Horses, like humans, are living longer than ever before thanks to a better understanding of their health and much improved medical care.
Not so long ago, 25 years of age was considered an advanced age for a horse! If the life span of horses has increased, it is also because we -the owners- are taking better care of them. And most of us hope for an optimal longevity for our companion.
So what is the life expectancy of a horse? That is, how long do horse live? What do we need to know about his old age? Until what age can you ride your horse? How should the diet of an older horse be adapted? Until what age can I ride my horse? How to adapt the diet of an old horse? Not to mention the health problems specific to old horses…
how long do horses live for?There are few breeds of horses known to live beyond 35 years. The draft horse is one of those rare exceptions; it can live and be useful for more than 50 years.
Life expectancy of a horse
Globally, the average life expectancy of a horse is between 20 and 35 years. However, not all horses are the same in this age range. A distinction must be made between small horses -and ponies- whose height at the withers is between 40 and 148 centimeters, and large horses, whose height at the withers can reach 220 centimeters.
In mini horses and poniesTo answer the question "How long do mini horses live?" mini horses, especially the Fjord and Icelandic breeds, often live longer than their larger counterparts, easily reaching 30 to 35 years. This is partly because they are not fully developed until they are seven or eight years old and therefore mature late. They often stay "in service" until they are over 20 years old (can be ridden and will be able to work longer) unlike the larger horses.
In large horses
Large horses, on the other hand, usually live only 20 to 30 years.
Cold-blooded horses, which are usually already fully developed at 3 or 4 years of age, have a life expectancy of only 16 to 18 years.
Half-blood breeds reach an average age of 20 years. They will have completed their full growth only at the age of about five years.
Thoroughbreds will live about 25 years, depending on their intended use. If they are, for example, used as professional show horses, they will tend to die sooner. This is because they are under more physical and psychological stress in their competitive lives.
As for wild horse breeds
On the other hand, wild horse breeds, which originated centuries ago from escaped domestic horses, can exceed 35 years of age. The original wild horses no longer exist. Virtually all existing breeds today are descended from escaped domestic horses, the native wild horses having been exterminated or domesticated by man for the most part.
Different breeds will therefore have different characteristics and life expectancy; this is why it is very complicated to give an equivalent in human years to the age of the horse. There are different opinions on this subject as to a precise correspondence table.
Record ages reached by the horse and the pony
The oldest horse in the world
Born in 1760 in the British village of Woolston and bred by Edward Robinson, the horse Old Billy died in 1822 at the age of 62, a record that still makes him the oldest horse in the world today.
Photo of Old Billy, wanderlord.com
The oldest pony in the world
Obtained from a cross between an Exmoor and a Shetland pony, Sugar Puff lived in England in Sussex. He died at the age of 56, making him the oldest pony in the world.
Old age in horses
When is a horse considered "old"?In young horses, one year of life corresponds to about 3.5 years of human age. Thus, a 10 year old horse can be compared to a 35 year old human being. This conversion factor varies depending on the age of the horse. For older horses, one year will correspond to about three human years. Thus, a 20 year old horse will have the human age equivalent of a 60 year old person. In general, a horse is considered "old" when it has reached the age of 20. This does not mean that all horses 20 years of age and older are actually old: many are still in excellent condition.
What are the signs of aging in a horse?There are some typical signs that your horse is getting older. Here is a summary:
- a sagging back with prominent withers
- loose skin and muscle atrophy
- gray hair, especially around the eyes, ears, mouth and forehead
- opacification of the eyes
- a sunken face, with hollows above the eyes
- a drooping lower lip
- lameness due to arthritis or weight loss
- He eats more slowly, lacks appetite, chews with difficulty due to missing teeth
Can I delay the aging of my horse?Unfortunately, you cannot delay the aging of your horse. It is a natural organic process, part of which is predetermined by the genetic material of the breed. However, you can contribute to its good health by feeding and maintaining it as well as possible, and by providing it with the care it needs. But despite ideal conditions, you have no guarantee that he will reach a great age... And sometimes fate decides that your beloved horse will have to go sooner than you would have wished (illnesses, accidents, etc).
Where to retire your horse?
There are several options for retiring your horse.
The first option is to keep your horse and continue to maintain and care for it until the end. The advantage of this option is that it allows you to ensure the best possible end of life for your horse, by being by his side every day. The main disadvantage is the economic impact of this decision, especially if your horse was employed to work.
The other option is to board your horse with a professional. In this case, the transition will have to be done gently, because the change could be brutal for your horse. Both physically and morally, going from work to retirement too quickly could be detrimental to him.
If your horse was in a riding facility but cannot stay there for retirement, you may want to consider finding a shelter, club, or facility that can accommodate your horse. If you don't have the space at home, you can look for a meadow to rent near your home. As long as your horse is not left alone, this can be a good solution for his old age.
It will also be preferable to guarantee him a life in the meadow and in a herd for his retirement. Even in retirement, your senior horse still has a vital need to live in a group, with other horses. Choose a sufficiently large space, with a shelter and clean water points.
If he was living in a box, the transition to the meadow should be done gradually. You can go in stages, first for small outings, with a second horse with whom he is friends, before introducing him to unknown horses.
It is customary to remove the hind hooves to prevent possible conflicts between horses that do not know each other. Moreover, be up to date with vaccinations and deworming.
Be careful, however, if feeding is done in a group. An old horse, newly arrived in the herd, could have difficulties to integrate. The dominance of the older horses could put him aside and deprive him of food.
In this case, it may be better to reserve a meadow for him alone, with a friendly horse. Keeping two horses together will prevent loneliness and create a strong bond of friendship for the rest of their lives.
To avoid any depression, keeping a link with other horses and with you will be beneficial to him. Also, as mentioned, it will be necessary to continue training or outings. Continuing an activity will be important for him, for his musculature and his health, as well as for his morale.
If his health allows it, do not hesitate to ride your old horse regularly for short outings.
For the owners who do not have the means to maintain an old horse at home or in an equestrian center, there are charities to which it is possible to entrust your horse.
How does a horse die of old age?
First of all, it is important to know that it is very rare for a horse to actually die of old age, as one might expect. As with humans, horses die as a result of an illness or disease.
A 1997 study by veterinarians (source) showed that only 0.6% of horses actually die of old age.
At an advanced age, most horses die mainly of colic, in the majority of cases. In old horses, these colics are caused by fatty tumors, or lipomas, which cause twisting and obstructions of the digestive tract.
Cancers, lymphomas and tumors are also a very common cause of death in older horses. Unfortunately, this is a disease that is becoming more and more frequent in the equestrian world, due to the increase in the life expectancy of horses.
One of the main causes, which is relatively common, is also cardiac arrest, especially in old racehorses.
Fractures or arthritis are also causes of mobility disorders in horses, which at the end of their lives present a fatal loss of autonomy.
In females, a too late start to reproduction presents a risk for them. During foaling, there is a risk of rupture of the uterine artery, which is a frequent cause of mortality in old females.
Finally, infectious diseases are fatal for about 10 to 15% of horses, especially in equestrian centers where the population density is higher.
How to adapt the diet of an old horse?The digestive system of an older horse does not function as well as it used to. That is why the right diet is extremely important for your senior horse.
Special feed for older horsesForage rich in fiber - and free of dust, of course - remains the basis of the diet, even at an advanced age. In addition, your horse needs a complete diet that includes all the minerals and vitamins that are essential for him. If he needs more energy, we recommend that you feed him special feed for older horses: it is easily digestible and easy to chew.
Your older horse's feed should be low in sugar and starch to prevent possible metabolic problems. And if your horse can no longer chew properly, you can give him warm mash. Don't forget to give your horse constant access to a fresh water source.
Take dietary changes seriously
A change in diet takes time and should never be made abruptly. A horse's digestion - especially in older horses - is very delicate and he will need time to adjust to his new food. It is best to consult your veterinarian or a feeding expert before implementing any changes.
What are the specific health problems of older horses?
Dental problemsHorses have a mechanism to compensate for the wear of the dental table: their teeth grow back 2 to 3 millimeters per year. But sometimes their teeth wear out, and sometimes they fall out. Older horses often have difficulty chewing their food properly, which leads to swallowing problems and poor digestion. The remaining teeth often have sharp ridges and edges. These cause them pain when eating, and can lead to tongue and cheek injuries (they are often inflamed). Older horses also often suffer from gingivitis and root problems. Defective teeth should be removed immediately by your veterinarian. And don't panic if your horse has no teeth at all: his diet will have to be completely revised, but this will not prevent him from leading a healthy and pleasant life.
OsteoarthritisOsteoarthritis affects sometimes one but often several joints of your horse, and old horses are very often affected by it. The result is stiffness and lameness, which disappears after a few minutes of exercise as your horse gets on its feet. Generally, symptoms worsen in cold, wet weather. Osteoarthritis cannot be cured, but it can be slowed down by certain medications. There is now a fairly new dietary supplement that is very effective as a pain reliever, saprophytic, which can provide relief for your horse.
The pituitary gland is a hormonal gland in the brain that plays a role in many body functions. In older horses, there is often degeneration of this gland, which leads to the following symptoms:
- laminitis; a long, thick coat that is no longer changed during the shedding process.
- a tendency to drink more water
- a tendency to urinate in greater quantities
- changes in the liver and kidneys
- changes in the liver and kidneys are very common in older horses.
In the beginning, horses will lose weight and appetite, which you may be able to compensate for by changing their diet. At a later stage, your horse may change its behavior and become nervous, spinning around and leaning its head against the wall. If you suspect a liver or kidney problem, call your veterinarian immediately. He or she will run a few tests to make a diagnosis and suggest the best course of action.
Some types of tumors occur more frequently with age, but this is much less obvious in horses than in humans. But with the exception of sarcoid tumors and melanomas, they are quite rare. Sarcoids look like warts and can appear all over the body. Melanomas occur primarily in older horses with gray coats, and are usually found on the eye, mouth and around the anus.
Impact on reproduction
Fertility decreases as the horse ages. Hormonal changes eventually lead to infertility in both mares and stallions. In geldings (castrated horses), inflammation and swelling of the urethra may occur and lead to difficulty in urinating.
Until what age can I ride my horse?
Most owners and riders find it difficult to estimate the appropriate age to retire a horse. Indeed, by taking care of it on a daily basis, it is difficult to know exactly when it becomes too old to work.
In addition, it depends on the activity and the life the horse has known. For example, many racehorses will have joint problems from the age of 12 or so, and can no longer be ridden without causing them pain.
On the other hand, recreational and trail horses can continue to work and be ridden for outings, even into their late 20s and 30s.
As the horse ages, it is important to watch out for muscle atrophy, which affects all horses as they age. A horse that is too weak can no longer be ridden. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian for advice so that he can judge the physical capacities of your horse with a professional eye.
In any case, a good physical maintenance with a regular training is beneficial, so that the horse preserves its muscular mass at best. It all depends on the horse and the care given throughout its life.
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