Veteran Horses - Advice about care of the senior horse

senior horse kept warm in winter Like humans, horses and ponies are now generally living longer and we are seeing more active veteran horses than ever before.

A study has shown that a quarter of the UK’S equine population is aged 16 and over, with many horses competing at the age of twenty or older.

Many of us will know of veteran ponies in their twenties or even thirties.

The most important factors in this increased longevity are probably an improved diet and better health and veterinary care.

We know more about nutrition and pasture management and are more aware of common diseases and the importance of regular de worming regimes.

As a result of this knowledge our horses and ponies are benefitting from a longer and healthier life.


Horses are generally referred to as old when they are 16 or older.

However, horses do not become geriatrics and unable to thrive well just because they are over 16.

Horses get physically “old” at different ages. This depends on various factors including how it was fed as a foal and young horse, training and workload and healthcare throughout his life.

A horse's individual genetic make-up will also contribute to the rate at which he appears to become old.

It is probably more correct to label a horse “old” when it shows three or four signs of old age rather than when it reaches a certain age.

Signs of Old Age in a Horse

Signs of equine old age include:

  • Worn down or missing teeth
  • Sunken back and hollows above eyes
  • Trouble with chewing grass, feed and hay
  • Stiffness, particularly after long periods of standing inside
  • Loss of condition, especially through the winter, or if grazing is sparse during summer

How to feed a veteran horse

For an old horse that is very thin, the obvious action is an increase in calorie intake - but this may not nessarily be the best action.

If an old horse cannot chew long fibre due to tooth problems, the only food he may be getting is the concentrate feed he is given in a bucket.

If the feed is a starchy coarse mix, which would be relatively low in fibre, feeding more of this food may worsen the problem and could even result in diarrhoea.

In such situations, a senior horse or elderly pony needs a fibre source that his gut can cope with, such as a short chop hay-alternative forage or high fibre nuts soaked down to a mash.

Adding an equine yeast probiotic, which stimulates the population of beneficial fibre-digesting micro organisms in the horse’s digestive system is useful in cases where fibre intake is limited.

Determining exactly what a veteran horse is actually eating and assessing fibre content of the feed will help in the design of a ration suitable for the individual horse.

Digestion in the veteran horse

Although a loss of condition in a horse can be an indication of ageing, there is no proof that the digestive system of a horse or pony automatically declines with old age.

Horses over twenty are less able to digest protein, phosphorus and fibre, relative to younger animals, but this is more likely to result from old parasite and worm damage to the horse's gut than be caused directly by ageing alone.

Inefficient chewing due to problems with worn down teeth which means that the horse is therefore unable to digest hay and other fibre efficiently is another cause of loss of condition in the senior horse.

Changes caused by the ageing process

The ageing process results in some irreversible changes in a horse's body.

The skin and soft tissue elasticity, decreases - this causes the typical sunken back of of an old horse.

The horse’s teeth are constantly erupting, and eventually grow right out of the gums - As they reach this stage, the grinding surfaces of the teeth become smoother and less efficient.

The immune system becomes weaker and less able to fight disease

The circulation, heart and lung function, which delivers nutrients and oxygen to the horse, is reduced.

Liver and kidney problems become more common as a horse or pony gets older.

These organs get rid of toxins and waste and build nutrients into compounds that the body can use.