Inactivity is the main cause of lost fitness in older horses. Just like people, horses who continue to exercise as they age are stronger and more supple than their less-active peers. And once an older horse loses conditioning, it can be difficult to restore because of limitations imposed by arthritis or old injuries. Ironically, early “retirement” of active horses to life as a pasture ornament can precipitate their decline. What you can do: Encourage your horse to exercise for as long into old age as he is able. Continual turnout is an easy and effective way of keeping a horse moving. Given enough space and friendly companions, an elderly horse will walk enough to maintain some level of fitness. When you ride an older horse, dial back the activities based on how he responds. Some horses thrive on long gallops and jumping well into their 20s,
but for others these activities become too difficult much earlier in life. Whatever the case, put off full retirement for as long as possible. An hourlong walk on a trail through the woods is better, physically and mentally, for a healthy, older horse than languishing in a stall or small paddock. If riding is no longer an option, hand-walking is better than standing still.
If you need to get an older, out-of-shape horse back into condition, allow at least twice as much time than would be required for a younger horse. And double the amount of downtime. Conditioning occurs when tissues are stressed and given time to repair, but without sufficient rest, injuries occur. An aged horse may need two days off after a workout instead of just one. Be particularly patient when bringing an old-timer back from a layoff: It will take at least three months for him to develop enough fitness for even light trail outings---assuming he has no setbacks.
If the pain of arthritis or another problem limits your older horse’s ability to exercise, address the underlying condition and cautiously return him to work as soon as you have clearance from your veterinarian.
When to worry: When “unfit” becomes “weak,” an older horse faces significant risks to his health. If your horse seems unsteady in his gaits or has trouble rising, don’t ride him and call the veterinarian without delay.
An hourlong walk on a trail through the woods is better, physically and mentally, for a healthy, older horse than languishing in a stall or small paddock.