Trail and Western riders are finally discovering what dressage, English riders and eventers have known all along -- a 20-year-old horse can be in his prime.
Veterinarian Sarah Jacobsen says she's seeing more older horses staying active and in the ribbons and buckles into their mid- to late 20s.
"It depends on each horse, of course," she said. "I've seen horses at 30 -- who were not used hard as youngsters and got good care -- that are still going strong."
Dressage and eventing horses have always had long careers because they are not started or seriously ridden until they are 4 or older. The horses that tend to break down are the ones started as 2-year-olds and are expected to perform long and taxing activity.
Forcing a horse into strenuous activity before it is physically mature can do irreparable damage and render the horse lame to unusable after a few years. One such example is race horses that are started before the age of 2, are running races at 2 and 3 and retired before they are 5. In the gaited breeds, some associations and show circuits are banning showing 2-year-olds under saddle because of the physical damage done to legs, joints and bones that have not matured enough to handle the stress.
In the Western horse world, many more owners are working at keeping their older horses fit and healthy instead of breaking in new ones.
"I'm helping care for a lot of older roping and barrel racing horses these days," Jacobsen said. "People are finding out that it's much easier to take care of a well-trained older horse than to start a new one. Horses 20 and older are going out and performing with their years of experience and far surpassing the younger ones in competitions."
One of the aids for older horses is the scientific discoveries that keep their joints healthy longer. She said there are several injectible products that help keep joints lubricated.
"Senior feeds also are important for older horses," she said. "They are made in a highly digestible form that allows the horses to gets all the vitamins and nutrients in the easiest manner. Proper minerals should be available at all times."
The senior feeds are used in addition to pasture or hay.
Proper tooth maintenance also is important. "Horses of all riding ages need their teeth checked for hooks and other dental problems that can cause them pain while bitted," Jacobsen said. "A dental check should be part of every horse's annual vet care program. It can assure that senior horses don't have as hard a time keeping the proper weight. Of course, a properly rotated worming schedule and regular vaccinations also are a must."
Jacobsen said appropriate warm-up and cool-down times also must be strictly observed for senior horses.
"A good rule is warm up for the first mile or 15 minutes and cool down for the same amount of time," she said. "All of us take a little longer to get our muscles moving as we age. Good warm-ups and cool-downs will help prevent any muscle or tendon damage."
People owning senior horses should pay special attention to how the horse holds up to the activities requested or required.
"If people have had their horse for several years, they should know what is normal exertion and what is strained or labored," she said. "You'd be surprised how well these older guys hold up if they are properly cared for."
She said they are worth the effort.
"Older horses have so very much to offer," Jacobsen said. "They may need an extra bit of care, but they are more than worth it for the wisdom, skills and patience they've learned. You just don't get that in a younger horse. In fact, the youngest horse is my pasture is 15, and the oldest is over 30 and still going strong. I'll take an older horse every time."
Desirai Schild raises horses and writes from a 20-acre farm near Chubbuck, Idaho. Call her at 208-237-6413.