dressage4Kids organization. She donated Aastrakahn to Gray as a Dressage4Kids mount.
First paired with 13-year-old Rachel Chowanec in 2007, Aastrakhan showed her young pupil the ropes, competing at Second and Third Levels and winning the FEI Pony title at Lendon’s Youth Dressage Festival that year. When Chowanec was ready to move on, Aastrakahn took another step down, teaching First and Second Levels to her next young partners. It was aboard Aastrakahn that junior rider Victoria Grace Jennings placed sixth in the 13-and-under division at the 2010 USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals.
“She went through five riders, is now 27, and doing very basic work,” Gray says of her mare.
Thanks to good care and advances in veterinary medicine, our equine partners are living longer and more productive lives than ever before. Dressage horses regularly win international titles in their teens, and it’s not unusual for our senior friends to enjoy active careers well into their twenties.
But just like ourselves, horses as they age may develop health concerns and require some extra TLC to keep them feeling and performing their age-appropriate best. In this article, dressage trainers, veterinary specialists, and an equine nutritionist share advice on keeping our precious senior horses active and happy in their golden years.
Keep Him Moving
An important part of being a sympathetic dressage rider and trainer, experts say, is learning how far a horse can go—comfortably and confidently—in his training.
“Some horses get stuck at Second [Level]; some, at Prix St. Georges,” says Gray. “We need to recognize their limits but allow them to continue to be athletes.”
“Athlete” is the key word when it comes to managing an older horse.
“I felt strongly about keeping my Olympic horses going when they were no longer competitive for me,” Gray says. “They last longer if they are doing something. To take a horse that has been pampered the way our horses have been, turn him out in pasture, and suddenly ignore him is not necessarily good. The longer we put that off, the longer they keep fit and sound. I had one in my stable that had competed internationally for another country, who did lower and lower levels until he was 28. He thrived doing light work as a beginner-y horse.”
That stepping-down process—guided by frequent reassessment—that Gray describes is an excellent way of keeping an older horse working happily and comfortably, says Ashlee Watts, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, assistant professor of large-animal surgery at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, College Station.
“Everything changes throughout the horse’s life, and you have to be ready to adjust his management program annually or even monthly to make it right for that horse’s stage of life. There is no one right formula,” Watts says.
(Watts has sport-horse cred that extends beyond the academic: A decorated adult-amateur dressage rider, she has two US Dressage Finals championship titles, one reserve title, and numerous other wins under her belt. With her Danish Warmblood gelding, Hampton, she graced the 2016 yearbook-issue cover of USDF Connection.)
Foremost, Watts says, horses are designed and programmed to move. “A joint in motion stays in motion. Older equine athletes do better with regular exercise, whether they are ridden, turned out, or both.”
How that horse exercises—as an active competitor, a lesson horse, or a pleasure mount—depends on the individual.
We know “people in their late sixties who can’t walk down the street,” says FEI-level trainer and competitor Rosalind “Roz” Kinstler, Ann Arbor, MI, and Wellington, FL, and others “the same age who can run a marathon. You have to be clever and recognize that this [horse] we can push; this one we can’t.”
“I remind people that your ambition can’t be your horse’s ambition,” adds Kinstler, a longtime instructor of dressage juniors and young riders, who also coached a student to a berth on the 2012 US Paralympic dressage team. “I have two students who were given eighteen- and nineteen-year-old FEI horses because the owners felt sure that they would not be taken advantage of or overfaced at that age.”
Knowing when to it’s time to turn a horse over to a different rider with more modest goals takes keen and selfless observation power. Holding on to your senior with the goal of taking him further up the levels, or even just hoping that he will maintain his current level for years to come, may be unrealistic. If your 15-year-old horse has never learned flying changes, it may be that he’s not the right partner for your Fourth Level ambitions—but that same mount might rack up the high-score awards as a Second Level schoolmaster for another grateful rider.
“You have to be happy with what your horse can do. I’ve seen older horses who still do their upper-level jobs, but the joy is gone from them,” Kinstler observes.
“Horses communicate if we will listen,” Gray says. “When the work has lost some of its joy and he starts getting heavier, taking longer to warm up, becoming more resistant, it’s time for change. My last Grand Prix horse stayed in my stable with an older woman whose attitude was, ‘Whatever you want to give me, I’m here to receive it.’”
Keep Him Fit
Your older horse knows his job. Most don’t require (or enjoy) daily drilling. Our experts recommend a modest and varied exercise regimen to help keep their bodies and minds fresh, fit, and engaged.
Kinstler likes to work an older horse five consecutive days a week, not on an every-other-day schedule.
“The five days of work,” she explains, “vary in intensity and length. The week begins with suppling, builds to the hardest work midweek, then tapers to avoid overdoing but still maintaining a good fitness level.” She keeps sessions short, with frequent breaks and a long walk or cool-down period at the end.
On days six and seven, Kinstler turns the horse out or hand-walks him to keep his muscles from getting stiff. “If decent turnout isn’t available, then day six can be a long tack-walk or hack. To me, for mental health, it’s also good to [give the horse] a day off, even if it means staying in a stall. If that’s the case, then the first day back to work needs a long walk before actually beginning the session.”
The other 23 hours of the day? “Turnout is a tremendous benefit for an old guy,” Kinstler says, but if your senior is unaccustomed to lengthy pasture time, “introduce it slowly. Use a smaller area or a limited time, according to what they can manage and not get carried away with their abilities.”
If you compete your senior dressage horse, hand- or tack-walking between classes helps to prevent stiffness, says Kinstler. Make warm-ups economical. At this point in horses’ careers, “they know how to do their job and should be fit enough. They don’t need to be trained at the show. They get tired.”
Older horses, like older people, may be less able to cope with heat and humidity. “For our fifteen- and sixteen-year-old horses at Prix St. Georges, we go ringside with a bucket of water and a little alcohol and rub them down a few times,” Kinstler says. In addition, “we closely monitor their drinking” to help ensure that horses stay properly hydrated. Talk to your veterinarian about proactive measures you can take to help your older horse manage the stresses of showing in the heat.
Keep Him Comfortable
Osteoarthritis, the joint inflammation that causes pain and stiffness, is inevitable if a horse lives long enough, Watts says.
“Horses are athletes, even if they live in a field all their lives, and they can still develop osteoarthritis. Take mustangs: They don’t just stand around and graze. They push the limits of their bodies, getting small injuries to their joints that can lead to arthritis. And once the horse gets arthritis, it’s here to stay. However, proper management can alleviate inflammation, pain, and stiffness.”
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as phenylbutazone (“bute”), flunixin meglumine (Banamine), and firocoxib (Equioxx), may help ease older horses’ joint-related aches and pains. (If you plan to compete in US Equestrian-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competition, review the rules regarding drugs and medications carefully to be sure your horse is in compliance with all regulations.)
In cases of prolonged or more severe discomfort, your veterinarian may recommend injecting the affected joints with a corticosteroid, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory. But joint injections are more of a last resort than a first line of defense, says Cara Wright, DVM, of Sawtooth Equine Service, Bellevue, ID, who specializes in geriatric care.
“It’s important that we’ve addressed everything before we inject,” Wright says. “Commonly, an older horse has lameness in the front, and the majority of forelimb lameness is in the foot. Be sure you’re not missing something: Maybe, instead of drugs, the horse needs a shoeing change.
“Routine joint injections are not something I do,” Wright continues. “A horse isn’t a car that needs an oil change every three thousand miles. If lameness is from the hocks and it has been localized to the hocks, then it’s the right thing to do. Oftentimes, the horse may get an injection and not need it again for years. They get stronger and use the hock better.”
Watts participated in a recent study of the antioxidant resveratrol, a molecule found in the skin of red grapes (and the key substance in articles touting the health benefits of drinking red wine and red grape juice), to assess resveratrol’s ability to reduce inflammation caused by osteoarthritis. Based on the study findings, she says, horses with lameness related to the lower hock joints might benefit from daily resveratrol to lessen lameness severity.
Keep Him Healthy
In humans, resveratrol also has been shown to help prevent insulin resistance, a condition that can lead to diabetes. It may also have other anti-aging and disease-fighting powers.
“While resveratrol has been proven to reduce hock-associated lameness,” says Watts, “it may also help horses prone to laminitis, insulin dysregulation, and obesity. When used in conjunction with medications like pergolide, resveratrol may also improve the clinical signs associated with the endocrine disorder known as Cushing’s disease [formal name: pars pituitary intermedia dysfunction, or PPID], a disease that many older horses develop.”
For now, a diet restricting overall starch and sugar can minimize risks associated with insulin dysregulation (laminitis is a classic fear), especially in horses that already demonstrate additional risk factors, such as obesity or PPID.
You don’t want your horse to be fat at any age, but it’s especially true when he’s older.
“Weight management is key to senior horse management,” says Clair Thunes, PhD, who operates the independent consulting firm Summit Equine Nutrition, Sacramento, CA. “We often think of [older horses becoming] skinny, not overweight. But overweight horses are likely to be insulin-resistant. Plus, senior horses are probably struggling with arthritis and joint pain that can be made worse by extra weight.”
Equine “senior feeds,” which are popular low-starch, low-sugar choices, contain large amounts of easily digestible fiber, ground up into pelleted form so they dissolve in the mouth and don’t require a lot of chewing. Typical senior horse feeds are higher in calories per pound than hay and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Most are complete feeds, meaning that they are formulated to be fed in large servings without hay—something that many horse owners don’t realize, according to Thunes.
“People feed hay and a scoop of senior feed, not realizing that in order to get the full benefit of the feed, you need to serve the fully recommended amount. At fifteen pounds per day, that is very expensive,” she says.
Instead, Thunes suggests giving the senior dressage horse a good-quality performance feed, even though it contains slightly higher levels of crude protein and trace minerals. “The little research out there about feeding seniors shows they don’t utilize dietary protein or absorb minerals quite as well.”
Even if senior feeds aren’t the right choice for you and your horse, the rationale behind their formulation is sensible: Older horses’ teeth change, and our senior equine friends may need special dental care and softer feeds if they can’t chew as well.
Equine teeth continually erupt to replenish what’s worn away by normal chewing. As a horse ages, his teeth reshape, take on wear patterns, and change angle (which is why we can approximate a horse’s age by looking at his teeth).
But new tooth growth doesn’t happen forever, and eventually the horse’s mouth runs out of replacement material and the teeth are shed, says Dr. Teresa Crocker of North Coast Equine, Santa Rosa, CA, who focuses on geriatrics and dentistry. The typical modern horse wears one inch off the surface of his teeth every 10 years. With slower wear, the teeth may wear to the root surface by age 30 and then naturally exfoliate (fall out). A horse that’s undergone considerable dental work over the years may shed his teeth after only 20 years. Removing less tooth during dental-care visits will extend the life of the tooth, she says.
Don’t skip the dental care, however. Routine checks and floating (removing hooks and sharp edges) will help your senior horse maintain his weight, absorb nutrients from his food, and perform more comfortably, says Crocker. For the senior horse, a twice-yearly inspection may lead to better feeding choices and head off disease.
“If the horse isn’t chewing properly, too-long pieces of hay can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, diarrhea, or colic,” Crocker explains. “On the other hand, when you feed a diet of soaked pellets with a soupy consistency, you lose the buffering capacity of saliva, which is released from chewing. We want them to have some forage. Chewing causes the jaw to work and keeps up the strength and health of the TMJ [the temporomandibular joint, which connects the lower jaw to the skull]. Shredded beet pulp, fresh pasture grass, and soaked hay cubes work.”
Senior horses are more prone to dental-related disease, including:
Equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis (EOTRH). The equine tooth is composed of dentin, enamel, and cementum to provide strength and flexibility. If a tooth cracks or the surrounding tissue becomes inflamed, the body can’t create more dentin to save the tooth. However, it can weep cementum into the crack and repair itself.
In the condition known as EOTRH, the roots of the teeth begin to dissolve. To protect the teeth and keep them anchored to the jawbone, the body lays down excessive amounts of cementum (hypercementosis). This production enlarges the roots, refiguring them into a bulbous shape.
“When the roots are carrot-shaped, the teeth all fit nicely. With [excess] cementum, the teeth spread apart and are going every which way. That is an incredibly painful disease,” says Crocker. “It is suspected that it can happen from not enough wear of the incisors, with the back teeth worn faster than the incisors. That places pressure on the roots, which decay. If you see receding gum lines with overly long incisors, it’s worth radiographing to see if there is reabsorption, the beginning of the disease.”
Periodontal (gum) disease. A young horse’s teeth are tightly packed together. As teeth erupt and wear, the crowns narrow, leaving gaps between the teeth that are prime spots for bits of food to accumulate. Normally, saliva, white blood cells, and beneficial bacteria clean out these gaps; but misaligned teeth, decreased saliva production, and other factors may interfere with this process. If packed food remains between the teeth, the horse’s immune system must fight the resulting “bad” bacteria—which is particularly problematic for seniors with PPID, especially when gum recession becomes severe. Unchecked gum disease results in pain and tooth loss.
To treat gum disease, a veterinarian will clean out the feed pockets, repair misalignments, consider a course of antibiotics, protect pockets from further invasion, and in advanced cases extract a tooth or teeth.
End-stage dentition. At some point in a horse’s life, the teeth may lose the grinding surfaces needed to process food.
Arthritis. We tend to think of arthritis as affecting the hocks and other such joints, but the TMJ is equally susceptible. According to Crocker, use of a dental halter to support the horse’s head from above during dental procedures may adversely affect the horse’s cervical spine, put weight on its lower jaw, and cause TMJ strain. If the horse’s head needs to be steadied for dental work, Crocker prefers to use a stand on which the horse rests its head.
TMJ arthritis makes it difficult for the horse to open its mouth, Crocker says. A speculum that is cantilevered, she says, distributes the weight across the jaw muscle so that there is less pressure on the TMJ.
Crocker is also careful not to position the horse’s head and neck at exaggerated angles when she works. “I check the range of motion in the neck, and I don’t lift the head high. I get down low to float the teeth. If you raise the head up, the horse will likely need more drugs for the procedure. Also, [if the head and neck are raised too high] you might pinch a nerve in the neck, and then the horse can’t feel his back legs, so he could fall.”
Senior horses may require special consideration when it comes to dental work, Crocker says.
“The amount and type of sedation may be different for an older horse that has circulatory or cardiac issues,” she says. In addition, “seniors may be better trained and more compliant—or they may have had bad experiences,” which may make them more or less tolerant of dental work as a result.
Use of the dental speculum, which keeps the horse’s mouth open, may also have to be altered to keep the older horse comfortable, Crocker says. The senior’s forward-angled incisors may not rest properly on the speculum plates, which can cause the upper plate to cut into the horse’s palate. And if the teeth are worn short, the grooves in the plates can cut into the gums. Crocker uses a speculum that allows her to change the plates as needed, and one type she uses has rubberized plates for extra comfort.
Cherish Your Horse’s Golden Years
Our “golden oldies” have so much to offer: They can teach the next generation of riders. Many have extensive travel and show miles, so they’re more sane and sensible than their younger counterparts. They can even offer a reassuring presence to a green horse at its first show. Some are competitive for a surprisingly long time, going down center line into their twenties or even beyond. And even in retirement or semi-retirement, your senior horse may have a life expectancy into his thirties—and it’s not unheard of for a well-cared-for horse to hit the big 4-0.
Your horse may not need glasses or a hearing aid as he ages, but he does need regular veterinary checkups to monitor his weight and to keep an eye on his insulin levels, his endocrine system, his teeth, and his overall comfort. Plan at least twice-yearly wellness exams, and ask your veterinarian to help develop a strategy to keep your golden oldie healthy and happy for many years to come.
Senior Gamble Pays Off
Not every horse sails through life unburdened by injuries. Conventional wisdom dictates that older horses don’t bounce back as well, so even the tempting offer of a talented schoolmaster, but one that had suffered an injury, might not have had many takers. But for the rider who took on the rehab challenge, the gamble paid off.
“A young adult who had been in our Dressage4Kids program took on a Grand Prix horse with a soft-tissue injury,” Olympian and program founder Lendon Gray recalls. “She spent an entire year caring for him before she competed him. Now she has a very nice Grand Prix horse.”
The horse, the 2002 Dutch Warmblood gelding Versace N (by Sandro Hit), “had shown up to Prix St. Georges and was schooling some of the Grand Prix prior to his suspensory injury,” says owner Alexa Derr, 23, a D4K “alumna” who now teaches and trains at Vue de Lou Dressage in Reinholds, PA. In 2015, through D4K and Everglades Dressage LLC in Wellington, FL, “Versace” went to Derr as a project: a free lease for a year, during which time she would rehab him and see if he could stay sound.
“When I got him, he was trotting for fifteen minutes and cantering one lap each direction,” Derr says. “We slowly and meticulously rehabbed from there, and we made our Grand Prix debut in June 2017.” The pair has since been competing successfully at Grand Prix and in the FEI Under 25 Grand Prix division.
Patti Schofler is an award-winning writer based in northern California. She is a USDF L graduate and a passionate dressage rider.