In Praise of the Older Horse

Event rider Jeanette Brakewell’s great Olympic partner “Over To You” was still storming around the cross-country course at Badminton for the seventh time at the age of 19 before he was finally retired from top-level competition in 2007. “Jack” as he was known, epitomised the modern older horse. Although not all event horses can boast as many Olympic, World Equestrian Games, European medals and top ten placings at Badminton as Jack there are many examples of older horses eventing into their twilight years.

Thanks to improvements in veterinary science, welfare and equine nutrition horses, like people, are not only living longer but also enjoying an active life well into their later years and many top-flight competition horses retire to enjoy a second, more sedate career as schoolmasters.

So, if 50 is the new 40, does that mean that 20 is the new 15 for our equine friends?

It is often said that there is no substitute for experience and a reliable schoolmaster can provide not only a huge amount of fun but also a transition for riders from novice to more advanced. Now knowing that an older horse, provided it is sound, fit and healthy, has potentially many remaining years of active service should encourage more people to enjoy the benefits that an experienced schoolmaster can bring.

While the value of the older horse as a schoolmaster is widely appreciated, the greatest concern among many considering taking one on is vet fees, not because they are higher but because some insurers will only provide cover for injury and not illness in older horses.

The good news is that age is no longer a barrier when it comes to buying and insuring an older horse as there are now insurers such as Petplan Equine who will provide insurance for illness as well as injury right up to the age of 25 if it is insured prior to its 20th birthday.  Conditions vary among insurers and some still only offer a reduced veteran plan so when considering which insurer to go with, it is important to check exactly what is on offer for your senior equine citizen.

Owning a horse is a considerable commitment and the prospect of a much-loved animal enjoying a longer, more active life is one to be welcomed even if it means a greater financial burden. However, there are still a number of ways in which owners can safeguard against an older horse costing more than a ‘younger model’.

If you own or are considering taking on an older horse you will need to put a management programme into place to keep him feeling and performing at his best – prevention is always better than cure and so regular worming, dental, farriery and veterinary check-ups are essential.

Contrary to what some might believe, vets generally advise that it is better for a horse to live out in the field as much as possible. Providing they are well rugged and have access to shelter, feed and fresh water horses benefit greatly from being outside where they are able to move around. Movement helps keep their joints more flexible, helps to increase circulation and improves digestion and respiration.

Keeping the older horse working aerobically can keep him mentally and physically fit. It must be the right sort of work for his age, fitness and experience. Gil Riley, Petplan Equine Veterinary Expert , stresses, “I always tell my clients that the greatest risk we take with our older horses is not actually overworking them, but under working them! An active life is vital as it stimulates the horse mentally, ensures the heart and circulation are kept in good condition and very importantly limits, an even reverses, the loss of muscle mass, a problem encountered by all horses as they age. Remember that every horse is unique and therefore there is no “one size fits all” exercise programme; rather you must adapt the work on a day to day basis depending on how well the horse is managing”

It is important to continue to match feed intake to work rate but you may find that your older horse requires a little more feed than a younger horse kept in similar conditions.

With advances in dental and veterinary diagnosis and treatment, readily available expert nutritional advice and now financial cover for illness and injury, there is no reason why the older horse cannot remain young at heart and provide years of pleasure and invaluable experience.

Call Out Box: Top Tips for Older Horse Care

  • Make sure the horse is properly vetted before you purchase
  • Wherever possible try to find out the previous medical history and ask your own Vet to consider the history – forewarned is forearmed!
  • Choose an insurance policy that provides cover for illness as well as injury for as long as possible
  • Take particular care of bones, ligaments and joints – these are what show wear and tear as the horse gets older, just like humans.
  • Take care of the horse’s respiratory system, it’s the second most common area of disease – feed good quality, dust free forage and when the horse is stabled make sure that the ventilation is good.
  • Ask your vet at an early stage for advice if the horse starts to lose condition.
  • Maintain and regularly check teeth (at least once every 6 months)
  • Feed plenty of forage as this stimulates activity of the gut and promotes good digestion
  • Hay/Haylage fed should be soft. Use the “Squeeze test”- you should be able to squeeze a handful and it not hurt your hand, and on releasing the forage should not remain compressed but rather spring out again
  • Choose feed designed for older horses, the emphasis being on soft to chew and therefore easily swallowed with the protein content being high quality and easily digestible. There are several very good commercial hard feeds on the market.
  • Consider using a pre-biotic supplement to aid digestion
  • An effective worm control programme is especially important in the older horse- ask your Vet for advice and stick to it!

For further information on Petplan Equine’s insurance for older horses please visit www.petplanequine.co.uk or call 0800 980 3905

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