Working the Older Horses

I have a few clients with older horses; the older horse has many advantages of experience, reliability, patience and steadfastness to teach and build confidences. But with that comes an aging body and the associated problems that come with old age. They are usually still enthusiastic to work, but can be slightly stiff.

Every older horse, I believe, deserves someone (like one or two of my clients) who will dote on them. Give them everything they need; treat any ailment; have tack adjusted to compensate for an aging body; groom and fuss them to within an inch of their life; and lightly ride them to maintain fitness and mobility. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a riding school horse retired to this life of Riley.

Teaching with the older horse is different too. For instance, they often need a longer warm up, or a light seat canter early on to loosen them up. It’s also about recognising their limitations and working within them. We always strive to improve a horse’s way of going, but with an older horse you have to be aware of pushing too hard and triggering a problem, and be ready to accept their limitations.

A classic example of this is polework. Trotting poles aim to improve rhythm, cadence and length of stride. With a young horse or one in their prime, you can use the distance between the poles to encourage them to stride out. When I set the distance between poles for an older horse I adjust it based on how they’re looking that day, and aim to encourage good strides over the poles, rather than pushing them to lengthen. If they’re finding it a stretch today, I roll the poles in. It’s about maintaining their range of movement rather than improving it. Usually by encouraging several consistent good strides of trot, they will improve their range of movement slightly.

As older horses are more experienced and established I find it useful to focus on the rider position, which puts them in good stead when they ride a younger horse. So apologies clients with veterans; expect lots of no stirrup work!

We also still work on improving the horse. Older horses can vary in their performance depending on the day – some days they’re a little stiffer, other days they’re like a spring chicken! It depends on the temperature, if they’ve been stood in, or what they did the previous days. So the first part of my lessons are always spent assessing the veteran and deciding if they’re okay to do Plan A, or if Plan B would be better. I also think it’s really important for the rider to be able to evaluate their horse’s way of going each day so that they work them appropriately and pick up on any changes quickly. We talk about the Scales of Training, and how to improve the horse relative to their abilities. For example, we compare their suppleness between left and right, and to their work last week. We can them improve their symmetry a bit, and ensure they aren’t becoming stiffer than previous weeks without a good reason. Knowing the theory of equitation, even if it’s not always possible to practise it all, creates a good foundation for riding future horses.

I’m working a lot with a client on straightness with her older horse in preparation for her new horse. The veteran is crooked, because he has lots of niggles and the result is that his rider is a bit crooked and most importantly, unaware of the crookedness. It’s a tricky situation because I think if we straighten the horse like I would approach a six year old, we’ll open a can of worms and his niggles will become issues. But equally, we don’t want him to become more and more wonky. So I’ve mainly highlighted to my rider the assymetry in his way of going and the differences between the two canter leads and his lateral work on each rein. Then we’ve worked on reducing his assymetry by improving his rider’s straightness. By getting her to sit straighter, be more even in the saddle and with the leg and rein aids her horse will start to adjust his body. By doing these adjustments indirectly, we won’t achieve perfect straightness. But I don’t want perfect straightness with a horse carrying niggles. But we will hopefully lengthen his working life as he will straighten his body by degrees.

By improving my rider’s awareness of asymmetry and straightness, she will be in a better position to school her new horse. I’ve done lots of grid work jumping and pole exercises on this subject of straightness. Improving her awareness, minimising any drifting over jumps, and encouraging even muscle development. Whilst accepting a certain level of crookedness. For example, when jumping from the right canter, the horse can stay on a straight line and balanced, until the jump is a little big or the takeoff a little long. Whereby he changes to the left lead and drifts left. At the edge of his comfort zone, he’s showing that he favours his left canter. If he were a five or six year old we’d develop and strengthen the right canter. But to be honest, I find this totally acceptable in an older horse and am quite happy if he shifts to his preference in these circumstances. If he stopped staying straight and balanced in the right canter over small jumps or poles I’d be concerned, but he’s managing the top end of his work load in this way, so as long as my rider is aware for her future then we’ll go with the flow.

Keeping an older horse in work is all about making small improvements to their way of going and focusing on the longevity of their working life rather than upping the workload and putting demands on a body which is perhaps carrying old age ailments and previous injuries. And of course making sure they are comfortable with their workload – medicating hocks if necessary and weighing up the pros and cons of feeding daily bute. By developing a relationship and seeing the horse regularly, and working them consistently to a level, it is easier to spot any deterioration, which then allows them to be checked out and cared for as quickly as possible.

Some Pontification

I’ve had this subject brewing on my mind for a while but the rare afternoon off due to a crushed foot and a bang to the head, has given me time to sort my thoughts. Here goes … 

Sometimes, the views that I’m developing scare me. Whoever says you’re grown up at eighteen is wrong. Nine years later I’m still growing.

Recently I’ve had a couple of friends put their elderly horses to sleep, and for whatever reasons they’ve used me as a sounding board, or asked my advice. From afar, I can objectively weigh up the horse’s quality of life. So whilst I can tell them what the kindest thing to do is or isn’t, I know I could never make that decision about my own pets: feline or equine.

I have total respect for anyone who makes that decision. It’s the hardest to do, and the harder you love something the harder it is to let them go. And that’s when I realised that I’m pro-choice. 

With an unexpected pregnancy, or one with complications, I think it is the parents right to consider if a) they can suitably provide for said child, or if they would have a physically or emotionally deprived life, or have an unstable home. Or b) if they can’t provide the quality of life; if foreseen problems with baby means that they will always be in pain or limited. Or c) if the health of the mother is jeopardised so that she won’t be able to care sufficiently. It’s totally up to the parents, and each situation is different. Therefore I don’t think you should blanket ban abortion, or make it mandatory for X, Y or Z cases. I think it is for the individual to decide.

At the other end of life’s stick; I think I support people having the option of assisted suicide. It’s my worst nightmare to be dependent; to stop my family living their lives to care for me. And I wonder how many elderly people fading away in nursing homes or hospitals feel the same way. And I wonder how having this option available, so you can die with dignity, would affect the NHS which is struggling with the increasing, aging population. I know it comes with a myriad of problems, with regards to responsibility but I think the concept needs to be taken seriously .

I watched a film a couple of weeks ago, Me Before You, have you seen it? It’s about this paralysed young man going down the assisted suicide route and how his girlfriend finds it difficult to let go. A tear jerker, but also a moral puzzle.

Let’s bring this round to horses. And pets of all description. We have this authority. We are God. But doing it is a lot harder than saying it.

Firstly, I would say that no one loves their horse more than you. Which means that the decision is far harder for you. 

No one brings this subject up candidly; a lot of thought goes into it for weeks or months in advance. After all, you get blinkered by memories of what was, and live in hope that what is will improve (I thought of this phrase earlier in the week and been dying to use it). 

But what are the considerations of putting a horse to sleep?

Perhaps most importantly, is you. Is your future changing which means you will not be able to provide, or can’t guarantee to. Perhaps that’s an illness, baby, changing job, marriage. Once you’ve come to the conclusion that you aren’t in this horse’s future, you need to decide whether they would be happy with a change in circumstance. Moving yards, new field mates, all of that is very stressful, so it isn’t always fair to put that upon an elderly horse. However, if they are younger and fit then selling or rehoming to a suitable person is the obvious choice.

Then there’s the horse. Are they chronically lame; are there underlying health issues (COPD, Cushings, sarcoids, heart murmurs) that could cause low level pain? Can the pain be managed easily or does it impact on their quality of life? Do they fair better at different times – cold weather and getting stiff, or flies irritating sarcoids?

If as an owner you know that your horse’s quality of life is going to deteriorate then I think it’s your duty to act. It may be changing medication, or if you have no other options, putting them to sleep before they deteriorate. I can’t think of anything worse than waiting for them to suffer and then doing it quickly. Yes things like colic or field accidents happen; but I do think with older horses it’s better to go a day too early than a day too late. After all, they’ve given us so much pleasure, why should we deny them the relief of pain (or pain to come) because we aren’t ready to say goodbye.

So yes, we are God. I am pro-choice in this matter, but I think every horse owner has the right and responsibility to make the decision about their horse, and no one should talk them into or out of their choice. Because the bravest, most courageous, and most loving decision anyone can make is to let someone go. And I respect everyone who had had to do that because I am dreading it when it’s my turn to say goodbye. 

Buying an Older Horse

Two friends asked me the other day about the pros and cons of buying an older horse, so I thought I would share my thoughts here.

Firstly, as a novice rider and first time owner, an older horse can be a good introduction to the equine world. They will go on hacks any day of the week, have seen most scary objects, are desensitised to daily procedures: farrier, clipping etc, will take you round your first jumping course or to your first show. All sounds good, yeh?

The downside to owning an older horse, however, is that you may be inheriting some problems. For example, a damaged tendon from five years ago, the intense dislike of men, or any other traits which may have been learnt donkeys years ago.

The other big thing I would worry about buying an older horse is that they are likely to develop age related problems, such as arthritis and that they will need more specialist care, which a new owner needs to be aware of before committing to buy. Things such as stabling at night earlier in the year, warming up slowly, feeding veteran feeds, physio, etc. All things need to be taken into account to make sure the new owner is fully prepared to care for their equine, and the horse`s welfare isn`t hampered.

Looking into the future, owners should bear in mind that whilst they may be at the beginning of their riding career their horse is over the hill. What I mean is that in two years time, the novice owner will be looking at trying their hand at cross country, or lateral work, all of which is more demanding to the horse. The horse will be wanting a quieter lifestyle, hacking gently or popping a small fence. This means that horse and rider will no longer be a happy partnership, with one side either being pushed out their comfort zone, or one it fulfilling their dreams. I`ve seen this numerous times in real life. Kids or teenagers are bought an older horse, which is very sensible initially because they may be nervous and inexperienced and their parents want to ensure their safety as much as possible. However, the rider soon grows in confidence and before long is falling out with their horse because they want to jump that 3` fence like their friends, but their equine pal says “thanks, but no thanks, not at my age!” This can lead to the rider losing interest and potentially neglecting their horse because their hobby is no longer as fulfilling as it used to be and the horse is a burden.

I think this is why so many veteran horses end up either being neglected, or abandoned, and end up in riding schools as a last resort.

So would I buy an older horse? Maybe, so long as I was suitably prepared for caring for them, and knowing that both of our ridden work will become limited in time and that I was responsible for the horse, even in his retirement.

I’ve seen older women happily take on veterans because they both want a quieter pace of life. The woman wants something to dote on, perhaps to replace the fully fledged children, while their horse is happy being pampered, rugged up to the nines, and ridden three times a week. Bliss!