In Praise of Senior Horses


This year my off-track thoroughbred turns 16. I’ve had him since he was five. I remember thinking that 16 was a senior horse, but now that I have a 16-year-old horse I realize that is completely incorrect. There is nothing elderly about my thoroughbred. Yes, he has arthritis; but he had it when he was eight. It isn’t any better or any worse. It just is. If he gets ridden regularly, he stays loose and comfortable.

My thoroughbred has always had a lot of physical issues. Most of them are related to his time on the track. He came to me with scarring on his legs from being pin fired (google it). Since I’ve had him he’s had some crazy injuries, but he’s come back from all of them. At 16 I don’t see much of a difference between now and how he was when he was six. He has a few more scars, but he’s still able to do all the same things.

He has a cut on his head in this pic. Still accident prone as a 16 year old.

Turning 16 did not mellow him out any. He’s always been kind of a mellow guy, but he still has his thoroughbred moments, the kind where he has a massive spaz attack about something completely ordinary. Those moments have not lessened any as he’s gotten older. He’s still the same horse that he was. The thing that has changed is his ability to react to them without getting me hurt. He’s gained some knowledge about the world and a measure of self-control that comes with life experience.


My mule turns 20 this year. Mules live longer than horses, so a 20-year-old mule is not exactly the same as a 20-year-old horse. Other than the hollow spots above her eyes, you would never know that she’s 20. I took her on a 10 mile endurance ride, and she could’ve gone another 25. It was me that was the weak link. She wanted to keep going but my back was killing me. She regularly outworks horses half her age. There is nothing elderly about her either.

Does she look elderly to you?

I’ve kind of been toying with the idea of getting a horse for my daughter. I need another horse like I need a hole in the head, but there are times when I wish she did have her own horse so that we could take that horse places, like camping or to competitive trail rides. We can’t really do that now because we’re borrowing a horse for her to ride and we can’t take her off property.

I wouldn’t say I’m actively looking, but I’m browsing. I used to look at horse ads and anything over 17 years was an automatic no for me. Too old, just a vet bill waiting to happen, as if young horses aren’t also a vet bill waiting to happen. No longer do I automatically write off anything over 17. In fact, I think people are missing out on a lot of great horses simply because of their age.

The tweens doing groundwork with Tuff, who is in his twenties.

For beginner riders or timid riders, a been-there, done-that kind of horse is exactly what they need. They’re going to look at the young, fancy, flashy horses and that’s probably what they’ll fall in love with, when what they really should buy is the 22-year-old that will take care of them.

I don’t think a horse’s personality changes all that much over time. I think a horse that loves to go will still love to go when he’s 22, as long as he’s been well cared for and kept fit. He may appreciate an easier job, like a shorter trail ride or a lighter rider, but if he enjoyed trail riding all those years, then he will probably still enjoy it when he’s a senior.

As long as the horse has been given a job that he enjoys, kept fit to do his job, and been treated fairly while working, I think the vast majority of the time they want to keep working. Some horses might appreciate a retirement that involves being stuck in a pasture and never messed with again, but a horse that enjoyed attention when he was younger will probably still enjoy attention as a senior citizen. Maybe he can’t barrel race anymore, but he can cart the grandkids around the yard and enjoy some cookies.

The horse my daughter currently rides is in her early 20’s. She comes right up when she sees my daughter, looking for a treat. She sticks her head in the halter and looks forward to leaving the pasture and doing something different. When we ride, she’s not the fastest and she’s out of shape (although she’s shaping up quickly), so we go easy on her; but it’s obvious that she enjoys having a job. She has a fantastic attitude about working, especially going on a trail ride. She doesn’t like to trot in endless circles so my daughter can practice posting, but she will trot and canter up the dirt road. She’s a perfect fit for my beginner kid and her age is an asset, not a liability.

Gracie stays dirty in the winter. She’s almost impossible to keep clean since she lives out 24/7.

Now when I look at ads I pay special attention to the golden oldie horses. They’re usually cheaper, for one thing, and they often get passed over by everyone else. I’m looking for an older horse that was kept fit and was well cared for. This is very important. A horse that has not been kept fit is going to be like a person that never exercised. They’re not going to be as healthy as someone who stayed active.

Since I’ve been riding older horses, my opinion about them has completely changed. I wish horse people weren’t so quick to write them off, because there are plenty of them sitting in rescues getting overlooked or being posted on Craigslist for a few hundred bucks. How owners treat their senior horses is a whole other post, but for now let’s just say that their loss could be your gain. If you want a horse that will take care of you, that knows his job and still wants to do it, consider a senior.

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