Age in horses is so relative. Many horses continue to work well into their 30s while others are deemed ancient for their initial career at six. Some breeds are best started at a much older age, while some industries are backing horses as yearlings. Of course, much depends on the horse, but the perspective of the humans involved plays a major role.

Keep your horse young with a new career

Just because a horse may be past his prime in one career doesn’t mean he’s ready to be literally turned out to pasture. Few horses seem to enjoy being returned to a wild-type state of unfettered grazing and a dearth of human contact. The current popularity of the ‘forever-home’ concept may do the horse, and the human, a disservice. Sometimes offering a horse a different home with a new career can be the kindest thing to do.

Horses tend to age more quickly when they are idle and bored. They pick up bad habits, are more prone to illness and lose tone.

Equines that relish training and/or are given the opportunity to transition to new and exciting careers seem to stay in their prime for more years than expected.

Help your horse’s head

Like humans, horses seem to thrive on a mix of physical and mental stimulation. Rarely, with domesticated horses, does a natural herd environment alone provide the bliss so many imagine. Instead, those culled out from the herd for training activities that are presented in a fun manner with the horse’s opinions considered in the activity mix appear to be the happiest and healthiest. Training doesn’t always have to involve riding, but the engagement and attention that comes with lessons offers a purpose for the horse that they seem to need. You can play with nursing foals as well as old cripples in ways that help improve their quality of life and yours without stressing feeble bodies.

Talk to your horse about campaigns

The next time you rally behind a cause that advocates forever homes or offers a pastoral return to their wild roots, consider the horse.  If they spoke human, most would say they’d rather have a job. Listen to more subtle cues, though, and you’ll hear their desires.

It seems like so much of the current ‘humanitarian’ effort applied to horses in an effort to ‘protect’ them forgets that we’ve been domesticating horses for millenniums and in so doing, have changed their nature.  If you’ve ever experienced that miraculous moment with a horse when they’re even more excited about excelling at the human-horse partnership challenge than you are, you’ll get this.

Are you making your horse feel old?

So, what makes a horse too old? Usually, it’s what we do to them. Of course, there are genetic and injury issues that can end an active life too early, but more often it comes down to what we do to help our equines live a fulfilling and interesting life. For most horses, that means having a job they can get excited about. Welfare is a wonderful concept – too bad the term has come to mean provider for so many. You might be amazed at how special a horse can become when empowered to give back in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling for both of you (or a new owner who can offer a job). Given the chance, most horses will gladly earn their keep with jobs you request. Those left to languish in freedom get old fast.

Do you have a horse that lit up when you discovered his desired job? Did you make the hard decision to re-home a horse you loved so he could have a more fulfilling life elsewhere? Are you struggling with a horse you just don’t know how to engage? Please share with comments below this blog post. Thanks.

2 Responses

  1. I have a 21 yr old QH and he is still going strong. Still jumping, still running, he loves his job. I guess who are we to say what is too old? (Same can go for humans!). As long as he is showing interest in what he is doing, I’ll keep doing it! Thanks, Nanette for bringing this topic to light! I am so sick of hearing people say “Oh – he’s 21? You should retire him.”

  2. Thanks for sharing, Keli. He’ll likely have many good years ahead of him. Years ago, I had a pony that was very special. Although it took longer for me to let go than was fair to her, I finally sold her to another. When I returned to CT to teach lessons a decade later, I discovered she was still going strong as a fox hunter at the age of 30.

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