The role of the horse in our lives has changed dramatically over the past several decades. Horses have evolved from primarily work animals to companions and teammates. During this time, our view of them as they age has changed as well.
Horses are living longer because we are better able to care for them. This means many horses will still be alive and healthy long past when they are able to perform or compete. With a lifespan of up to 25 or even 30 years, this can mean a very long time and financial commitment for horse owners.
Lifespan of Horses
The average lifespan of a domesticated horse is 25 to 30 years old. The average for Mustangs and other horses in the wild is typically closer to 15 years. Domesticated horses tend to live longer because veterinarians can address their medical conditions and dietary needs. When a wild horse starts to slow down due to arthritis or becomes unable to eat effectively because of dental disease, they have a harder time keeping up with the herd.
Stages of Maturity in Horses
- Newborn (Birth to Weaning)
These horses are very dependent on their mothers for nutrition.
- Weanling (4 to 7 months old)
Foals are weaned from their mothers between 4 and 7 months old; during this time their nutrition shifts from primarily milk to mostly forages and grains.
- Youth (weaning to 3 years old)
During this time, the horse is actively growing. By three years, most of a horse’s growth plates have closed.
- Adult (3 years to 15 years)
Most horses have typically stopped growing and are in their prime athletic years.
- Geriatric (15+ years)
After 15 years, horses tend to start slowing down and require more support to thrive.
There are no specific breed associations for longer or shorter lifespans in horses. Similar to dogs, smaller breeds, especially ponies, tend to live longer. It is not uncommon for pony breeds to live into their forties.
What Makes Some Horses Live Longer Than Others?
There is no one factor that can be used to determine which horses will live longer than others. There is likely a genetic component to why some horses live longer, but it is not completely understood at this time. Appropriate diet, exercise, hoof care, dental care, and medical care all contribute greatly to improving a horse's chances of living a long and healthy life.
How to Improve Your Horse's Lifespan
There are many ways you can support your horse as it ages and help him to live a long and healthy life.
Diet: It is very important to feed your horse for an appropriate body condition. As horses age, their teeth become less effective at chewing because they stop growing and the grinding surfaces become smoother. This may require switching from a primarily hay or grass-based diet to a senior feed option.
Exercise: Light exercise for an older horse can help to prevent muscle loss and support arthritic joints.
Environmental management: Older horses do not regulate temperature as well as their younger counterparts, so keeping them cool in the summer and blanketing for warmth in winter is important. Additionally, it is important to make sure they have free access to water and shelter.
Hoof care: Maintaining your horse’s feet is key to keeping him sound and comfortable in his later years. Even when they are done competing, some thin-soled horses may still require shoes. Overgrown feet can exacerbate the discomfort horses experience from arthritis.
Dental care: Starting regular dental floating/maintenance early and continuing it through your horse’s life can help prevent tooth infections and tooth loss as they age.
Veterinary care: Older horses should still be vaccinated and have regular exams by a veterinarian at least once a year. This will help identify any underlying illnesses that may be affecting your horse such as PPID (Cushing’s) and arthritis.
It is important to know that even if you do everything you can to prolong your horse’s life, there are still factors out of your control. Colic and injury can happen to any horse even with the best possible care.
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Iowa State University: Equine Science. The Body Condition Score.
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