How to keep your horse happy and healthy after his athletic career
On a quiet farm in Cazenovia, New York, dozens of horses are living the good life. They have all the hay and grass they can eat, pasturemates galore, and they’re free to get as muddy as possible. Oh … and chances are you’ve seen several of them representing the United States at the Olympics, World Equestrian Games (WEG), and other international competitions.
These horses are living out their retirement at John Madden Sales, the home base for U.S. team show jumper and Olympic and WEG gold medalist Beezie Madden and her husband, John. The Maddens have a long history of providing their horses a safe place to retire, and in 2016 they expanded their facilities to offer the same service to other owners.
Today, the Maddens and their team care for around 60 retirees, mostly in their late teens or 20s, with room for another 10 to 15 more. They live outside 24/7 in small herds, sometimes including broodmares or young horses, with the option to take advantage of shelters as needed.
“The owners we have in our retiree program appreciate that their former show partners get to have a more natural way of life,” John Madden says.
What does retirement at “Madden Mountain” look like? And how can we provide our own horses with appropriate retirement care?
In this article John Madden; Amanda Adams, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington, who studies geriatric horses; and Bryan Waldridge, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP, ACVIM, of Park Equine Hospital at Woodford, in Versailles, Kentucky, share their tips for keeping retired horses healthy and happy.
Because much of the retired horse population is older, we’ll touch on several aspects of senior horse care. But if you’ve got a younger horse on permanent vacation, don’t stop reading here.
“Younger horses might be more likely to run around, burn some energy, and things like that,” says Waldridge, who has among his patients retired Thoroughbreds at Old Friends, in nearby Georgetown, Kentucky. “But it’s more or less the same deal.”
Your horse might not be working anymore, but he still needs regular veterinary exams and care.
When new horses arrive at Old Friends, Waldridge says, he conducts a physical exam to be sure they’re in good shape. While some equine residents don’t have far to travel upon retirement—many are from in and around Central Kentucky—others come from across the country or farther. For example, 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Silver Charm traveled from a Thoroughbred stud in Japan.
“I usually check them within the first two weeks they’re there,” he says. “I let them get over the stress of travel first.”
Be mindful of their paddock partners during this shift.
“When making the transition from living inside, with shoes, in full care, to living out in a herd, it is best to supervise the transition period,” Madden says. “There are sometimes superficial injuries as they work out the hierarchy within the herds. (Even though) they are living out all the time, you still need to be diligent about watching for any changes, issues, or injuries.”
The Maddens keep their retirees up-to-date on preventive care throughout the year: “They get spring and fall vaccines,” says Madden. “They have their teeth done annually, unless a specific issue requires more attention. We pull annual Coggins on all our retirees and obviously treat any injury or issue as it happens. They are also on a regular deworming program.”
Our veterinarian sources say the Maddens are doing retired horse health care right. Here’s why.
The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends all horses receive annual “core vaccinations”—ones for diseases every horse is at risk of contracting, whether they travel and encounter other horses or not; these include Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis, rabies, tetanus, and West Nile virus. The association recommends owners and their veterinarians discuss whether their horses need risk-based vaccines, which protect against diseases horses might be at risk of contracting, depending on their lifestyles and/or locations; these include equine herpesvirus-1, influenza, and strangles, among others.
Adams says many people incorrectly believe older horses have developed immunity to disease over time and don’t need continued vaccination.
“Several years ago we wanted to put this theory to the test—to understand if senior horses even need to be vaccinated because they have had several years of vaccination history and pre-existing antibody titers to pathogens (disease-causing organisms),” Adams says.
Horses that weren’t vaccinated immediately before an equine influenza virus challenge (in other words, they weren’t up-to-date on their vaccines before exposure to the flu) developed clinical signs of disease, and those that were vaccinated prior to the study were protected.
“That’s why we give annual vaccinations, regardless of age, to essentially ‘boost’ the immune system … so if a horse is faced with a challenge, they are capable of responding, and thereby limit the severity of disease,” Adams says.
Again, just because a horse is retired or aged does not mean he no longer needs deworming. “In fact, it is quite opposite,” says Adams. “One should pay closer attention to the older horse, given their immune function declines with age; thereby, their ability to keep worm burdens under control is likely altered. We have shown with our herd of senior horses that they actually have significantly higher levels of fecal egg counts (FECs) when compared to younger horses.”
Our sources recommend basing your deworming program on these counts, which help determine whether your horse is a low, moderate, or high parasite egg shedder. Conduct FECs twice a year—typically once in the spring and again in the fall—and deworm as needed. Low-shedders might only need to be dewormed once or twice a year (spring and fall) with dewormers that target small strongyles (ivermectin or moxidectin), tapeworms (praziquantel or pyrantel pamoate), and, if needed, pinworms (oxibendazole or fenbendazole)—the three worm species of most concern in adult horses. Moderate and high shedders might need more frequent FECs and targeted treatment to help combat their parasite loads.
Work with your veterinarian to identify the most effective deworming regimen for your retired horses.
Most show venues or organized events require proof of a negative Coggins test before allowing a horse on the premises. So it’d seem like you could cross this off your list for horses that don’t leave the farm, right? No such luck.
A Coggins test screens horses’ blood for antibodies indicating the presence of the potentially deadly equine infectious anemia virus (EIAV), which attacks the immune system. Blood-feeding insects such as horseflies can transmit the virus from infected to uninfected animals (it can also be transmitted through blood-contaminated instruments or needles).
The dangerous thing about EIA is there’s no cure. An EIA-positive horse dies from active disease, is euthanized, or must be placed in extremely strict quarantine (at least 200 yards from unaffected equids) for the rest of his life.
Ideally, veterinarians would eradicate the disease from the U.S. equine population. But, “despite testing and measures to eradicate EIAV, new cases are identified each year in the U.S.,” Adams says.
Untested horses can silently harbor
EIAV and, again, insects and shared needles can pass it to others. Therefore, it’s important to keep testing retired horses to help prevent EIA spread.
An important part of caring for retirees is ensuring their teeth stay healthy. This becomes even more crucial when you consider that older horses are at risk for many dental issues that aren’t as common in younger horses.
Have your veterinarian check your retired horses’ teeth every six months (“Time it with your vaccines so you don’t forget,” Waldridge says) to see if they’re in need of a float or other treatments.
Work with your veterinarian to test for conditions that could affect your horse as he ages:
- “Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, an endocrine condition that develops when a horse’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland—which reside at the base of the brain—fail to communicate appropriately, causing the pars intermedia to produce more adrenocorticotropin hormone [ACTH] than it should) affects about 20% of the older horse population,” Adams says, and veterinarians have diagnosed it in younger horses, as well. The key, she says, is to diagnose and treat the disease early to slow its progression. Include PPID testing (blood plasma ACTH test or a thyrotropin-releasing hormone stimulation test) as part of a yearly or biyearly vet exam.
- “Insulin dysregulation (ID, abnormal insulin responses) is another issue older horses can face, which is one of the main contributing factors to horses developing laminitis (a painful hoof condition in which the leaflike laminae that suspend the coffin bone within the foot become inflamed or fail and separate from the coffin bone and the hoof wall, allowing the bone to rotate or sink),” Adams says. Annual or twice-annual diagnostic tests (resting insulin levels or oral-sugar testing) can allow you to adjust these horses’ feeding, turnout, and exercise to reduce their risk of developing laminitis.
- Also watch for weight loss, which Adams says could be due to poor dentition, changes in dietary needs, or, potentially, gastric ulcers.
- Finally, arthritis, colic, recurrent respiratory issues, and hoof abscesses are also common health conditions of the senior horse, she says.
Adams recommends having a vet conduct a wellness exam on your retired horse once or twice a year to monitor for changes in baseline health parameters so you can be proactive about instead of reactive to any underlying issues.
Retired horses still need their hooves evaluated and trimmed regularly. Waldridge recommends sticking to the same schedule you’ve always used, though you might be able to transition shod horses to a barefoot lifestyle.
“All of our retirees are barefoot, with the exception of a couple that need shoes for a specific injury,” Madden says. “They tend to wear their feet down a little more naturally on turnout but are still trimmed back regularly throughout the year.”
Waldridge’s patients at Old Friends are in a similar situation. “I don’t even think we have five of them—out of 140—in shoes.”
Madden adds, “Some will get a little foot-sore as they transition to being barefoot but, if managed well, their feet toughen up and they end up quite happy.”
Ask your veterinarian or farrier for advice if your horse becomes tender-footed.
“Some have special needs—laminitis or navicular syndrome, for example,” Waldridge adds, and might benefit from shoes to help protect the hooves and support the internal structures.
Injuries and Soundness Issues
If your horse retired due to an injury, it’s important to complete the entire treatment regimen your veterinarian outlines—stall rest, limited turnout, medications … all of it, even if the horse will not go back to work.
Also, realize that most horses bring at least some sort physical baggage with them into retirement. Chronic issues such as osteoarthritis and founder (chronic laminitis, during which the coffin bone within the horse’s hoof has rotated or sunk) might require ongoing veterinary care and management. Work with your veterinarian to determine what, if any, long-term treatments or maintenance your horse needs.
Even if your horse doesn’t have existing or past injuries that could make mobility challenging, you can take steps to keep him moving smoothly as he ages.
Veterinarians know older horses benefit from exercise that’s appropriate for their soundness and fitness levels. In one study, researchers found that senior horses had better carpal (knee) flexion and front fetlock extension compared to baseline after three months of exercise. Improvement in their way of going might be due to benefits of or acclimation to exercise, which would support implementing an exercise regimen in older horses, the researchers said.
“Movement is the best thing for older horses,” Madden says. “Being on 24/7 turnout helps our older horses minimize stiffness or keep from losing condition.”
Waldridge says some retired horses might benefit from a joint supplement.
“You can’t expect a supplement to make a horse pain-free, but some can help (improve) baseline lameness and … help to knock down inflammation in the joint,” he says.
Our veterinarian sources remind us that active ingredients vary considerably across supplements, and a growing number of manufacturers are putting research behind their products. It might take trial and error to find the supplement that works best for your horse, but a good place to start is with one that’s been studied and shown to be effective.
Waldridge’s personal supplement preference to help support retired horses’ joints? “I’d feed a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement, according to the label. They do well—I take them myself— to help control pain.”
Look for a supplement backed by research; your veterinarian can help you narrow the choices to ones that might help your horse most.
If your retiring horse’s diet isn’t broken, don’t fix it, Waldridge says. But, you might find that once your horse stops working consistently, he packs on a few pounds. Or because he’s not exercising rigorously anymore, he loses muscle mass. If that’s the case, make some changes.
“For me, the most important rule for feeding a horse is to just feed according to body condition score,” Waldridge says. “If the horse is too fat, feed it less. If it’s too skinny, feed it more.”
Keep your retired horse around a body condition score of 5 or 6 on the 9-point Henneke scale, “so you can’t see but can easily feel their ribs,” Waldridge says.
Be sure your horse is consuming appropriate forage and concentrate or grain for his needs. A low-calorie ration balancer isn’t going to meet your hard-keeping Thoroughbred’s requirements, while a high-energy performance feed isn’t the right choice for your laminitic pony. Mature grass hay is better for an easy keeper, while soaked alfalfa pellets might be ideal for a senior with few teeth. Your veterinarian or equine nutritionist can help you find the right feed for your retiree.
“Diagnostic work-ups to determine if your horse is PPID or ID will also help in guiding the nutritional needs of this horse,” Adams adds.
Another factor to consider: your horse’s pasture access. We know turnout benefits retired horses, but use caution. Some horses can’t have unrestricted grass—or any at all. Particularly if your horse is an easy keeper, pasture could push him over the edge for developing metabolic conditions such as ID and/or equine metabolic syndrome (an endocrine disorder associated with an increased risk of laminitis).
Be especially careful about turnout if your horse didn’t have access to much grass during his athletic career.
“If they weren’t used to being on pasture, you might have to restrict them (with a grazing muzzle or part-time turnout, for example)—at least during the first year—to make sure you don’t run into springtime or fall founder with all that grass,” Waldridge says.
Consider having your hay and pasture tested to know exactly what you’re feeding your horse, says Adams.
What does the menu look like for the Maddens’ charges?
“Our retirees are fed free-choice local hay,” Madden says. “In the winter this is good for them to help regulate their temperatures to always be eating. In the spring, summer, and fall months, they are also out on grass fields, which we rotate to ensure good grazing for as many months as possible.”
Their retirees in light work also receive grain meals twice a day.
Sometimes horses die naturally or suffer health issues for which the only humane option is euthanasia. Other times, it’s up to the owner to decide when it’s time, and the decision isn’t always straightforward.
Keep a close eye on retirees, consider their health and welfare as objectively as possible, and discuss health or behavior changes—even subtle ones—with your veterinarian. Has he been lying down more than usual or taking longer to finish his meals? Are current medical treatments still controlling his health issues, or have you noticed more clinical signs? You know your horse best. Does he still seem happy, or has he become depressed?
Waldridge suggests reviewing the AAEP’s euthanasia guidelines (aaep.org/euthanasia-guidelines) and checking off how many apply to your horse.
And just because you can treat some painful chronic conditions, such as laminitis, navicular, or even severe osteoarthritis, doesn’t mean that’s the right path for your horse.
“The ones that kill me are the founders that people just keep going for too long,” Waldridge says. “Those poor things are lame and skinny, and you can just see they don’t enjoy life anymore.”
He says he carefully considers whether the horse can still be a horse.
“A horse wants to walk around and eat grass,” he says. “When a horse can’t walk around and eat grass pain-free and easily, to me that says they can’t do the most basic things they want to do. If they don’t pass that test … it’s time to put them down.”
Caring for retired horses isn’t that different from caring for pleasure, sport, or breeding horses. From regular hoof care to individualized dental work, the aim is good health and welfare.
“For us, we find responsible retirement to be giving our old competitors a chance to live out their days as horses,” Madden says. “Not as pampered show horses, but given the chance to get dirty, grow coats, and live out in a herd with their barnmates. We find that by letting them live this way, they have a healthy retirement. We rarely have issues with colic, ulcers, or stall vices when they are able to be outside 24/7. While there is normal deterioration as they age, they typically stay sounder and maintain muscle and topline, just through natural movement out of their stalls.”
Give your horse time to adjust to his new lifestyle, enjoying your time together while monitoring his wellness. Don’t overthink it, Waldridge adds: “A lot of people want to make it complicated. Just keep it simple.”