Celebrating The Older Horse

Hello, Dolly. Age 26

Bubbi at age 33

Years ago,  I had the opportunity to be a horse management judge at the Sunshine Region Dressage Rally. The last time I was at a rally was in 2007, the year before my daughter, Jen retired her Thoroughbred mare, Impulsive. It was great to be in the barns with these kids, seeing what they know and helping them understand what they should be doing. As I was walking down the aisle at Rocking Horse Stables, I noticed a black horse with a sign on his door stating that he had special dietary needs. Jane, his rider, had been a former pony clubber of mine when they lived in the area and her first lessons were on our Dolly, already in her 20’s at that time. She told me the horse she was riding at the rally was Bubbi….and as I looked closer, sure enough, it was Bubbi! I could not believe it and got emotional over seeing him there.

Why? Because Bubbi, a beautiful black Thoroughbred, was 33 years old!

Bubbi and his owner Raechel were Jen’s teammates at the USPC Champs in 2004.  Bubbi, who’s show name is Janus, was 27 years old at the time, and the oldest horse at the Championships. I remember the region had a bit of a hard time letting him travel the 17 hours, but he made the trip to Lexington and back to Florida just fine, competing on the novice eventing team, which placed 6th.

With his owner off to college, Bubbi was still hearty enough to teach a whole new generation of pony clubbers the ropes! Bubbi did pass a few years ago, at the age of 35 or 36, but he had a full life of teaching pony clubbers and competing, right up to his death.

I love the older horse. It breaks my heart to read ads of these noble creatures, having served their owner for so many years, whether in the showring or foxhunting, or on the trails, now being dumped because of their age. Don’t people realize that these horses still have so much to give?

If I won the lottery, I would have a farm full of these grand senior citizens!

When I served as the District Commissioner of the local U.S. Pony Club, I frequently got calls from frustrated parents, who were dooped into buying their young child a horse that they were unable to handle. It is unfortunately, a scam in my opinion. I see it over and over again at some of the local barns. Parents want their child to win from the get go rather than put in the time to learn, and so trainers have no problem convincing them to purchase a fancy horse that is really not suitable for their child. Rather than purchase a quiet mount that has been there/done it and can pack their child around safely and teach them, they instead spend lots of money on the fancy warmblood or young OTTB. But the trainer has to ride the horse daily before little Susie can safely ride the horse. I would hear this so many times. Usually the child ended up not having fun, sometimes getting hurt and almost always, losing interest in the horse. It’s a sad commentary on the equestrian community. My suggestion to these parents is to find a new trainer, sell the horse and find a schoolmaster.

Yes, a schoolmaster has x amount of years left…but I know of 4 and 6 year olds that colic and die or drop dead from other reasons. Unfortunately, no one knows just how many years any particular horse has left in them. But schoolmasters have so much to offer! They are over the silly stage (most are anyhow!), are usually predictable, and have that been there, seen that attitude that makes them such great teachers!

When I bought my youngest daughter her first horse, Dolly was a 20 something year old Quarter Horse, still with plenty of spunk. Dolly learned to do it all..eventing, stadium jumping, dressage, even games. She was the horse I rode when I took my yearling out on trails. She became the lead horse on cross country to encourage other horses through water and over ditches. Dolly lived to be in her 30’s, succumbing only to the painful side effects of a bad kick to a knee.

Amanda’s next horse was an 18 year old Thoroughbred, a freebie. Pilgrim was a dream. Another family had passed on him at the last minute because of his age. His age didn’t bother me in the least bit. He had evented at the preliminary level and I knew he would teach Amanda so much! And he did! And like Dolly, he too excelled at dressage, show jumping and she even took him to a games rally! Unfortunately our story with Pilgrim did not have a happy ending, as he developed Lyme disease and was eventually euthanized due to neurological complications from the Lyme. We had him only a few short years, but his death could have happened at any age. I, nor do I think Amanda, would have traded the experience and good times she had with him, for anything.

My other daughter, Jen, was given Impulsive, a thoroughbred mare who had competed at the advanced level of eventing and was the AHSA Zone Horse of the Year. What a gift she was!! At age 13, while she was no easy ride, she had a lot to teach my daughter, who had recently lost her pony, Z-Z. Imp taught my daughter everything about eventing and before her retirement at 17 due to knee chips, she was schooling her at the intermediate level and was planning on taking her to her first prelim competition, when fate intervened and changed our plans. Sadly, Imp hated retirement, she was a mare that had to have a job and we eventually put her down when her health began to decline at age 20.

Now a days, horses are living longer, thanks to improvements in feed and health care. A horse in his late 20’s is very common, and I know of a pony who recently was euthanized and he was in his 40’s! He was doing tadpole level eventing just a few years ago, and up to his death, still being used for lessons. I know of another lesson horse that lived to be in her late 30’s, still being utilized up to the time of her death.

Health issues like arthritis and general wear and tear after years of hard mileage may make a horse not fit to continue at the level he once was, but that is no reason to dump them to an uncertain fate….free older horses on CraigsList have a very good chance of being slaughtered. What a shame that this is how we thank our best friend after so many years of service. In fact, the worse thing you can do for a horse that has arthritis, is retire him. Arthritic horses need to keep moving. They may not be able to perform at their former level, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t contribute at a lower level. And just like old people, old horses need to be stimulated. They need a job. They like having a job to do.

Older horses do require a certain level of special management. Horses that are older will have different dietary requirements. Find a quality senior feed which is softer to chew, and is higher in calories and low in starch. Many older horses, have some degree of arthritis. Joint supplements are needed. Older horses may develop Cushings disease, laminitis, metabolic disorders, or any other number of health issues, that need to be managed with supplements or medications. My go to is Hilton Herbs, which has a nice range of products for the older horse. And their teeth should be checked yearly, possibly twice a year. Older horses, such as Bubbi, may start to lose teeth. Substitute their hay with soaked hay cubes or beet pulp instead.

When I was running a horse rescue, our first rescue was a skinny old horse. The neighbors who drove past this horse every day, attributed her condition to her age. Lady, as we named her, was a 33 year old appendix, who shared a drylot with 3 other younger horses. They were fed once a day, everyone got the same feed, and since they were fed in the open, guess who had her meal stolen from her? The other horses would greedily gobble down their food and then chase her off hers. And, to top it off, the only teeth she had were 4 incisiors. No wonder she looked like she did. Once we rescued her, we put her on a senior diet, which was soaked. We also soaked her hay cubes. She got fed 6 times a day initially. And you know what? She gained weight! No surprise there!

Yes, some old horses do have a hard time keeping weight on them, but that doesn’t mean that all older horses do, and with the proper management, you should be able to keep most senior horses looking just as good as one 10 or 15 years their junior.

Older horses are greatly underrated in our society. It is a shame, because they have so much to offer. Please don’t dump your old horse because he no longer serves your needs…if you look hard enough, you can find a new job for him. Somewhere there is an older person who wants to just pleasure ride, or a beginner child who needs a horse who will safely teach her to ride. After being your faithful companion for so many years, doesn’t he deserve this?

Pilgrim, age 20 (above) and Impulsive on the Training level course at Poplar Place Farms, at age 17.

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