Here's the thing: while the older horse may have a few hitches and "irregular" footfalls, the key to helping him lead a quality life in his later years is to keep him moving. It's the same with human beings - while there may be a pain component, maintaining your level of activity (or even increasing it) is one of the primary ways you can stay healthy.
First things first: the trick is to work with your veterinarian. Pinpoint the exact cause of the areas of concern and find out from your vet how to manage the condition. Your horse may have degenerative arthritis. There may be long-ago healed injuries that limit or hamper his movement. He may have developed metabolic conditions over the years.
If you don't already know what is going on, have a thorough discussion with your veterinarian. There may be medications or supplements that can support your horse's condition. Then, devise a riding plan that will keep your horse going well into his later years. Your vet might even suggest specific exercises suited to your horse's needs.
Although I am not a vet, nor am I able to tell you specifically what you can and can't do with your horse, I did ride my first two horses into old age before completely retiring them from riding as they passed the 25-year-old mark. Although many horses can continue to be ridden past 25, I had young horses to give attention to and it seemed like a good time to hang up their bridles at that age.
Both were able to stay fully active through their teens and into their early twenties. It took some careful "listening" on my part, but exercise through riding is at least as important in the later years as it is for young horses - of course, for different reasons.
Here are some "accommodations" I put into place for the girls as they aged. Some of these ideas might work for your horse as well.
Walking took a more important role in maintaining a low-impact yet active lifestyle for my girls. With younger horses, where conditioning becomes important, I may push the trot and canter boundaries a bit. But when it came to the old girls, I would take breaks earlier and for longer periods of time. Walk warm-ups and cool-downs were also important.
But watch out for the quality of the walk! If you inadvertently allow your horse to plod along like he's stuck in quicksand, you might be doing him more harm than good. Quality of gait becomes even more important for older horses. Short strides, a hollow back and bracing front legs all contribute to putting even more pressure on the horse's joints and tendons. If you allow a lack of engagement (and therefore limited muscular effort), your body weight in itself can contribute to the stresses he already has on his body.
So even while you're "just" walking, make sure he has a strong tempo, a swinging back, a long(er) stride - all the components that go into a good marching walk that may even improve the horse's conditioning.
Large, Wide Circles and Straight Lines
Riding your older horse gives you permission to forget about accuracy of the figures, and pay more attention to your horse's needs. If he has trouble on circles, then make them wider. Or turn them into ovals, so that there are straight lines in between the turns.
Give him more straight lines as well. Look for long diagonals or ride the quarter lines - keeping him as straight as possible (not allowing him to be crooked).
Flexions and Bends
That doesn't mean you should give up completely on bending. Riding the horse in tension is a guaranteed way to put more harm in than good, so you should address tightness and stiffness each ride.
You should always position your horse so he is at least looking in the direction of movement (flexion) and even work on developing a good bend. The difference would be to insist on bend later into the ride, once the muscles have had more time to warm up. Take more walk breaks, especially after bending, and let the horse have a free walk to release the muscles after a good pretzeling session!
Which leads us to stretches. If you read this blog often, you'll know how much I love the stretching the horse, in walk/trot and canter. Stretch often and regularly with your older horse, at the beginning of the ride, as a break between more energetic work, and at the end. You'll both love it!
While your older horse might be a pro at non-progressive transitions, there may come a time when you decide that it will be easier on his joints to make simple, progressive transitions. There is an inherent amount of stress on the body and joints when a horse is asked especially for downward transitions - say, from the canter to walk. Limit those and work instead on the quality of the canter to trot to walk. Always keep the joints in mind and reduce any unnecessary concussion.
The older horse will benefit from forward movement at least as much as a younger horse. So while I'm saying to take it easy on the transitions, I'm not saying that you should let the horse block energy and "suck back". The true benefit of having your horse "ahead of your leg" is not just so that you can dance along in unison. It is so that he can carry your weight better, be softer and more supple in his body, and be better balanced overall. So don't give up on that much needed energy - let it wash over your horse and make him stay strong.
Maintain Roundness While Being Ridden
Roundness, or "over the back", or longitudinal flexion, is essential in maintaining the functions of the top line muscles. Many older horses will naturally begin to lose top line, because there may be some reduction in muscling overall. So put that extra effort into developing suppleness over the back and help your horse stay limber longer.
Keep Your Friends Guessing!
Invariably, there will come the day when a new friend says, "You're horse is HOW old??"
That is when you know you're on track to helping your horse maintain his best self as he ages in good health.
While these ideas are designed to maintain mobility with the least amount of stress, do keep fussing over your horse. Give him the same attention you always have - groomings, baths, hanging out with friends while your horse gets to hand graze - and you will have an interested, active horse for years to come!
Do you have an older horse? How do you maintain your horse's health through his geriatric years?
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