It's my birthday! I'm 16 years old today. My humans decided to dress me up for my birthday. Boy the stuff I put up with for them. But I know they love me so it's OK.
Even though I am 16 today, OFFICIALLY I was 16 on January first. Did you know that all horses turn their age for that year on January first? It all started in 1851 when the British Jockey Club wanted to make age grouping for races "simple". Only it's not that simple! Getting mares to foal close to January first is not easy.
Lots of people ask me, “how old do horses live?” This might surprise you - the average life span of a horse is between 25 and 30 years!
Old Billy is considered the oldest horse to have ever lived. 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. Due to his old age, he became a local celebrity and an artist named W. Taylor painted a portrait of Old Billy.
That was a long time ago! Are you wondering if there are horses that old now? According to the Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary, they believe that the oldest horse now is a horse named Orchid who has been living at the Sanctuary since 2014. They are currently waiting for confirmation from the Guinness Book of World Records. Orchid is a 50-year-old Arab-Thoroughbred cross!
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 horse's 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.
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). I know that my birthday is today and that I am 13 - my registration papers have that date on them! Registration papers are like a birth certificate for horses. It tells me who my parents are and who bred me and lots of other stuff too - like what color I am.
A horse up to age 1 is called a “foal”. When a foal is weaned (no longer takes milk from its mother/dam) 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 older horses, performed by Dr. Mary Rose Paradis at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, it was found that ponies lived longer than horses; but, the study did not find any breed-specific trends for longer life span among the horses studied.
So, when should you call a horse “old"? I'm 13 and feel and act the same as when I was 3 (well, maybe I'm a little smarter and have lots more training that when I was 3). 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.
How old does a horse have to be to ride and how old is a horse when it stops growing? Most people would agree that starting horses under the age of 2 is not a good idea because of their physical and mental immaturity. The horse’s spinal joints are the last to develop. These bones don’t reach full strength until around 5 to 6 years of age. Adding the weight of rider to an immature spine can be harmful in the long term to a horse’s back. There is a difference between educating a horse to carry a rider and putting him to work. You can certainly introduce a horse to having someone on his back before 5 years of age but then not actually work the horse with someone on his back until 5 or 6.
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:
At the other end of the scale how old can a horse be ridden and 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, it was found that horses have a tremendous ability to exercise - even as they get older. 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 they have a horse that has his own blog (JUST LIKE ME!!!). His name is Lord Nelson, a 40-year-old Quarter Horse. He 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 (that means hay) 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! My owners take really good care of me. One of my pasture mates is 31 years old and he has been part of my human's family since he was 2 years old. I think I'm going to live until 50! At least!