Conditioning the Older Horse

What are the effects of advancing years on athletic performance?

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What are the effects of advancing years on athletic performance? Are there special considerations in the conditioning and general care of older horses? Is regular exercise beneficial for older horses or, conversely, does the extra wear and tear on joints, tendons, and ligaments only hasten development of crippling lameness problems? Nowadays, these questions and others are asked frequently. In part, this is a reflection of the ever-changing role of horses in society. Demographic information suggests that older horses (more than 15-20 years of age) comprise a large proportion of the overall horse population. In fact, some surveys indicate that more than 15% of the horse population is over 20 years of age. More than ever, the horse is a treasured companion, and we strive to ensure that this rewarding relationship lasts for as long as is reasonably possible.

Our expectations for length of athletic career also are changing–in many athletic disciplines, there are numerous examples of horses remaining highly competitive until their late teens or beyond. Of course, not all horses will be able to compete at the top of their games at that age and, generally speaking, we should lower our expectations in terms of athletic performance as the horse ages. Nevertheless, with appropriate care and conditioning, there is no reason why the older horse cannot be used for pleasure riding, and perhaps more.

What Is Old?

Just what do we mean by old? There are no hard and fast rules–we do know that few horses survive into their 30s or 40s, but many horses do quite well until their late 20s. "Geriatric" and "senior" are terms frequently used to describe horses in this age bracket. However, geriatric really refers to old humans or animals with problems and diseases. Old, but otherwise heal-thy horses are just that–old

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Written by:

Ray Geor, BVSc, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is the pro vice-chancellor of the Massey University College of Sciences, in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

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