Several readers have contacted me regarding the re-conditioning of their older horses. If 60 is the new 40 for riders, then 20 is the new 15 for their horses!
Just as for the human senior population, there are many benefits exercise can provide forour aging equestrian partners. Fit horses are less obese and less prone to develop related metabolic issues. Not only can regular exercise prevent many health issues in older horses, but it can also aid in the management of conditions they may already have. For example, exercise can help horses with arthritis. The key is, however, to get the right balance in finding the level of activity that gets your horse fit, but doesn't cause any other problems.
How long a horse can keep going depends on so many factors, but many suggest that the limit for serious athletic activity is 25.
The conditioning program for horses over the age of 15 differs from younger horses in time frame and pace. However, before putting any older horse back to work, make sure that your horse is physically able to get back into shape. Perhaps checking with your veterinarian would be appropriate before you start developing that fitness plan. Your fitness program starts with lots and lots and lots of walk. Walk everywhere, on the trail, in the arena, up and down the driveway, just anywhere. If your horse is out of shape, you may need several weeks of walking before you actually start on light trot work. Increase either the distance or speed of a workout as your horse progresses, but do not increase both concepts at the same time. The concept of conditioning for any equine athlete occurs when tissues are stressed then given time to recover as stronger, fitter structures. If sufficient time isn't provided, then injury can occur. With the older horse, longer downtime is very important for recovery. For example, your horse may need two days off after a hard ride whereas a younger horse may only need one. Remember, that your horse's tissues are older and you need to be much more conservative.
Arthritis is the most likely condition that will limit your horse's activity later in life, but it can usually be managed. You can certainly exercise your horse with mild arthritis, but cannot push him as you'll only accelerate his decline. How much work a mildly arthritic horse can do varies on how he feels on any particular day. It is very important to be observant of your horse. Is he a little stiff or is he really having trouble? Pay close attention to your horse and you'll be able to answer this question.
Any injuries your horse sustained as a youngster will need to be taken into consideration before you embark on the fitness program. When working with your older horse, please be realistic in terms of goals. Even if your horse is fit and active, he may not be able to keep up with his younger peers and probably not be able to perform as he used to, but there are 20-year old horses holding their own in very high-level competitions. Your older horse is not burdened by looking back on his youth wanting to prove that he can still jump big fences. He is content with the well being that fitness alone can bring. It is a great tribute that the older horse can go out and do what younger ones can. They love what they do and the worse thing you can do is take that away from them.
So here are some tips to get your older horse fit:
- Consult with your vet prior to starting any fitness program.
- Proceed SLOWLY, allowing a longer time frame to achieve the fitness goal.
- Let your horse guide you day to day as to how he is feeling. Be gentle on him when he is feeling his age.
- Give him ample recover time and be prepared to double the downtime.
- Respond quickly to any signs of trouble.
- Keep a daily record on how you are progressing and how your horse is feeling to see if there are any traits that can be learned.
- Feed for the older horse should include a higher amount of protein to provide amino acids for better muscular and tissue growth.