Preparing an Older Horse for the Work Season

By Patty Wilber

Cometa is 25 this year. This is him last summer, at 24.

Cometa, Summer 2021, Manzano Mountains.

He is a double registered Spanish Barb and Spanish Mustang and we have had him since he was three years old.

Obviously, he is no longer a spring chicken, and we want to make sure he is in shape for the summer Back Country Horseman trail season.

Feet. Feet make a horse, especially in the back country, and fortunately Cometa has the best feet of all our horses. He has been trimmed every 6 to 8 weeks his entire life and he has never worn shoes because he has an extra thick, extra hard hoof wall that does not chip, even on our rocky terrain.

Teeth. Horse teeth have about 4.5 to 5 inches of growing they can do, total, and they grow about an 1/8th of an inch per year (says Wikipedia) until they run out of tooth. When  there is no root left, the tooth falls out.  It is important that the old trail horse has teeth in good enough shape to maintain the body condition needed to do physical trail work. Cometa does have a bit of a wave mouth, but we have his teeth checked every spring, and so far he still has all of them. He is set to be checked April 28th this year.

This is the skull of a young horse and you can see how much tooth there is in the jaw. http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/digestion/pregastric/horsepage.html

Wave mouth

Weight.  Cometa had always been an air fern.  As he has aged, he does eat a bit more than he used to, but we generally have to worry about him being too fat, as opposed to too thin.  An older horse needs to be able to keep weight on in order to maintain healthy musculature, but they should not be over weight, because that has its own issues.

Fitness program. A back country horse has to ride many miles at altitude, so they need to be in shape.  Most older horses, like most older people, cannot just jump off the couch and perform like they did when they were young. (It is true that the whole couch thing doesn’t really work for horses, but hopefully you will let me slide.) Cometa lives in a big pen, not a stall, and he does run and play, but over the winter, he was on a bit of a vacation, so to help get him back up to fighting shape, we are trying to get him out two to three times a week.  This might be hand walking, at liberty round pen trot-canter work, being ponied, giving a lesson, or going for a ride (where he might be the lead horse).

Cometa giving a beginner lesson.

Jim ponying Gette off Cometa, two weeks ago.

Pain. So far he has not shown any joint pain, and is not on any supplements, but as horses age, their joints do experience wear and tear.  Sometimes anti-inflammatories, prescribed by a vet, can keep an older horse comfortable.  I mean, I sometimes resort to over-the- counter drugs for my own aches!

How far is too far? Our trail projects are 100% walking, so we don’t have to worry about a lot of high intensity speed work, but we often do projects at over ten thousand feet elevation and the trails have steep climbs.  Right now, we like to keep his rides under 10 miles.  If we are going longer than that, he can pack, which means that he can carry tools, which are not heavy, or he can carry a 100 pound load (less than a saddle and a rider) one way when we pack crews in or out.

How old is too old? Sixty-two is the world record for horse longevity, and is held by a horse named Old Billy (1760- 1822). Old Billy held a job until he was 59 years old! A good number of horses live into their 30’s these days, though many stop “working” in their 20s.  As long as Cometa is healthy and happy, we will keep using him in whatever capacity fits his physical fitness!

About BlogPatty

Here's the skinny: I have a thing for horses. They make sense to me. I have a small horse training business (it's a "boutique" training business, not because it's super fancy, but because the horses get a lot of personal attention). I also go by Dr. Wilber, and teach biology full-time at a Central New Mexico Community college.
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2 Responses to Preparing an Older Horse for the Work Season

  1. Great to see a mid-20s horse in such good shape, and still able to get out in the mountains with you. Of course the care you’ve taken of him–hoof to teeth to thoughtful riding and usage–has helped, but he’s clearly got the kind of basic conformation & physiology that I wish people were breeding for, instead of horses to run races at 2 and 3, or do “futurity” events and then crash in their teens if not before. (That’s my soapbox…please excuse.) Best wishes for Cometa’s long life to continue to be pleasant for him and useful for you. He could not have a better home.

    As my little spotted guy continues to learn and get stronger, he’s developed some…um…typical horse stuff that I’m working on. Over the last week or two, Rags has gotten fussy with his mouth while riding, though he takes the bit willingly and I’m not asking for a “frame” or anything. The farrier’s coming tomorrow–I suspect the “tripping” on grass clumps that’s happened in the last week (and the bad stumble/near fall while trotting today) is partly that he needs a trim. The two horses have an appointment at the vet’s on the 19th, that will include floating their teeth, shots, etc. And I’ll have questions for the vet about what might be causing some of these things.

  2. BlogPatty says:

    I am sorry I did not reply sooner! Thanks!

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