How to Keep the Older Performance Horse Going Strong

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How to Keep the Older Performance Horse Going Strong

Keeping any performance horse going is a feat, but add on some age, and there are other considerations you’ll want to keep in mind. Read more here!

Keeping any performance horse at the top of their game can be a feat in and of itself, often requiring a good amount of time, effort, and expense. However, with older performance horses, there are often added considerations to keep in mind. For example, all performance horses are prone to conditions such as gastric ulcers and osteoarthritis, and the longer a horse performs, the more prone they may be to developing these conditions. 

Musculoskeletal injuries are also common, especially in the higher impact sports such as barrel racing and  jumping. Add to that, horses that are aged 20+ may begin to lose muscle mass as part of the natural aging process. 

Therefore, owners will need to stay on top of a number of things in order to keep their older performance horses healthy and competitive. This will revolve around four key components: conditioning, diet, management, and having a great care team

In this article, we’ll delve into those four key components and share some insight from several people who’ve been successful at keeping their older performance horses going. 


All performance horses need a good conditioning program that builds up and maintains their muscular, cardiovascular, respiratory, and skeletal systems, but nowhere is this more important than with older horses. 

In fact, with older athletes, long periods of downtime may actually be detrimental

Because horses in their upper teens and twenties take more time to build strength and fitness, giving them a break longer than four weeks may make it difficult to get them back to that same level of fitness. Instead, it’s better to give them short breaks of a week or so, or to reduce their workload by doing fewer or shorter sessions per week during the off season.

Long-time competitive barrel racer, Summer Nicholson, says she tries to get her older horses as fit as possible to do the job at hand. This includes lots of long hacks, walking and trotting up hills, and cantering to stretch. 

According to Summer, “Long, straight lines are best and grass footing is optimal.”

Additionally, Summer likes to lunge her horses once per week just to monitor how they are moving. So far this protocol has worked well for her two mares, Tulsa and Jolene, who are 15 and 16, respectively.

Equine Management

Outside of performing, how you manage the older performance horse on a day-to-day basis can make a huge difference in their overall well-being. 

For example, giving them as much turnout time as possible will provide them with the most benefits. If your horse is a hard keeper, grass turnout can also help them to keep weight on. Another thing to keep in mind is that horses on pasture tend to be less stressed and less prone to colic and ulcers. 

One study also showed that horses with at least 12 hours of daily turnout are less prone to soft tissue injuries. 

According to veterinarian Tomas Teskey, turnout time is one of the most crucial parts of any horse’s management program, and especially for older horses. 

“After 30 years of practice, having all the medications and procedures in my bag of tricks, nothing has been as powerful a performance enhancer as providing [my horse] what she needs to feel like a horse – her friends, space to run, grass, and spending time with no agenda, no stopwatch, nowhere to go.”

If your horse must be stalled for any length of time, ensuring that they have forage to eat around the clock and can still see other horses is important for keeping stress to a minimum. Having good, soft bedding in the stall is also crucial for older horses who may be experiencing some wear and tear on their joints. 

Your Horse’ Diet

Of course, diet is also a critical component for any performance horse and there are some added considerations for those that are older. Not only do these horses need a forage-based diet that is balanced in vitamins and minerals, they may also need more and/or varied protein sources to combat sarcopenia, which is a loss of muscle mass that comes with age. 

Fortunately, this condition is largely preventable and is also reversible with proper exercise and nutrition. By providing high quality protein or the specific amino acids, lysine and threonine, you can help to both prevent and reverse sarcopenia in your horse. 

Many owners also choose to make the switch to senior feed to ensure that they’re meeting all of their older performance horse’s nutritional needs. 

Sammi Jenen, who competes in a variety of Western show events on her 23-year-old mare, Lakota, feeds a commercial grain that she soaks first. This makes it easier for Lakota to chew, which is important for many senior horses since they often have some dental limitations. 

Because so many older performance horses are prone to osteoarthritis, supplementing with a product such as 6666 Joint Health can go a long way in supporting healthy joints and cartilage. Containing glucosamine, chondroitin, boswellia, hyaluronic acid, and cetyl M, as well as several joint supportive minerals and a postbiotic, this product was specifically created to support joint function in working and performance horses. It is also both race and show safe.

The Importance of Having a Great Horse Care Team

Finally, having and utilizing a great care team can be so important in keeping older performance horses going. This includes your veterinarian, farrier, and possibly other equine professionals such as a chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, etc. 

Summer has annual exams for Tulsa and Jolene and has her vet do joint x-rays at certain intervals in order to keep an eye on things. She also has chiropractic work and acupuncture done on her mares as needed. 

“I see a huge benefit with PEMF [pulsed electromagnetic field] sessions and having an equine body masseuse check them over in the thick of performance season,” said Summer. 

All owners should keep in mind that performance horses are athletes and will therefore benefit by being treated as such – with appropriate preventive and routine care with the goal of keeping them sound and happy. 

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