To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.


What do you do with an old horse?

As horses enter their senior years their faces start to gray; the area above the eyes depress; teeth wear; hips and withers hollow; backs sway and spines become prominent. More disconcerting is that their strength, stamina, and balance is not what it once was. The horse that had relished a two-hour ride is breathing hard a half-hour down the trail. Many horse owners wonder, “What do you do with an old horse?” Actually, learning to play with your elderly equine can be the experience of a lifetime. What they lack physically they make up for intellectually and are quick learners. Also, the lessons learned from the companionship of an older horse will enlighten your understanding of horses of all ages.

First make a list of the physical changes you notice. Ask a friend to watch your horse as you ride and notice any imbalances or weaknesses such as whether he extends one leg further than the other when you are moving in a straight line. With your list in hand, ask your veterinarian to give your horse a complete physical to ensure there are no underlying problems that need to be treated.

Next, turn that list of weakness into goals. If you noticed that your horse has trouble keeping his left hind leg up when you clean his feet the corresponding goal is to strengthen his right hind leg. Developing his shoulder muscles is a goal for hollowed withers.

Your list might look like this:

Weaknesses Goals Games
Pot belly Strengthen abdomen Play ball/tucks
Spiney Strengthen top line Driving/collection
Hollow hips Strengthen hips Side-pass/laterals
Not picking up front legs Strengthen hind legs Pedestal/hills

Now you can choose games to play to help your horse reach his goals. Games are activities that take no longer than five minutes and are fun for you and your horse to learn and do together. You can mix up several games to keep your time together fun and interesting. Depending on your horse’s stamina, you may only want to play for twenty minutes or so.

Take for example my retired racing thoroughbred, Jumping Jack Flash, who turns 30 on May 27, 2012. Jack is a typical equine senior citizen. He spent four years of his youth on the racetrack before becoming a show jumper. I acquired him as a ten-year old and use him as a lesson and demonstration horse at the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. Jack is definitely my horse-mate. We have been together so long that he thinks I am his girl and sulks when I spend time with other horses.

In the fall of 2011, Jack posed an interesting set of challenges. He tired easily in hot weather, and even on cool days, his stamina under saddle would wane rapidly, and his once powerful legs turned into noodles. Additionally, Jack quit changing his back legs when he did his tempi- changes and preferred left-lead canters.

Now Jack is only ridden for a few minutes every week or so. Instead, we changed our focus to ground activities that improve his balance, strength, stamina, and stimulate his intellect. We play games that encourage him to lift his front legs and put his weight on his hindquarters. We give special attention to activities that strengthen his right hind leg. We play basket-ball with an exercise ball. The goal of the game is for Jack to kick the ball into the circle formed by a Hula- Hoop lying on the ground. This activity encourages balance, increases hind quarter strength, and the collection required builds Jack’s top-line. Best of all, he thinks it is fun!

Another of Jack’s favorite activities is holding up his front legs. He especially likes to stand with his two front feet resting on a pedestal and lifts each front leg individually when I point to it. His latest activity is learning how to Spanish Walk. Jack has yet to perfect this new skill but he enjoys the praise he receives when he mimics me by raising his legs with mine as I walk beside him.

I have fun playing with Jack in-hand and with long-lines. This is a great way for both of us to exercise. Long-lining allows Jack to extend and collect his walk, trot, and canter without the weight of a rider on his back. We also do lateral movements to encourage Jack to cross his legs. Crossing legs causes opening and closing of the shoulders and hips thereby increasing their flexibility and strength. I ask Jack to perform half-passes, shoulder-ins, and to side-pass over ground poles.

Jack and I enjoy taking walks together. I choose trails that take us up and down hills to further strengthen his hind-quarters and limbs. Even though Jack’s abilities improve every day, he will never be the dashing horse of his youth. Still, the time we spend together has been priceless for both of us. The friendship we have forged, and the obstacles we have overcome has created the human/equine relationship I have always dreamed of.

This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertise, April 2012.

Think of each activity or time you share with your horse as a time for creating a snap-shot or painting to place in his or her memory album. If your horse tells you that he or she does not like how a picture is coming together, stop painting it and paint one that you know your horse enjoys.

When you and your horse are learning a new activity, build on the "happy themes" you both have previously enjoyed. Only change one small element of the picture at a time. A photo with too many new elements worries your horse. Your horse finds comfort in familiar and happy experiences.


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