This Old Horse – Keep Your Senior Active and Useful

by Nikki Alvin-Smith


Through my years of horse breeding and training and competing at advanced level competition, I’ve learned many methods to ensure that our vintage performance horses stay strong and healthy.

As most horse folks know, it always seems that just when you get your horse exactly to where he needs to be training wise, something errant happens that causes him to go off track and it can be hard to bring an older horse back to full strength.

Here are some tips to help you keep your ‘old horse active and useful into and through his vintage years, based on things I have learned.

The Start Matters

It’s normal practice for horses to be started at very young ages in the racehorse and Western world of equestrian practice and sadly the early start can do much damage to the horse and sincerely negatively affect its longevity and usefulness as a riding animal.  As a horse breeder for over 20 years I can attest to the notion that while you do want to get the young horse well-mannered and obedient from a young age with daily handling and short lessons on patience and good behavior, working them under saddle should not start too early.

Try to be patient with the work schedule and performance demands you make of your youngstock. Make sure the biomechanical development of the horse, such as closing of knee plates, spinal process growth and overall mental and physical elements are properly progressed before intensive training starts. Slow and steady gymnastic development truly does win the day.

A horse that is well-ridden all of its life, and carefully developed with good training, will usually last longer as an active riding partner than one that has been subjected to poor horsemanship either in the saddle or in its care. That being said the noble horse nature often shines in a particular horse, that seemingly will push through even the most devastating of injuries or human actions to come out the other side sane, sound and sensible. Horses are truly amazing wee beasties.

Age Is More Than A Number

It is critical that you don’t overlook the signs of aging as they appear in your horse. Age is more than a number indeed, and just because a horse is 10 years old or 20 years old, doesn’t mean that it will automatically follow a defined pattern of degradation. Genetic influences, workloads and exercise history, exposure to disease, illness or injury, stress and current fitness levels, and of course diet, all combine to contribute their part to the equation of age.

Be vigilant and look for classic signs of weight fluctuation, poor digestion, poor hoof, skin or dental conditions, joint soreness and metabolic changes.

Offer The Right Support

Changes in feed, supplements, forage and grazing will all likely be necessary as the horse ages up. The essential nutritional aspects of the equine diet will need to be addressed on an individual basis. Consider bloodwork checks, attentive farrier care, fecal worm counts, tack and equipment evaluations for fit and comfort, and a full veterinary check up on an annual basis to help stay ahead of any issues that may arise.

Today’s marketplace is chock full of varietal offerings to address the specific nutritional needs of the older horse. From joint supplements to digestive aids, there is a nose to tail solution for seemingly everything. Do your own research and don’t just rely on Google reviews or the local vet preference. Choose equine feed supplements that are properly formulated. Look for the NASC seal as a good starting point.

While an ‘all in one’ bucket solution may work for some horses, an older horse will likely have very specific issues that need to be addressed. Don’t fall into the trap of over-supplementing. Target the issue and address it with accuracy.

The horse’s immune system will falter as he ages, and boosting this with pre and postbiotic supplementation is generally recommended. Get involved with learning about the science-backed product lines and follow a logical protocol for your individual horse’s needs and be guided by science not by emotion in your decisions.

Walk Don’t Run

Older horses appreciate a good walk. It helps them to gradually loosen up stiff joints and muscles and cool down times after work are an important component in minimizing/removing lactic acid build up for any horse. As walking is so good for horses, if it is possible to offer regular hand grazing at shows/events and turnout when home, the horse will maintain much better mental and physical condition than one that is stabled for endless hours.

Useful Life Changes

If you own an advanced level competition horse there will inevitably come a time when your partner can no longer perform at the same level. A change of life in a show horse can be a challenge for it to adjust to and sticking it out in a field is not the best solution, unless it is medically necessary to abandon riding it altogether.

My husband (who is also a Grand Prix rider) and I, have trained many of our homebred and imported horses from birth to Grand Prix. While for some horses bringing them from our private yard as a show horse to a lesson horse under our supervision, it is not always a suitable transition for every horse.

Consider your horse as an individual. For some equines going from being ridden and trained on a daily basis by a rider that has subtle aids and knows what they are about, a horse that can operate on the lightest of aids, to being bamboozled around a ring by a neophyte rider, would be a disastrous experience.

As coaches/clinicians we fully realize the benefits that a schoolmaster horse can provide to a student. Funny enough, sometimes the complete neophyte rider is a better option to sit on a piaffe on a trained horse, than one that believes they already ride at a certain level and become overzealous in their actions and aids.

Earnestly evaluate your particular horse and it’s retirement options. One Grand Prix horse we made, Tiberio Lafite aka Tigger, could simply not be settled working under my husband without going full force forward trying his very hardest to work at maximum capacity, regardless of whether my husband asked him to do less. For Tigger it was best to simply not work him in an arena except for a slow walk up for exercise during inclement weather. As for him an arena meant going full throttle. But walking out on the trail he would be quite content. Though he was never going to be a beginner ride or be happy being ridden by someone without the all-important independent seat, Tigger went on as a riding horse well into his 25th year and never had an unsound day in his life.

Every horse is different. Some horses will happily adjust to less work and a quieter life, while for others it will drive them quite mad. For all good reasons keeping your senior horse as active as possible for as long as possible is a sound idea. As long as his comfort level can be properly maintained.

Refresh and Renovate

It is smart to re-evaluate your senior horse’s needs regularly and to refresh your ideas and renovate the program for work and care of ‘this old horse’. Always pay attention to what your horse is telling you – don’t assume misbehavior or bad behavior stem from a miscreant intent, but rather that something is making your equine partner less comfortable than usual.

In the care and management of an older horse, ignorance is not bliss. Well – not for long anyway.



About the Author

Nikki Alvin-Smith is a seasoned freelance writer who loves to share her lifelong experience with everything horse, rural lifestyle, and travel. Her works have been printed in more than two hundred fifty equestrian magazines worldwide and her published articles number in the thousands.

A Brit who has called New York home for more than 40 years, Nikki brings a unique perspective to her writing. Her experience as an international level Grand Prix dressage competitor, coach, and worldwide clinician, with a youth spent showjumping and foxhunting, provides lots of educational truths and fun moments to share with the reader. Additionally, she has been a horse breeder and importer of Hanoverian, Dutch and Iberian horses for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Paul Alvin-Smith, who is also a Grand Prix rider, operates Willowview Hill Farm, an organic hay farm and private dressage yard in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York.

Visit or to learn more.