How to Treasure Your Senior Horse Partner

Taking Chances “Chance”, is a 22-25 year old unregistered American Warmblood and former Dressage Mount owned by Laura Ware is happily retired and now enjoys thorough grooming sessions and the occasional trail ride. (Montana Canter Photography)

By Nancy L. Stone

On the weekend, my horse and I participated in a 2-day clinic in which we focused on exercises to strengthen the hind-end and improve the canter pirouette.  We worked on the canter pirouette movement itself, repetitively, for a duration of time both days.  The clinician was happy with our progress.  On Monday, I gave my horse the day off as a reward for his hard work.  On Tuesday, when I asked for canter, my horse stopped after a few strides and refused to canter.  In my Wednesday lesson with my instructor, my horse still refused to canter and started to evade lateral work.  After investing in chiropractic, bodywork, laser therapy, and FES (Equine Functional Electronic Stimulation), and spending time focused stretching and suppling work, my horse is once again happily cantering and competing.

Universo, 19 year old Lusitano, owned and shown I-I by Nancy L Stone, demonstrating his airs above the ground, photo taken by Nancy L Stone

Sometimes I forget that my horse is 19 years old and a senior competitor. He is always happy to work and tries his best to do whatever I ask.  However, I am reminded on a regular basis that my senior equine partner needs special care; when my instructor tells me to spend extra time doing walk lateral work to loosen up and develop core strength, by the increased vet visits, and  by the after-work care standing in ice boots and liniment rubdowns.  It is critical to balance the appropriate work program, nutritional requirements, and health care of the senior horse if you want them to remain competitive, as well as continuing to live a sound and healthy life as your partner and friend.  

The senior horse can fool you into thinking he or she is still a youngster.  My horse has that perpetually young face, an enthusiastic attitude, and on the lunge line will still demonstrate his skills at airs above the ground!  Both the clinician and I were cognizant of my horse’s age, but we took advantage of his overall good health and condition, his positive mental attitude, and his willingness to keep trying to please when we did repetitive exercises and movements that take intense muscular effort.  In addition, although I am personally aware that movement is the best antidote for my aging joints and sore muscles, I did not apply this to my horse when I gave him the day off to stand in his stall and paddock. My horse did not do yoga stretches in his stall or purposefully walk around the paddock loosening up his tight and achy muscles!   My instructor gently pointed out to me that giving him the day off did not necessarily help his body recover from physical stress.  Exercising my horse properly is my responsibility. 

19 Year Old Shire Horse Mare that recently passed away.  She was as lovely in harness as she was under saddle.  She welcomed all people, young/old, brave/timid.  She was a special senior who loved to work and share space with people.  Size of the human didn’t matter.  She was always a willing partner.  Owner Jen Pagano.  Photo by Jen Pagano

My horse is a senior competitor.  He does not need hours pounding out circles and movements that cause wear and tear on his joints, nor does he need to excessively perform the movements. This is applicable to the senior horse no matter what level. Once your senior horse knows how to do a change of lead through trot or half pass, there is no need for repetitive practice. Your senior needs thoughtful warmups and cool downs.  The work session should focus on exercises that support muscular strength and maintain the topline. To help keep your senior’s mind fresh and body young, incorporate other activities like ambling out on the trail or lunging over cavaletti.

And don’t forget, care of the senior horse out of the saddle is also important.  If your goal, like mine, is to continue to compete, the senior horse needs specific care to maintain physical fitness and longevity as a competitor.  Most recently, my vet recommended that we start FES treatments to strengthen muscle, increase range of motion, and alleviate soreness.   It is important to work with your vet to address joint care and possibly ongoing pain management.  Under the guidance of your vet, NSAIDs (bute, banamine, previcox) and muscle relaxants might be used to help the senior horse continue to feel good and enjoy work.  There are also many beneficial therapies like bodywork and acupuncture.  Once you establish the therapies that support your senior horse the best, they can become a regular part of your maintenance program.

Juste le Boeuf, Selles Francais gelding, born in 1997 (23 years old), ridden by Tasida Kulikowski.  Photo by Allison Walt 

It is also critical to assess the senior horse’s diet to meet individual needs, whether actively competing or in retirement.  I recently made an appointment with our barn nutrition specialist.  She assessed my horse’s body condition (just a little bit on the chubby side), evaluated our forage, which included sending a hay sample away for analysis, and re-evaluated which grain to feed for his nutritional and caloric needs (poor guy had his ration reduced!).

Lastly, one of the most important members of your horse’s support team is your farrier, who is responsible for ensuring that your horse is sound.  Conversations about hoof quality and growth are important to have with your farrier, as well as continuing to monitor the amount of sole and the best angles for your individual horse.  I appreciate that my farrier is sensitive to my senior horse’s special needs regarding flexibility, range of motion, and comfort while being shod.

Pop Star, KWPN, age 23. Competed through I-I as recently as a year ago. Still showing 1st level with, Hailey Williams, 11 year old who is aiming for her bronze medal in 2021 on him.  Owned by Briana Owen Williams.  Photo taken by Briana Owen Williams

The rewards of owning a senior horse are well worth the extra time and investment in care.  This fall has been a time of reflection for me.  The daylight hours dwindle and the temperatures cool, and coloring leaves appear on the trees at the edges of the hayfield.  It is my favorite time of year to ride along the perimeter of the field. As I ride, I think about the responsibilities of my half of our partnership.  I unintentionally caused my horse physical pain over the course of a 2-day clinic and temporarily lost his willingness to attempt difficult exercises.  Now, I am careful to incorporate more suppling exercises into my rides, and I only ask for short bursts of intense muscular effort.  I feel like we are once again partners, working in harmony.  Recently, my instructor noted how happy and fluid the two of us seemed together.

Smokeunderthehood aka PeZ  age: 18.  At a Fix-A-Test with his owner and rider, Susan Moore.  Photo by Kelly Extreia

I treasure this time with my senior horse, out of the arena, enjoying his companionship as we meander around the hayfield, under an explosion of fall colors.  Back at the barn, after grooming and stretching, I spend extra time snuggling with my horse. 

May you and your senior horse have many good rides in the future, taking time to savor your partnership and friendship well into the twilight years.

Thank you to the following professionals who keep my senior competitor sound and healthy:

Farrier:  Thomas Flood

Vet:  Dr. Lynn Gomes, DVM, Performance Equine Veterinary Services  and

Pepperwood Farm, owner, Owner, Meredith Douthit Crawford and

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