Older horses


Improvements in diet and the knowledge of the care of horses and veterinary treatment available means that horses are living to a riper old age than they used to. They can easily go on into their twenties and thirties and the average lifespan would be to their mid twenties. I even remember one old donkey that nearly reached fifty! As in young animals the elderly ones need more special care and attention to keep them in good shape.

For younger horses, 1 year is equivalent to about 3.5 years of a human life. This ratio changes slightly to about 3 years as the horse gets older. Any horse over 20 years is considered old, but many are still physically fit and playful at this age.

What things change as the horse gets older?


  • A top line that sags, producing a dipped back and prominent withers.
  • Looser skin and muscle wastage, difficulty in keeping weight on.
  • Cloudiness in the eyes.
  • A floppy lower lip.
  • Greying hairs especially around the muzzle.
  • Noticeable depressions in the recesses above the eyes.
  • Food inadvertently falling from the mouth as the teeth are worn or lost.
  • Actual loss of weight.
  • Stiffness or lameness with osteoarthritis.

Invisible signs

Internal changes are occurring too, which are not as obvious:

  • The immune system becomes less efficient.
  • Heart, liver, kidney and gut function deteriorates.
  • As in older people, the bones leak some of their constituents and become more brittle.
  • Muscle tissue loses its strength.
  • Joints have a reduced range of movement.
  • Tendons and ligaments lose their elasticity.
  • Hormonal changes adversely affect the body’s condition.

All these effects make your horse more prone to illness and injury and extend recovery time.

Special action to take

  • Regular veterinary check on dental function.
  • Blood tests to establish state of nutrition, kidney and liver function.
  • Provide proper balanced nutrition with specific veteran diets.
  • Such diets should be:
     - Very palatable
     - Easy to chew and swallow
     - Enhanced levels of protein and fibre
     - Rich in essential minerals and vitamins
     - Free of dust

Dietary changes should be phased in over at least a week, as sudden changes can affect digestive function. Ensure adequate supplies of clean fresh water. Constipation or colic or can occur if water is insufficient; you may need to provide soaked mashes and feeds.

General care

  • Maintain routine worming and vaccinations
  • Shelter and warm stabling over winter
  • A weatherproof rug will reduce the horse’s energy requirement to maintain body temperature
  • Enough exercise to maintain flexibility and tone the muscles
  • Regular foot trimming and care by the farrier every 6-8 weeks

If this advice is followed it is quite possible for your horse to live a ripe and rewarding older age.

 Health problems that develop later on in life

Osteoarthritis affecting one or more of the horse’s joints is very common in the aged horse. Once present it will gradually deteriorate. However pain relief either with conventional drugs or some complementary therapies can control it. Copper bands, magnetic treatments, herbal remedies, physiotherapy, acupuncture and homeopathic treatments may all be beneficial. It is ok for a horse to continue in work on a low dose of painkiller.

Teeth. As your horse ages he may lose some teeth or wear them down irregularly. This can make eating uncomfortable, and he may quid his food. Sharp points can develop on the molar teeth that impinge on the tongue and inner cheek surfaces.

Reduced liver and kidney function are common in older horses and may be associated with loss of weight and a poor appetite. More advanced features include behavioural changes, irritability and tetchiness, circling movements or pressing the head against the walls.

Pituitary dysfunction can result in Cushing’s disease (failure to shed the winter coat, excess sweating, increase in thirst and urination) or chronic laminitis.

Thyroid dysfunction. Thyroid hormone production can be reduced or increased. Think of thyroid hormone as the body’s accelerator pedal. Too much and the accelerator pedal is pressed down at the same time as the clutch, so everything is racing at full pelt but getting nowhere. Too little and the creature is very sluggish and difficult to get going.

Discuss these concerns with one of the vets if you are worried.

Reproductive performance declines slowly as the horse gets older.

Tumours are more common in older horses. Particularly the melanoma growths seen in grey horses. Tumours can occur in the skin, eye or mouth. Sarcoids are warty type growths often on the legs but can occur anywhere on the body.

Old age in the end has an inevitable outcome. The main way to consider this is to reflect on the quality of life that the animal enjoys. This will then guide a responsible owner to the best decision to take in the horse’s interest.


This information is provided for information purposes to our registered clients. It is the individual opinion of veterinary surgeons within the practice. It should not be relied upon as an alternative to a clinical examination and diagnosis by a veterinary surgeon. If in any doubt please contact the practice for further advice.

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© Hunters Lodge Veterinary Practice 2010.


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