Can’t Teach an Older Horse New Tricks? Watch me!

It is an unending fact of life – we all get older. Unfortunately so many older horses become abandoned or given away as paddock buddies when their owners no longer see any use for them.

And while I understand the desire for progression, or the desire to see your horse ‘in a loving home, getting the attention he/she deserves’, I also know there are many of us out there who will continue to provide a home for that horse that saw us through so much, even if they are no longer suitable to our needs. So how can we continue to give our older horses a valuable life when they no longer suit our purposes?

My Older Horse

I recently adopted a 21 year old gelding. Little is known about this horses’ history apart from that he was used for cattle work, and he has had many owners, and working with him has indicated that he has had at least basic western training – totally not my forte! He had been rescued by some friends after being offered as a ‘free to good home paddock buddy’ and placed into semi-retirement, and when I was in need of a horse, they offered him as a potential project, as he really needed his own human.

With time and effort, this boy now bends instead of pivoting - and is a much more confident partner.

With time and effort, this boy now bends instead of pivoting - and is a much more confident partner.

Katie and I assessed him for soundness and to identify some potential issues. We noted:

  • His back was sound and could safely hold a rider
  • He had mild arthritis
  • He has had some injury in the past that had created some tightness particularly through the left haunch
  • He was significantly out of work (no surprises there!)
  • He was experiencing some anxiety issues, both with riders and leaving his paddock buddy
  • He had no idea how to talk to his rider (hence the anxiety with riders)

We began training him English style under the principles of the Foundation of Equine Development – we took it right back to the starting basics. Groundwork, bonding work, emotional management and letting him talk to us on the ground and in the saddle. This boy has gone from Western trained, out of work paddock, rarely active ornament to a happy, confident, calm horse that now plays and runs in the paddock and wants human interaction. His progression is slower than it might be for a younger horse, and we are forever mindful not to create injury, but his development has been beneficial both for myself and him.

Being an older, relatively unknown horse, neither of us has any idea of how far he will go. But he keeps taking each new challenge we present him (even being proud to ‘show off’), so who knows – you might see us out at a pony club dressage event soon!

Your Older Horse

Do you have an older horse that still wants to work/play? Outside of basic care and maintenance, you could increase their workload in many different ways - for many key benefits.

Benefits of Working Your Older Horse

  • When done correctly it can improve their muscular tone, reducing the pains that develop with old age (think of it as physio rather than gym!)
  • Improve their mood and temperment
  • Improve their quality of life and may even increase their life expectancy!

Before you do, assess your horse for the following:

  • Check for soundness in the back, legs and mouth
  • Ensure they have not lost too much muscle mass, as this will make any type of riding work impossible
  • How much working condition have they lost/still retained?
  • Look for any signs of arthritis, or skeletal misalignment, and supplement/treat accordingly
  • Does your horse want to engage in these activities?

Then encourage your horse to participate in:

  • Basic groundwork or riding training – take it as far back to the basics as your horse needs to be able to redevelop lost condition. Equestrian Movements’ Foundation of Equine Development Course will be available soon for you to try out!
  • Fun days out – a short trail ride or bringing them out to pony club for a potter (not competing, or lightly competing if your horse can handle it)
  • Lead line walks for small children – especially for older horses that can no longer maintain adult weight
  • Fun games - or even train for new tricks on the ground, such as touch the button or foot on the log.
  • Be prepared to go slow, and be prepared to listen when your horse tells you he or she has reached their limit.

And of course, lots of love, cuddles, grooming and general contact are also strongly indicated!

Regular human interaction is very important to many of these older horses, as they received so much attention during their prime it becomes an ingrained habit and desire that is hard to break. Anything we can do to show them we love them still, as well as improve their quality of life, we should.