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Hi Cherry,

My old guys (Teddy is 22 and Brighty is “not yet 25” according to my vet) are getting up there in years and I want to be sure I’m doing everything I can to keep them feeling good as long as possible. Any general tips?

Briana

Hello Briana,

You’ve got a couple oldies but goodies ! Well here is some general information about older horses and some guidelines for their care. Let me know if you have more specific questions.

Cherry

Senior Horse Care

©  2011 Cherry Hill

Time flies and soon that good horse is a little gray around the muzzle. Even if your horse is over 20, you still can continue using and enjoying him or her. You just need to give some special attention to his care.

Value of a Seasoned Senior

Many folks say old horses make good teachers. Old is not necessarily synonymous with good. But if a senior horse had thorough training and a wide range of experience, he can be a valuable mentor. Seasoned seniors are usually calm and stable. They’ve been there and done that…and then some. There’s nothing like an old timer to take a kid for her first lope or to give confidence to a novice adult rider.

Seniors are valuable role models for young horses too. A good pony horse makes the tag-along yearling obedient and confident. When trailering, a senior can exude “What’s the big deal?” and soon the colt in the next stall relaxes and starts munching. On the trail, an unflappable veteran shows the way past rock monsters and through creeks. And for just plain osmosis, there’s nothing better than having a good old horse around to show junior the ropes. It’s just too bad our good horses can’t last forever, but at least today, they are lasting longer.

Many of today’s horses get high quality care and, like humans, they are living to ripe old ages. In the past a horse in its late teens was approaching the end of his life but now the average lifespan is the mid-twenties with many ponies and Arabians in their thirties.

Signs of Aging

A 20-year-old horse is the approximate equivalent of a 60-year-old person but when and how a horse ages is extremely variable. Some senior horses are raring to go while others prefer to vegetate. Horses can reproduce later in life than humans can. Healthy mares kept on a regular breeding program can foal well into their twenties and semen can be viable in stallions as old as 30.

Seniors often grow thicker, longer winter coats and might hold onto them past spring. Just as we gray around the temples at varying ages and degrees, some horses gray around the muzzle, lower jaw and eye sockets. Other cosmetic changes include hollow depressions above the eyes, a hanging lower lip and loss of skin and muscle tone. Common problems of aging are arthritis, colic, heaves, laminitis, lameness, general stiffness, poor digestion, decreased kidney function, and an overall lack of energy.

When an older horse starts slowing down, you can call it lazy, laid-back or just plain exhausted – but the fact is, time does take its toll. Fortunately you can increase a senior’s energy level and prevent many ailments through proper management and exercise.

Shelter

Provide the veteran with comfortable accommodations. On our place, the Luxury Senior Suite is a 12′ x 50′ south facing pen with a 32-foot long wrap around wind wall. The barn roof extends over 1/3 of the pen and half of the covered area is rubber-matted for feeding. It’s an ideal combination of indoor/outdoor living which suits most horses to a T. The pen is adjacent to an indoor stall for bitter cold weather and it’s ten steps away from a 10-acre turnout pasture.

In my estimation, life in a stall takes its toll on any horse, but especially a senior. The small space and lack of regular exercise just spells STIFFNESS! If a senior horse must live indoors, he needs regular exercise. In addition, dust and ammonia in the barn must be eliminated. Dusty bedding, moldy feed, dust raised from aisle sweepers and other airborne debris can contribute to the respiratory disorder heaves (COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Ammonia fumes, which are generated from decomposing manure, urine and bedding, are caustic to the respiratory tract of both horses and humans. Keep stalls clean and be sure the barn is well ventilated.

Many horses are happiest living on pasture. For free-minded old timers, choose a pasture that has enough room to roam but not so much lush grazing that it leads to an unhealthy weight gain. No matter where a senior lives, provide a soft place for him to lie down for at least a portion of the day.

As horses get older, they have less tolerance for temperature extremes so your horsekeeping practices might need to be re-evaluated year round. For protection from winter wind and snow, an in-and-out shed is ideal. But oddly, many horses choose to stand out in a blizzard so you may need to provide a stall or storm blanket. A waterproof-breathable winter blanket with long sides, tail flap, and neck protection can function as a mobile horse house and keep your senior toasty.

During the summer, provide shade, ventilation and fly protection. A roof strategically located where it takes advantage of natural breezes is ideal. Add a PVC mesh fly sheet and a pasture horse will have UV and fly protection. Large barn fans can be used to cool stalled horses and chase flies.

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Hi Cherry,

My name is Kaitlyn and I am trying to decide if my one acre piece of land will be enough for my two horses. I live in Maryland and I have a 6 year old paint and a 18 year old pony. All together they would have about a 1/4 acre a land each. They would only be allowed about 1-2 hours of grass daily and will each have a stall and a sacrifice area for the time that they are not on pasture. They will be ridden daily and will be supplemented with good quality hay and grain. Do you think this would be enough land? What are the minimum space requirements for horses to provide enough room for exercise?

Hi Kaitlyn,

The amount of land isn’t as important as the level of management.

If these horses are ridden daily as you say, what you outline below sounds great. Bravo for thinking ahead and planning the sacrifice pens.

Your challenge will be to manage the land so it doesn’t become overgrazed. It will be tempting for you to let the horses be out more than the pasture can handle.

Cherry Hill's Horsekeeping AlmanacWhat would be ideal is to divide the 1/2 acre into two pieces. Graze the grass when it is 6 inches tall and when 50% of it is 3 inches tall, move the horses over to the other pasture. When a pasture is idle, you can spot mow the weeds – but set your mower on high so it doesn’t mow the grass, just the tall weeds. Because these are small pastures, you could use a walk-behind mower or weed whacker to target just the areas where weeds grow.

As long as these horses are ridden every day or 4-5 times a week, they will have plenty of exercise and when you turn them out, they will likely just put their heads down and eat or perhaps roll in the grass.

Horsekeeping On A Small AcreageBut to answer a little more specifically about acreage, one acre is 43,560 feet. If it was a perfect square it would be about 209 feet on each side. But land parcels are usually rectangular so that is why I used the example in Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage of one acre dimensions of 264 feet by 165 feet.

So if the horse pasture area is half that, or 132 x 165 but you divide that into two smaller pastures for rotational purposes, you’d end up with two pastures of 66 x 165. This is interesting because a dressage arena is 66 feet wide (and either 132 or 198 feet long), so what you have ended up with are two pastures that are the size of a dressage arena for the horses to graze and exercise in. Sweet !

I applaud your efforts to keep your horses (and yourself and your family) on one acre – it take diligence and good management.

Best of luck and keep me posted on how you lay things out.

Cherry Hill

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