Back in the day, once a horse hit the age of 15 or so it was considered a senior and would likely start to take life in the easy lane. But now, thanks to better veterinary treatment, nutrition and care, horses are living longer, much longer.
Today, the average life span of horses is estimated to be between 25 and 30 years and according to SPILLERS data, around 40% of horses and ponies in the UK are now 15 plus, with many carrying on with busy, active lives.
Wind back to just three or four decades ago and we all thought weighty, waxed canvas New Zealand turnout rugs and scratchy jute stable rugs were the height of modernity. The turnout look was completed with leather leg straps that caused the rug to slip precariously to one side. The stable look was finished with a fiddly surcingle with an ‘anti-cast’ metal hoop on the top, not forgetting the wither pad for comfort. Changing rugs was an undeniably tedious task.
In chillier weather, we surreptitiously ‘found’ an old duvet from the parents’ linen cupboard to use as an under-rug. We prayed it wouldn’t get soaked with wee, which made the down clump up into unforgiving, damp, stinking lumps, rendering useless its warmth-giving properties.
After a busy day competing, if budgets didn’t stretch to a Rab C Nesbitt style anti-sweat string vest, we laboriously thatched straw under the jute rug to allow the air to circulate while the sweat dried. Such a palaver, but it worked. As did the hay wisp, woven from a handful of the horse’s ration from the manger and used, with considerable elbow grease, to bring the finest bloom to our horse’s coat.
Who remembers the de rigueur rubber boots and the special black polish we used to shine them up before a show? The inelegant way they bulged out around the ankle, were invariably too short, ending a couple of inches below the knee to cause fleshy calf to spill over the top, or too long and cut savagely into the back of the knee. And oh how they indignantly squeaked against the stirrup leathers. The upside was that they were great for wet weather and wading through muddy puddles to catch our recalcitrant horses, that is until they split….
Nutrition in the 80s and 90s was also a labour of love. Lacking the advanced research and innovation that we all tend to take for granted today, the common options were to feed one-size-fits-all horse and pony nuts or to boil linseed and barley, to add to the bruised oats and long soak sugar beet we fed to horses in harder work. Teatime at the yard took hours.
Seniors didn’t receive much by way of special nutrition support; there weren’t any fast-soaking mash options for those who found chewing a challenge, no digestive support to help oldies process their food to best effect, little by way of joint additives to help support arthritic aches.
We didn’t know a great deal about metabolic diseases such as PPID, laminitis and how to test for them and treat them, nor how to support the waning immune system of the older horse.
Our knowledge of foot care has also increased; gone are the days of thinking it’s fine to stretch out the length of time between farrier visits to 12 weeks. Around half this time is now the norm and the benefits of remedial farriery are widely embraced. Equine vets and specialist hospitals offer state of the art diagnostics and treatment and are available in most areas of the country too. Leg surgery is a viable option and a severe case of colic can be survivable.
Horse care has come a long way in a comparatively short space of time, not least with the fabulous feeding options we now have at our fingertips. Today it’s so much easier to provide our precious equine charges with the best quality of life we can. In the same way that 40 is regarded as the new 30 for us humans it seems 20+ is the new 15+ for horses.