Unsoundness and other infirmities of old age frequently require horses to be relieved of day-to-day performance requirements, but regular exercise remains important for older horses regardless of their employment status.
Exercise comes in many forms — it can be as simple as encouraging aged horses to walk from one end of a field to the other for feed and water, or as complex as offering up grizzled horses and ponies as safe mounts for walk-only lessons or lazy strolls.
Exercise boosts the health of aged horses in three important ways.
Musculoskeletal health. A sedentary lifestyle weakens bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Aged horses that are stalled at night often seem especially creaky when turned out and this is likely due to hour upon hour of confinement with only occasional movement. Yes, old horses will laze and seem not to move about much in a paddock or pasture at times, but they will invariably move more in an open space. Regular, low-impact movement will help keep joints healthy and reduce lameness.
Weight check. Retirement and obesity frequently go hand-in-hand. An obese horse is not a healthy horse, and for older horses, excessive weight can be a harbinger of endocrine problems, including metabolic syndrome. Light, structured exercise, even if it’s only at a walk, for 30 minutes every day or every other day can help stave off unnecessary weight and metabolic difficulties. Many horses that were familiar with daily contact will enjoy the interaction, especially if games or new skills are introduced.
Colic control. Aged horses have an increased risk of gastrointestinal issues, including colic. Specifically, old horses seem prone to impaction colic, likely associated with decreased motility of the gastrointestinal tract. Horses with dental disrepair may also be predisposed to problems related to half-chewed feed and hay, such as choke or poor digestion of feedstuffs. Access to pasture and grazing will keep older horses moving to and fro, which will benefit their joints and their gastrointestinal tracts.
Properly maintaining an older horse requires a team of professionals. A nutritionist can formulate a diet that provides all of the required nutrients, including energy, to ensure optimal health without an overconsumption of calories.
Consultation about exercise expectations with a veterinarian familiar with the horse’s history is recommended. A veterinarian will also help owners adhere to deworming, vaccination and joint maintenance schedules.
Regular hoof care by a skilled farrier will maintain hoof health. Many retired horses can be kept trimmed and unshod. Others, however, require shoes to stay comfortable in the face of long-term or progressive lamenesses. Aged horses should be kept on the same trimming or shoeing schedule as other horses, every 4 to 6 weeks with variance based on individual timetables.