Career changes for older horses

Once put out to pasture at a certain age, horses today are far more active in their senior years and can go on to second, third or even fourth careers.

Meet Lord Nelson. The handsome chestnut gelding started out as a ranch horse and has since had distinguished careers as a patrol horse and the mount of a football team’s mascot.

But all that’s behind Lord Nelson now. At the age of 41, he has a new line of work—educating youth as the mascot of “Equine Science 4 Kids” at Rutgers University’s Equine Science Center in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“Here’s a horse whose entire life has been a change of career, something that would have been unheard of a few decades ago,” says Karyn Malinowski, PhD, an equine scientist specializing in the aging horse. The director of the Rutgers Equine Science Center, Malinowski purchased the Quarter Horse at an auction in 1978.

Older horses can have extremely successful second careers.

Owing his longevity to a lifetime of good veterinary care and nutrition, Lord Nelson is just one of a growing number of horses today who are aging well and as a result are able to change jobs rather than retire as the years pass.

Few horses end up with as many different careers as Lord Nelson has had, of course. But the horse world is well populated with those that have had several. Like me, you probably know many of these horses—if you don’t own one yourself.

I’m thinking of my friend’s 22-year-old former barrel-racer who now is the lead horse on our trail rides. And another friend’s flashy Thoroughbred, who can no longer safely jump but has gone on to become an ideal 4-H partner for a young girl starting her riding career. 

Then there are those horses who wind up in careers few could have predicted. I recently met an 18-hand Shire cross who was initially used in harness. Now, a decade later, he is happily lumbering down the trail with his Quarter Horse friends, even occasionally sorting cattle with them, the feathers flying above his size-six feet.

But the particulars really don’t matter. What’s important is that, however they start out, a growing number of horses today remain healthy, sound and athletically capable as they grow old. And many, even at advanced ages, are happy and productive in entirely new lines of work.

When to make a change in an older horse’s work

Jump refusals, lack of stamina, persistent stiffness, recurring injuries—these are all signs that an older horse is ready to move on to another, less strenuous career activity. In my Quarter Horse, Louie, the physical signs appeared almost overnight. During an especially long trail ride, I noticed that Louie was more winded than usual and had dropped to the back, obviously struggling to keep up.

It turns out that his passage into old age was right on schedule. Louie turns 20 this year, the average age when horses begin to feel the limitations and aches of advancing years. “Often a first sign is that aerobic capacity begins to decline, and that can happen starting at 18, with 20 being the magic number,” says equine exercise physiologist Kenneth McKeever, PhD, FACSM, who serves as the associate director for research at the Rutgers Equine Science Center.

For Louie, this meant scaling back to shorter trail rides and making a slow transition into a new career in competitive trail—something he didn’t have the patience for as a 12-year-old. So while I’ve lost my younger, sure-footed horse who could go all day, I’ve gained a much saner mount who is finally able to stand still long enough to listen to my cues for opening gates, side-passing across logs and maneuvering all the other obstacles of competitive trail events.

Indeed, I’ve learned that it’s worth taking a positive approach to a horse’s age-related limitations, focusing on the abilities he retains rather than the strength or speed he may have lost. In fact, it can be an opportunity to identify an aptitude that was overlooked during a horse’s goal-focused competitive years.

Career options for older horses

The best career matches for a senior horse take into account his under-saddle training and experience as well as his temperament and exposure to different environments. Has he spent his entire life in an arena? Or does he do better in the open? Does he seem to want to jump every log and branch in your path? Or does she have an old injury that would prevent her from jumping even the smallest obstacles? Does he get along with new horses and situations, or is he comfortable only with familiar faces and places?

A variety of factors help determine the best career match for an older horse who needs a change. Of course, high-impact, high-stress sports would put too much strain on horses of advanced years. But their conformation, athleticism and experience can make them prime prospects for entry level in many competitive disciplines.

Retired competitors are often excellent mounts for young or beginning riders because they have the experience under their saddle; they’ve been to countless shows and they know the ropes, professionally and practically. An old roping horse, for example, might make an excellent teacher for a younger rider just starting out. Likewise, a horse who has spent his formative years as a hunter/jumper could make a good Pony Club prospect. Or, a horse who’s naturally “cowy” could bring up a beginner in noncompetitive sorting or cutting, or make a sound and sane 4-H project.

Just about any horse who does well outside of the arena and is fairly well broke can make a good choice for going down the trail or participating in competitive trail events. Even a horse who is no longer able to carry the weight of a rider may excel at a new activity, perhaps as a cart or carriage horse.

Helping older horses stay active

Just like a young horse starting out, a senior horse who is changing careers needs to be prepared for the demands of his new sport.

“The specificity of training should closely match the specificity of the new discipline. But even in the best cases there may be muscles and tendons and ligaments that have to be adapted, and that needs to be done slowly in the older horse,” advises McKeever.

The reason is that muscle mass declines with age. “Equines, like humans, tend to lose muscle as they age, but the good news is that muscle in the older horse can be restored to a large degree through moderate exercise,” says McKeever, citing a study he did on the effects of training on young, mature and geriatric horses. By measuring body composition using ultrasound in each group, he found that training restored muscle mass in the older horses to a greater percentage than in the young and mature groups.

Still, McKeever cautions that for older horses especially, it’s important to avoid overexertion. One reason is the aged horse’s declining levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone that helps regulate metabolic function.

“We find that the cortisol response to acute exercise is blunted in the older horses, and that’s going to affect how well the horse responds to stress, like exercise,” he says.

Another reason, says McKeever, is that the thermoregulation system in the horses changes with age, which often means their plasma volume might not be adequate to maintain cardiovascular function along with serving as a fluid reserve for the sweating needed for cooling during exercise. When conditioning a horse past the age of 20, he says, it’s important to keep him cool and well hydrated at all times to avoid overheating.

Many older competitors will bring into their new careers injuries from their days on the track or in the performance arena. If a horse has been a jumper since his early days, or a reining horse has spent a lifetime doing sliding stops, specific medications or therapies may be needed to preserve soundness. At the other extreme, a longtime broodmare will benefit from a more gradual exercise regimen to prepare her for a more active lifestyle. And once the older horse has been adequately conditioned for his new job, it’s advisable to keep him fit during any off-season to avoid the risk of sprains and tears and soreness that can occur when coming back after a layoff.

Both McKeever and Malinowski suggest monitoring heart rate, respiration, temperature and other vital signs when conditioning the elderly horse, and to watch for excessive or inadequate sweating. Supplementing with glucosamine and chondroitin to support joint health and taking special care to warm up the older guy before galloping around the arena are just a couple of the commonsense habits worth practicing.

“The key is to be careful and moderate about things and understand that the older horse won’t adapt as readily as the younger horse,” says McKeever.

The mental stress of careers changes in horses

Horses, like people, tend to mellow with age, which can mean a job that was out of the question when the horse was a bundle of energy at 8 could very well be ideal for the same horse when he is 20 years old. Experience in the show ring, around crowds and with a myriad of situations encountered during a long life all help make a horse adaptable to a new job and surroundings. Even so, it’s important to prepare the older horse for change. 

Malinowski and her colleagues monitored the cortisol levels—which tend to rise in response to stress—of 36 show horses in four different settings: at the barn, when they arrived at the show, in their show stalls before competition and finally, the minute they came off the course. Predictably, the more prepared and experienced show horses had lower cortisol levels at the event itself compared to the less experienced horses.

To help the horse make the mental shift into a new career, Malinowski advises continuing his familiar activities —such as doing a few routine exercises in the arena or attending familiar competitions, if only as a spectator, at least once a week—and watching for warning signs for at least two weeks before deciding if the new career is a good match. “In many cases the novelty of a new environment might actually be more stressful to the horse than the actual career change, which is why you want to give him time to settle in before making a decision,” she says. A horse who spooks more than usual, seems lethargic or goes off his feed might be signaling that he is having a hard time making the transition from his old job to his new one. And keep in mind that some horses under a great deal of stress don’t give off any warnings. This is likely to be the horse who seems to take change in stride, but in reality has no way of expressing stress, according to Malinowski.

When comparing cortisol levels in horses at home and in higher stress areas such as the performance arena, she was surprised to find that the therapeutic-riding horses showed the most stress of all the horse groups. Even more surprising: The horses sampled for the stress test had been in the therapeutic program for years. “Based on their cortisol concentrations, their stress was through the roof,” says Malinowski, who suspects these horses internalize stress more than a horse who prances or is generally nervous.

Fortunately, the research also suggests an antidote of sorts for this type of stress: physical exertion. “It’s tempting to overlook exercise for the older horse, but in many cases that might be the best way for him to work off any anxiety he might be having in a change situation,” Malinowski says.

All the more reason to keep your senior horse active, even if it means moving him through a succession of new careers as the years go by.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #445.

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