Understanding Horses: Caring for Wise Elders

Keeping the elder horse fed and healthy is as much an art as a science. Horses, like humans, change as they age, and every individual is different. Even the speed at which they age: breeding and genetics, time and miles, wear and tear, all have something to do with how well or how fast a horse grows old. One horse may be broken down in their mid-teens or even earlier; another may still be lively and vigorous well up in their twenties or even thirties—especially if they’re a pony. Ponies are famously long-lived.

In some show disciplines, an “aged” horse is five years or up. Which in a species with a life expectancy of around 24 years is a little bit disturbing. But as I said, time and miles make a difference. How early the horse begins to work, how hard they work, the nature of that work, it adds up. Other disciplines set a minimum age for competition—three or four years or more—which does not stop eager trainers from starting the horse long before that, but does slow them down just a little bit.

Whatever the breed or the discipline or the workload, a horse in its teens is at least entering middle age. The attentive owner or trainer will watch for signs of physical stress, arthritis, soft-tissue damage, and may add supplements that help ease the burden. Joints may be injected with certain drugs, or the horse may be fed herbal or chemical preparations.

Even without those, the horse’s metabolism will start to change. They may need more calories to keep weight, or they may go in the other direction and need fewer. Horses do not develop diabetes, but they can be insulin resistant, and need carefully balanced feeds and possibly less of them.

Horses’ teeth grow almost lifelong, wearing down as they grind their daily forage. As they age, they may need help from a dentist to keep their teeth and jaw angles at optimum, and to smooth down sharp points wandering edges. Eventually the teeth may wear to the point that the horse can no longer chew hay or other roughage; then they need softer feeds, chopped hay, soaked hay, soaked pellets, whatever is available.

“Old horses always get skinny” is a common myth. A horse who is fed the right feeds in the right amount will stay in healthy weight regardless of age. That may mean a constant juggling act for the stable manager, trying different options in search of the one or the combination that will work for the particular horse.

By the time the horse gets into the twenties, they’re headed from late middle age into old age. Horseman’s wisdom says “Every year after 25 is a gift.” I find that pretty accurate. Even the most sound and vigorous late twentysomething is still getting up there, and needs careful monitoring.

Not that any horse doesn’t. Horses are notoriously prone to getting themselves in serious and sometimes fatal trouble. But the elders benefit from a little extra TLC.

I’ve got a barnful of twentysomethings at the moment, and have had thirtysomethings, though they’ve since gone their way. This winter I noticed that the current Eldest Mare was looking a bit different. She’d grown an unusually long and thick coat, rather late in the winter for such a change, and quite unlike her coat in previous winters.

She is twenty-eight. She has always been a chonk, which points toward possible insulin resistance. This old horse is not even close to skinny. She lives on hay and a tiny handful of grain into which I mix the meds that keep her grey-horse melanoma tumors more or less under control.

But the sudden arctic-pony coat led to an Oh Shit moment.Cushing’s disease is a common ailment in horses, especially very old ones. There’s a whole list of signs and symptoms, none of which she actually showed until she turned into an Epic Floof. With one exception: I had noticed as winter advanced that she seemed sleepy and slow, and almost but not quite hinting at colic. Then came the floof, and she perked up, and became her old lively self. Except for the floof.

This is not a death sentence. It’s more of a wake-up call. The vet will be involved. There will be meds (which she’d better eat in her feed; she turns into a rampant Queen Dragon when anyone tries to medicate her by mouth). There will be watchfulness.

She is shedding the floof, which is a good sign. She will probably need to be clipped if any of it clings in the summer, because a thick winter coat is miserable in Southwestern desert heat. She’s alert and full of herself, also a good sign. And she’s sound. I’ll be riding her for a while yet, I think. We’ll see.

That’s eldercare, equine division. Always a new learning experience. Never the same one twice.

But worth it. Elder mares are the wise ones, the long-suffering and endlessly tolerant leaders and teachers, aunties and grandmas and Great Mother Goddesses. They’ve raised their babies and fought their wars and made up their minds about who they are. They have a lot to teach, if I’ll only learn.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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