Even old horses must be kept and cared for in a manner appropriate to their species – preferably in a herd

Even old horses must be kept and cared for in a manner appropriate to their species - preferably in a herd

Just as older people are becoming more active in their twilight years, retired horses can stay fit and healthy for longer these days too. Horse owners have generally developed a greater sense of responsibility towards their charges, and so today horses are often kept for many years after their active life. However, there are some things to consider if you want to make your horse’s retirement as attractive and happy as possible. The feeding, the movement, the health maintenance and above all the question: Where to go??

It is not a matter of course that old horses are allowed to spend a peaceful retirement in their own pasture, in a familiar setting with their long-time friends by their side. The money plays a big role. Can the horse continue to be financed, even if it is no longer useful? The financial aspect must be clarified realistically and objectively. An old horse costs just as much as a young one, if not even more due to veterinary costs and medication. Every owner must clarify this question for himself. Just like the question of what is useful, when and to whom. If one’s own sporting career with the horse is coming to an end, it may be a good idea to give the companion to an acquaintance who is looking for a partner to ride out or go for a walk and to look after and care for him. Perhaps someone is also looking for a company for his younger horses? Or a side horse for his brood mare?

There are often also for horse owners with little space many possibilities to accommodate his former sport or leisure partner well. Also a sanctuary for old horses is an alternative. Many of these farms are trying to give the horses a nice old age. But again: "Trust is good, control is better." It is very important not to give the responsibility for the living being simply out of the hand. This responsibility for his horse is also clearly defined as point nine of the Ethical Principles of the Horse Friend, published by the German Equestrian Federation (FN): "The responsibility of man for the horse entrusted to him extends to the end of the horse’s life as well. The human being must always fulfill this responsibility in the best interest of the horse."

Examples of signs of aging

– Gray hair, first on the head

– The efficiency of the cardiovascular and respiratory system decreases

– The feed conversion is impa.

– The ability to regulate temperature is reduced

– The immune system weakens

– Problems with the joints occur

– Spat and other forms of arthrosis occur

– The teeth lengthen and fall out

– There are difficulties with the change of hair

Herd keeping

It is often underestimated that regular exercise is also a big plus for seniors to keep healthy. Not for nothing is the popular saying still true: "He who rests, rusts." A big advantage for the daily movement is the herd attitude in the open stable or on the pasture. In grazing, the herd moves in search of the best grass, and in open stabling, it moves between watering, feeding, sleeping and resting areas. In addition, right friendships are formed between the animals until very old age, which are important for the senior’s psyche. Nevertheless it is to be observed again and again that older animals are excluded from the herd, sometimes even attacked. This is the nature of the horse. Sick, weak and old animals are kept away from the healthy herd to protect the community from diseases, abnormal behavior or from enemies. In other cases it could be observed that older animals had a good influence on younger horses. They can sometimes bring "calm" to a herd and younger horses can learn from the experience of their older comrades. However, if it is possible, a group of horses of the same age, quasi a herd of pensioners, is the optimal form of husbandry. In the pensioner herd, the older horses move among their own kind and have the necessary rest but also company. If the horse cannot be housed in a herd, daily exercise should still not be dispensed with. If the horse can no longer be ridden, it can be taken for walks in addition to grazing. The horse should not be allowed to run indoors, as the risk of injury due to uncontrollable cold starts is too great. Especially with old horses there is a risk of pulled tendons, muscles or ligaments.


The main food of old horses should be hay, respectively grass. A rule of thumb states that one kilogram of roughage should be given for every 100 kilograms of live weight of the horse. With older animals this may be increased gladly on one and a half kilo. As mentioned above, the pasture or open stall keeping is healthy. With these types of housing an extra portion may be included, because the energy consumption is increased. The same applies to low temperatures, as now in winter. As with humans, everything slows down a bit in horses as they get older; they absorb less energy, are more susceptible to illness, chew less well and their intestines are not as busy as they used to be. Attention should be paid to this in feeding.

A few tips on feeding:

  • To balance the intestinal activity, dry chips can be given, which must swell in water before feeding.
  • In case of chewing disorders, crushed oats without husks help.
  • Mash is used to promote digestion.
  • Protein quality can be improved with soybean meal, since proteins are generally less well digested, more attention should be paid to quality.
  • In order not to promote bone problems and lameness, close attention should be paid to the ratio of calcium and phosphorus.
  • Attention must also be paid to the composition and quantities of trace elements.
  • In old age there is a higher need for selenium, zinc and copper. This can be ensured by salt licks or ready mineral mixtures.
  • The need for vitamins is also different from that of younger horses. There is a double need for vitamins A and E. Vitamin D can have a negative effect on the important calcium and phosphorus if overfed and it demineralizes the bones.
  • Vitamin C is given to increase resistance, just as it is for humans. In the event of an impending wave of influenza, it is best to administer coated vitamin C or injected directly by the veterinarian.

Disease patterns in old horses

Common signs of illness are underweight, dental damage, osteoarthritis, cardiovascular problems, poor eyesight and eye diseases, Cushing’s syndrome, immune deficiency, skin parasites and tumors.

Many diseases are caused by the high and not always met nutritional needs of the horse. In addition, the horse’s metabolism is no longer as efficient. That is, the conversion of food into the important substances no longer succeeds so well. Here, a little apple cider vinegar spread over the food can help. It stimulates the metabolism. Good success in the treatment of age-related complaints has also been achieved time and again with homeopathic remedies. Information on this can be obtained from the veterinarian or homeopath. Cushing’s syndrome is mainly a problem of old animals. The symptoms show up in the no longer functioning coat change. Long, fine, wavy hairs form and the coat becomes curly. Furthermore, it can be observed that a pasture belly is formed. Muscle atrophy, fat formation and apathy occur. Animals suffering from this disease have increased thirst and urinate accordingly frequently. Other signs can be laminitis and infections. It is assumed that a malfunction in the pituitary gland is responsible for Cushing’s syndrome. It leads to an overproduction of the hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), which in turn produces too much cortisol. The increased cortisol level weakens the immune system and protein metabolism. In addition, blood sugar levels rise, which explains the horses’ increased thirst. There is no possibility of a cure so far, medications can only be given for symptom relief after consultation with the veterinarian. Horses experience additional relief when their long coats are shorn.

When the end is near

Despite all the love invested in the horse as a partner, even after the active period, there comes a time when it is time to say goodbye. How and when is often at the discretion of the owner.

That the horse dies a natural and painless death is probably the wish of every owner. But unfortunately this is rarely the case. At some point, the owner must make a decision that is sure to be one of the hardest to make. The animal has the privilege of being spared unnecessary pain. But one must not be careless with the power over life and death. Correct weighing and discussion with the veterinarian is essential. When there is no way out and the horse is struggling with life, there are usually two options: euthanasia by injection or bolt-gun shooting. The brain is killed within a second in the case of a bolt shot. With the euthanasia injection, the horse is first anesthetized and then killed by an overdose. From the point of view of animal welfare, both types of killing are justifiable if they are carried out correctly. The owner must also decide where it should happen. If the horse is still fit for transport and can be taken to a slaughterhouse? In the familiar environment there is still longer time to say goodbye. But is the knacker organized? Is the horse afraid of syringes? All of these questions and risks need to be thoroughly considered and clarified in advance – making a decision in haste in this situation can lead to self-reproach later, because it cannot be reversed. Once it is done, it is very helpful and comforting to take time to replay the beautiful moments with your partner and friend, to recall all the details in the movement or facial expression in your mind’s eye. Saying goodbye in peace and keeping the memories is important, because really dead is only who was forgotten.

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