As our equine companions live longer it is important that we keep them in shape. As a big boned cat I know how difficult this can be so I put together a few guidelines.
The defnition of senior or geriatric horse is very individual dependent. Some of our patients are slowing way down at 18 to 19 years, others are being ridden 3-4 times per week and even still showing in to their late 20s. Many factors determine how your horse handles the years but diet, exercise history and genetics are very strong components.
I drew from some human research to determine that the biggest reason we slow down as age is fat. Young adult humans are at maximum muscle mass which slowly declines over the years and is replaced by fat. Nerve conduction velocity decrease and we lose some ability to move oxygen from our lungs to our tissues. But I said slow down, not stop. This means many older horses can continue to compete, trail ride or whatever you wish.
The type and extent of conditioning primarily will depend on several factors, including the age of the horse, training history, body condition, and the main goal of the conditioning program. For example, the amount of training that is reasonable for a 15-year-old horse will likely be considerably greater than for a horse in his mid-20s. However, regardless of age, we need to consider the horse’s training history carefully. There are many eventers, show jumpers, and endurance horses which have sustained a high level of fitness throughout their teen years–those horses appear capable of training and competing at a level not far below that of a much younger horse. However, because they are well-schooled in their respective events, these seasoned campaigners often can remain competitive with a lower training volume. This helps reduce excessive wear and tear on the musculoskeletal system.
The situation will be much different for the middle-aged and older horse which has received little exercise for a number of years. A much more cautious approach to conditioning is required. As well, there is an impression among riders and trainers that those horses take more time to attain fitness compared to the youngsters. Therefore, you must start out very gradually, be patient, and closely monitor your horse for signs that indicate you are overdoing it. For horses of any age, injury and lameness can occur when the training volume is increased rapidly. Carefully palpate tendons and ligaments of the lower limbs for signs of heat, swelling, and pain.
Obviously, the level of training also will depend on whether or not you are aiming to compete your horse. This is a reasonable goal for the teenager, but (in most cases) less reasonable for the horse in his mid-20s. More realistic is a program of regular light exercise that helps maintain body condition and muscle tone, and allows the horse to be used for trail riding or similar tasks. This is a win-win situation–regular exercise will help prevent or even reverse some of the age-related changes in muscle mass and strength, and will also improve your horse’s quality of life. Daily turnout is another way to ensure that the horse receives regular exercise, and is certainly important for maintaining good spirits.
The most common limiting factor in older horses is chronic lameness. It’s a good idea to have one our Doctors examine your older horse before putting the previously idle horse back into work. Lameness associated with foot pain is common in older horses, and some medication as well as special shoes might be necessary. Pain associated with degenerative joint disease is common; again our Doctors will be able to identify these problems and make recommendations concerning pain relief and exercise programs.
It is advisable to schedule regular veterinary check-ups, particularly for horses in their 20s. Keep a close eye on the joints, tendons, and ligaments of the legs–any stiffness or swelling might signal the recurrence of an old problem and the need to moderate the conditioning program.
Start your conditioning program slow. Monitor your horse’s response to increased work very closely. As a guide, do not increase the weekly training distance by more than 5%. Three 10-15 minute sessions per week on the longe line or under saddle might be an appropriate place to begin–the length of these workouts can be increased over the next month. Then, you can add another weekly session and/or begin to increase the intensity of the workouts gradually by inserting some low-speed cantering. Try to vary the workouts as much as possible to maintain the horse’s interest. If possible, include a little hill training–this will help muscles strengthen.
Be cautious during the hot summer months, particularly when beginning training during the summer. Older humans and animals are often less able to lose body heat during exercise, in part because of a decline in cardiovascular performance and a reduction in sweat gland function. For that reason, it is wise to limit exercise on very hot days–either shorten the duration of work or reduce the intensity of exercise. In hot weather, actively cool the horse after exercise by applying cold water over the neck and body. Also allow him to drink a moderate amount of water after exercise to replace fluid losses due to sweating.
Watch your older horse’s weight while increasing workloads. Some older horses can have trouble absorbing nutrients from their feed. If your horse is having trouble maintaining weight with an increased work load consider switching to a Senior diet. With their easily digestible nutrients and higher fat content they are the perfect choice. Additional fat in the form of vegetable oil can also be added to increase weight.
Hope these guidelines help you keep your older horse in work!