When buying a horse, age is certainly something to consider. How old is too old? How long will my horse live? What does it mean to have a “senior” horse, and what health considerations might come with his advanced age? We’re here to reveal how long horses can live. Plus, we’ll share facts about the modern horse’s life span and common age-associated health issues so you can make an informed decision when shopping for older horses.
Horses Are Living Longer and Longer—Here’s Why
Good news: We are constantly making progress in the care of our domestic horses. This means they are living longer and more productive lives than ever. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see 18-year-olds competing at the top levels of their sport or 25-year-old-plus school horses still trucking along and living to 40. Twenty years is generally the milestone birthday that makes us consider a horse a senior citizen, even though there’s a lot of variation between individuals and age really is just a number. When looking for your first riding partner, don’t shy away from an experienced, healthy, and sound teenager or 20-something just because of his age.
In our modern world, we can attribute the extra years at the end of a horse’s career and life to:
- Better nutrition.
- Greater disease prevention thanks to more effective and widely available vaccines.
- Advances in veterinary treatments, allowing us to manage conditions previously considered career-ending and possibly even life-threatening.
- Relatively “easier” lives than the working horses of decades and centuries past used for war, transportation, and industrial development.
Fun Fact: The oldest reliably recorded horse lived to be 62 years old. This horse, Old Billy, was born in England in 1760.
Human vs. Horse Years
How do human years compare to horse years? The most widely adopted formula is as follows:
- 6.5 human years for each horse year from birth up to age 4.
- 2.5 human years for each horse year starting at age 4.
Developed by veterinarians, these numbers are only estimates because different breeds, and even individual horses, mature at different rates.
Your Horse’s Aging Body
It’s a wonderful thing to be able to share more years with your horse. But a longer equine life span does come with unique challenges. Some health problems commonly arise when a horse’s golden years turn into a golden decade—or two! These include:
- Running out of (good) teeth. Horses are hypsodonts, meaning their teeth erupt from the gums throughout their lives to compensate for the wear of chewing. The problem is horses are born with enough tooth supply to comfortably last a 15-year life span rather than the 25-30-plus-year lives common nowadays. After 15 years, the dentition starts to degrade. Difficulty chewing resulting from missing or worn-down teeth is a telltale sign of aging. Luckily, most toothless horses do really well simply with a diet adjustment.
- Equine Cushing’s disease. Technically known as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), this hormonal disease common in older horses causes metabolic issues and requires lifelong medication.
- Sarcopenia and weight loss. You’ve probably met older horses that were “hard keepers,” meaning it’s a challenge to put or keep weight on them. Sarcopenia is age-associated muscle loss that affects humans and horses alike.
- Inflammaging. Aging can come with bodywide, low-grade, chronic inflammation known as inflammaging, which occurs when the body’s own inflammatory products get released into the bloodstream.
- Arthritis. Resulting from either a chronic joint injury or from wear on tear on the joints over many years, arthritis in older horses ranges from mild to debilitating. Luckily, many senior arthritic horses can be kept comfortable for many years with the appropriate management and medications.
While many “old horse” diseases require special care and management, these conditions will not automatically shorten your horse’s life. Horses can live many happy and healthy years with properly managed PPID or toothlessness, for example. Choosing an older horse as your first equine partner can be a safe, smart, and rewarding experience for you both.
Lucile Vigouroux, MSc, holds a master’s degree in Equine Performance, Health, and Welfare from Nottingham Trent University (UK) and an equine veterinary assistant certification from AAEVT. She is a New-York-based freelance author with a passion for equine health and veterinary care. A Magnawave-certified practitioner, Lucile also runs a small equine PEMF therapy business.