Take a look at the gelding in these photos. How old would you guess he is? The title of the article gives away that he’s an older performance horse, but he looks like he’s about 7 years old, in the prime of his performance career.
So how old is he? Juarez Whiz turns 16 this year. He’s amassed more than 270 points in AQHA competition, has more than $70,000 in NRHA lifetime earnings, and continues to be a competitive entry in both amateur/non-pro and open classes. To what do I attribute his longevity, ongoing success, and youthful appearance? Read on to find out.
Focus on Feed
Think of your horse like a vehicle: Feed is his fuel. If you have a fancy sports car and fill the tank with regular gasoline, you can’t expect premium performance. All of my horses—including JW, shown here—get high-quality forage and grain and supplements as needed. The key phrases are high-quality—we never sacrifice quality for price or any other reason—and as needed, because we tailor our feeding program to each horse’s requirements.
Another vital part of our feeding program: we feed our horses by the clock. I’ve mentioned this before in other articles, and it’s essential for seniors’ digestive health. At home, our horses are fed at the same time every day. When we’re on the road, we adjust accordingly by time zone.
Commit to Maintenance
When JW came to our barn eight or nine years ago, he had a bone spur in his right hock. The vet said if we injected his hocks twice annually, he’d be comfortable and happy. We stuck to that schedule, and now he’s down to having injections just once a year. Senior horses usually come with some sort of an issue—or more than one. Committing to the veterinary work required to keep the horse comfortable and happy extends his career and can even minimize his issues to where they require less maintenance.
The same goes for shoeing. Get the shoeing his feet require, and have the farrier out on the recommended schedule for that horse.
Exercise Every Day
JW gets out of his stall at least six days a week. Even if the weather is bad, he gets turned out to stretch his legs. We’re lucky in Southern California because weather doesn’t affect us much. If you live in a more severe climate, you’ll have to work at it to get your senior mount daily exercise, but it’ll be worth it. If you want longevity, your horse has to get out of his stall and get moving. If you want a horse to get old before his time, let him stand in a stall every day.
Some horses go play and run as soon as you turn them out. Others take more encouragement. Be sure that your horse is getting the exercise he needs during turnout rather than just standing around in the pasture. If he’s less apt to exercise himself, you might need to put him on a walker or longe him in addition to turnout.
Mindful Training and Showing
A proven senior horse shouldn’t feel like he must have the run of his life every time he walks into the show pen. Yes, JW is shown to win when it matters. But we also let him relax and breathe in the arena on a regular basis. He’s mostly a reiner, so we’ll enter him in ranch riding to get him in the arena to focus on something other than running circles and sliding to stops. When we ask him for more in the reining pen, he doesn’t resent it because he’s had opportunities to take it easy.
For schooling at home, we don’t drill him and pick at him. He knows his job, and his maneuvers are solid. Instead, we think about what needs polish and work on those things. Otherwise, his riding at home focuses on keeping him physically fit.
You can control most of the factors listed here for successful senior-horse management. While you can’t necessarily control your climate (short of relocating), it does play a role in your senior horse’s longevity.
When I moved to Southern California from Oregon, I had several world champion horses that were starting to show their age. They were getting sore and arthritic. The warm, dry California weather changed their condition drastically.
Cold, harsh winters are hard on seniors. Take special care to keep your senior horses comfortable if you face frigid, wet winters.
When It’s Time to Retire
You’ll know when it’s time to back off your performance horse’s career. Brother White (“Preacher”) graced the pages of H&R many times, won countless awards, and was a terrific performer until his retirement at age 18. His departure from competition wasn’t abrupt; we eased him out of it. Even today, we continue to maintain him as a performance horse. He’s fed well. The vet goes over him at least twice yearly to identify any potential issues. He sees the farrier regularly. And we still pamper him like a show horse, because that’s what he’s accustomed to. Our performance horses have earned the right to a retirement that keeps them comfortable, healthy, and happy.
Bob Avila, Temecula, California, is an AQHA world champion, three-time NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity winner, NRHA Futurity champ, and two-time World’s Greatest Horseman. He’s been named the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. Learn more at bobavila.net.