When someone finds out you own a horse one of the first questions they ask is, “how old do horses live?” This might surprise you –Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger, lived to be 33! The average life span of a horse is between 25 and 30 years. So, the next questions are: Is that normal? How old can horses live?
Old Billy (below) is considered the oldest horse to ever live in the world. He died at age 62. He was born sometime in 1760 in Woolston, Lancashire, England. Old Billy was owned by Mersey and Irwell Navigation and spent his life working as a barge horse, dragging barges in the canals from the shore. Billy surpassed the average horse’s life expectancy and continued to work even as his back became bent. Due to his old age, he became a local celebrity and an artist named W. Taylor painted a portrait of Old Billy. To honor Old Billy, his skull was sent to the Manchester Museum and he was taxidermied and gifted to the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museums. Both parts of his head are still on display at the museums today.
So how old is a horse in human years then? A horse year is equal to 6 1/2 human years for the first 3 years of the horse's life. At the horse age of 3, the equivalent changes and is approximately 5 years to man. At the horse age of 4, the horse year equivalency changes to 2 1/2 years. So if your horse lives to be 36 horse years old, the human equivalency in years would be 100 1/2 years! If you don’t feel like doing the math, Spruce Pets has a chart calculating the ages of horses in terms of human years.
How can you tell how old a horse is? The saying, “long in the tooth” refers to the age-old method of determining age by looking at a horse’s teeth. The horses' gums recede and their teeth appear longer as they grow older. The idea behind this old folk phrase, means that one is getting on in years. Determining the age of a horse by looking at teeth is only somewhat reliable and only up to about ages 10 – 14.
30 year old horse yearling
You can also tell if a horse is older by looking at its face; particularly around the eyes. The hair around the eyes will begin to turn gray and the supraorbital fossae (the indented area above the eye) will be deeper on an older horse. The supraorbital fossae are actually cavities (spaces) behind the eyes that allow room for the eyeballs to recede into them. The cavities are lined with fat and the fat displaces upward when the eyeball recedes to avoid injury. As horses age, there can be loss of fat in the fossae so the depressions become more pronounced. Gray hair and pronounced depressions above the eye will not help you to determine the exact age but it is a clue that the horse is older.
BUT there is only one way to definitely tell the age of a horse and that is to learn the date it was foaled (born).
A horse up to age 1 is called a “foal”. When a foal is weaned it is called a weanling. Foals are usually weaned between 6 months and a year. Once it is a year old, the foal is referred to as a yearling. How old is a filly? A filly is a female horse less than 4 years old and from 4 on she is called a mare.A colt is a male horse less than 4 years old. A gelding is a male horse that has been castrated and a stallion is a male horse that is intact.
Do different breeds of horses live longer? For instance, how long do quarter horses live? Age of horses depends more on care and use than the breed of the horse. In a study of geriatric horses performed by Dr. Mary Rose Paradis at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the top 5 breeds of old horses that were seen included the Quarter Horse, Thoroughbred, Appaloosa, Morgan and Arabian. This was thought to be due to popularity of the breed rather than its longevity. The study found that ponies lived longer than horses, but did not find any breed-specific trends for longer life span amongst the horses studied.
So, when is a horse considered “old?” How old is a senior horse? Some geriatric studies have been done on horses as young as 15. In the Tufts study they decided that 20 years of age was a good place to start. When owners were asked about horse age most said that they started to see signs of aging at 23 and that age was considered a negative factor in the purchase of a horse at 16.5 years old.
If you can’t ride a 2-year-old horse then what can you do with a 2-year-old horse? Ground work is very important and will certainly pay off when you do ride or drive the horse. Ground work includes:
Teaching the horse to stand
Teaching the horse to lead on a line
Learning voice commands – walk, whoa, trot, stand
Picking up feet and cleaning them
Clipping, grooming and baths
Accept tack including a saddle, girth, harness, bridle, bit
Load and unload in a trailer
Travel to areas other than home
Ground drive and long line (avoiding too much circle work)
Introduce noises and strange objects
At the other end of the scale how old can a horse be ridden? What can you do with older horses? According to Karyn Malinowski, the director of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers, in a Q/A in Practical Horseman, horses have a tremendous ability to exercise. The aerobic capacity of a 20-year-old horse is still two times higher than that of an elite Olympic marathon runner. Horses are designed to continue exercising late into their lives. At Rutgers Equine Center a horse that has his own blog Lord Nelson, a 40-year-old Quarter Horse, still gallops up to the gate every morning for breakfast. Keeping horses active with exercise and turnout (preferably 24 hours/day) is essential in these later years. Horses are more likely to experience orthopedic issues before any loss of aerobic capacity. Eventually, as your horse progresses through his 20s, you will need to take his exercise level down a notch. But try to keep doing whatever activity he enjoyed most in his earlier days.
Older horses do need some special attention though like what to feed an old horse. Feeding older horses in winter is especially challenging! It is always best to have a vet check an older horse long before winter arrives to ensure he has enough weight on him and is in good physical condition. According to an article in Equus magazine, if older horses don't take in enough calories, they can get caught in a self-perpetuating weight-loss cycle in the winter. Older horses tend to be thinner, with less muscle and fat layers. The feed these horses eat goes toward creating these insulating layers and keeping them warm. If they cannot maintain body weight, they become colder and use more energy to stay warm, which in turn makes them even thinner. Additionally, when the majority of a horse's nutrients go to keeping him warm, he has fewer resources left for fighting off illness or repairing tissues, leading to a decline in over-all health. Compounding the problem is the fact that older horses don't digest food nearly as efficiently as younger horses. Their ability to digest fiber is 5 percent lower and their ability to utilize protein is about 15 percent lower. So even if they are being fed the same amount of feed as the younger horses, older horses will not utilize it all and can lose condition quickly. It is best to increase a horse's forage intake during the winter months, getting as close as possible to the ideal of around-the-clock, free-choice hay.
As horses age they will also develop cataracts. The glare from sun-light can make it difficult for horses with even minor cataracts to see. Consider outfitting these horses with dark fly masks, which will act as sunglasses.
Older horses often deal with arthritis so continuous turn out is best for an older horse. A vet may suggest an anti-inflammatory medication too.
Like people horses, are living much longer due to better health care and better-informed owners. Older horses are enjoying staying active just like their owners!
EQUINE HERITAGE INSTITUTE
Join us as we explore the history of the horse. We share our love of horses with you!
Driving Horses - Variety is the Spice of Life!
Human History without the Horse...Inconceivable!
Horses and Carriages in the Cities
The Older Horse
Buying a Horse
14 Cool Things You May Not Know About Chariots
The Horses of Outlander
The Invention of the Harness - More Important Than the Automobile?!
The Golden Carriage
The Knight's Horse