Senior Horse Care

Jennifer Rice, DVM
By Jennifer Rice, DVM on Dec. 16, 2022

The age that classifies a horse as “senior” has drastically changed in the last century.

At one time, a horse living to be 25-30 was considered very old. Today it is not uncommon to find healthy horses between 25-30 years of age. A 2015 survey by the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) found that the overall horse population in the United States is older than 20 years of age. Advancements and improvements in equine healthcare and nutrition have increased their lifespan and the number of useful years of enjoyment we have together. 

So, at what age is a horse considered to be a senior today? This is hard to define as every horse should be considered as an individual and may not start showing signs of aging at the same time. Typically, a horse will begin to be considered a senior between the ages of 15-18. By age 20, a horse is definitely a senior, but that does not mean that they cannot be ridden or still enjoyed. Many horses in their teens and 20s today are continuing to live active lives. 

Between the age 15-18, you should start considering your horse may have health changes including:

  • Digestive tract: Becomes not as efficient as it once was 

    • Older horses will commonly have dental issues as their teeth wear out or become loose 

    • Weight loss, loose manure and even chronic diarrhea can result as the digestive tract is less able to absorb nutrients 

    • Higher chance of some types of colic, such as those that involve a blockage due to fat tumors called lipomas

  • Bones, Muscles and Joints: Become less resilient 

    • Arthritis is a commonly seen in horses and may cause stiffness or limit the range of motion or exercise a horse can perform comfortably

    • Laminitis (also called founder) is more common due to a horse being more prone to developing Cushing’s Disease as they age. 

    • Muscle wasting (muscle loss or decreased muscle tone) is more common on a horse’s topline with age

  • Immune System: Becomes less reliable, more susceptible to illness and slower to recover from disease and injury

    • Horses are more at risk for infection including parasite infections

    • Cushing’s disease puts this age group at a greater risk because it causes high blood levels of cortisol in the body, a hormone which decreases the immune system’s responsiveness

  • Respiratory Tract: Becomes more prone to respiratory problems and disease 

  • Reproductive Tract: Fertility declines in both mares and stallions as they age 

    • Pregnancy is more difficult to achieve and sustain 

    • In mares, age related progressive degeneration of the uterine lining can occur, and eggs that are produced by the ovaries becomes less fertile 

    • In stallions, sperm quality and quantity may decline

  • Cardiovascular System: With aging, changes may impact the heart and blood vasculature leading to heart failure or sudden death if a major vessel ruptures

  • Nervous System: Overall aging changes can cause slight decrease in coordination which can reduce agility/athleticism

    • Arthritic changes specifically in the neck or spinal cord can result in progressive lack of coordination 

  • Endocrine System: As horses age, abnormal hormone production by the pituitary gland at the base of the brains results in Cushing’s Disease

    • Cushing’s Disease is one of the most common diseases seen in horses greater than 15 years old

    • It is estimated that 20% of horses at 15 have Cushing’s disease and 20-33% of horses will develop Cushing’s disease by age 20

As horses age, they may be less able to handle environmental stress such as wind, wet, and cold. This is especially important for winter weather.

Health Care Tips for the Senior Horse 

Exercise: Daily light exercise or turnout can help maintain a horse's soundness and comfort as they age. Also providing long warm ups and cool downs can be helpful. If your horse is still in regular work, it is important to remember to gradually increase their workload after being off for a period of time. 

Saddle Fitting: If you notice your horse is starting to lose back muscle or topline, it is important to check their saddle fit to make sure they are not getting any back sores or are becoming uncomfortable.

Body Condition Score (BCS): Maintaining your horse at the ideal BCS score is important as added weight can put added stress on their joints and body, increasing their chances for arthritis and lameness. An underweight horse will also have a hard time maintaining normal body functions such as temperature control, especially in winter.

Hoof Care: Regular trimming and shoeing can help provide good hoof balance and promote even weight-bearing, therefore less stress on the joints.

Routine Physical Exam: It is important to be proactive with your senior horse's care. Detecting problems early with annual or biannual physical exams is incredibly important to maintain your horse’s health. An exam should include:

  • Dental exam

  • Body condition scoring and body weight estimation

  • Soundness exam 

  • Vaccine plan 

  • Routine bloodwork such as complete blood count, chemistry, and an endocrine panel to look at ACTH, insulin, and glucose 

Routine Vaccinations and Deworming: A senior horse's immune system will typically decline making them more prone to disease and parasites. It’s critical to keep up with their annual vaccination and deworming. Discussing the best vaccination and deworming plan with your veterinarian at their regular veterinarian exams is best.

Feeding: Providing your senior horse with a high-quality diet is very important as they age. Major feed companies such as Tribute (Seniority or Senior Sport) make “senior” diets that are often pelleted feed that is easy to chew and digest and contain more energy.

Supplements: There are many options of supplements to consider. Most commonly senior horses will benefit from a joint supplement with glucosamine and chondroitin such as Cosequin. Based on your horse's specific needs, your veterinarian may recommend other supplements to help maintain your horse’s health.

Dental Care: A dental exam should be performed at minimum once per year. Some senior horses may need a dental exam performed every six months as their teeth wear and becoming less efficient. Often when this happens, they are not able to chew their food as well, and you will see weight loss or even choke. If you notice any weight change in a senior horse it is always best to call your veterinarian right away for an exam. 

Medications: Due to arthritis or other reasons of lameness or pain, some senior horses may benefit from a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as Equioxx or Bute. Only use these if recommended by your veterinarian as they can cause other medical issues such as gastric ulcer, colic, and diarrhea.

Cancer: Gray horses commonly develop melanomas as they age. Places to examine for lumps include the eyes, muzzle/lips, vulva, penis, tail head and rectum.

When is it Time to Retire a Horse?

The exact age to retire a horse will be different for everyone. As long as your horse is comfortable and happy to continue to do their job, age is not a reason to retire them. If you have any concerns about the comfort level or ability for your horse to do their normal routine, have an exam performed by your veterinarian to assess your horse’s health and develop a unique senior horse care plan.  


Jennifer Rice, DVM


Jennifer Rice, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Rice is a 2017 graduate from Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine where she specialized in Equine medicine. Since graduating...

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