Riding an older horse
Q:I have a Shire/Thoroughbred mare who just turned 30 years old. She is healthy and still as spry as she was at 15. My question is this: I haven’t been on her in about two years and was wondering if I would hurt her if I got on her now. Her back has dropped a bit but not drastically. I wouldn’t do anything but walk and maybe a little trotting. We might go out on a trail. What do you think? Loretta Horrigan Hicksville, New York
A:A 30-year-old Shire cross is remarkable in itself. If she is healthy and reasonably sound you have a true blessing that is rare in the horse world. Celebrate her! You do need to be careful on a horse this old who is not conditioned for riding, but it certainly sounds like she could do a few laps around the pasture.
Before you start, I would recommend talking to your veterinarian about your riding plans. A thorough physical examination can help make sure the horse is really healthy and sound. Your veterinarian can also help you decide if your mare is still able to safely be an athlete again.
As you recondition an aging horse for trail riding, you’ll need to go more slowly than you would with a younger one. Stick to walking on level ground at first. You can gradually increase the duration of the ride and trot a little, but remember she is older now and is not in athletic condition. A little sweat and hard breathing means your horse is building fitness, but scale back on your demands if it takes her more than 10 or 15 minutes to return to normal after you stop. You don’t want to exhaust her.
Older horses also require more time to recover from exercise. Give your mare two or three days of rest per week to allow her body to adjust to the new workload. As with any athlete in training, stay alert for signs of lameness or changes in attitude. The increased work may aggravate arthritis or other conditions that had previously gone unnoticed.
Good luck! I hope you enjoy your horse for years to come. Bruce A. Connally, DVM, MS Wyoming Equine Longmont, Colorado