A brief introduction
Horses have long been companions for humans. As well as being used for farming and transport, horses have also become popular pets. If you keep horses, it’s natural to wonder how long your companion will live and what you can do to keep your equine friend in the best possible shape.
This article will answer all your questions, providing detailed information about the average lifespan of a horse and exploring factors that influence life expectancy.
How long do horses live?
The average lifespan of a domestic horse is 20-30 years. In some cases, horses live a lot longer, but they can also have shorter lifespans. Horses tend to live longer than many other types of pets, including cats and dogs.
One reason they outlive other species is the level of care and protection they receive from dedicated, devoted owners. Horses are large, tough creatures and they don’t face many threats in terms of predators when kept domestically.
Humans also take steps to shield their animals, keeping them safe and warm and ensuring they have access to food and water.
Ponies tend to live longer than other types of horses, and it’s not uncommon to see ponies that make it to their 30th or 40th birthday.
What age is the oldest horse?
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest horse on record is a pony aptly named Old Billy. Old Billy died on November 22nd 1827 at the grand old age of 62. He was bred by Edward Robinson from Lancashire, England.
The oldest racehorse on record is a 42-year-old chestnut gelding called Tango Duke owned by Carmen J Koper from Victoria, Australia. Tango Duke died in January 1978.
The oldest living horse in the world is believed to be Shayne, an Irish-draught liver chestnut gelding who lives at Remus Sanctuary, Brentwood, Essex. This UK-based elderly gentleman has a gray mane and he’s no longer able to clear the fences, but the team that looks after him said that he has plenty of life left in him.
The Farm Show Magazine believes the oldest pony in the world was Ted. E. Bear, a 58-year-old Shetland pony who died in Virginia in 2000.
Signs of aging in horses
Aging is a natural process and just like humans, horses show signs of slowing down as they get older. There are variations in life expectancy according to the size of the horse, the breed and its lifestyle.
Smaller ponies tend to mature faster than larger horses, but they often live longer. Here are some key factors that determine when the aging process kicks in and the speed of aging:
One of the most significant factors determining life expectancy is workload. Horses that work from an early age and those that have a heavy workload will often start to show signs of aging earlier than ponies and horses that are kept as pets and the process may progress faster.
Physical activity is critical for good health in horses, but horses that have led very active lifestyles may be more vulnerable to conditions that accelerate aging later in life. Active horses may be more prone to diseases that affect the joints, for example, osteoarthritis.
Nutrition is vital for optimum health in horses. Malnutrition is likely to increase the risk of health problems at every stage of life, and horses that don’t have a balanced, healthy diet have a higher risk of dying at an early age.
- Underlying health conditions
Just like humans, some horses enter their senior years with underlying health conditions, which can increase the risk of death and speed up the aging process. Examples include cardiovascular illnesses, arthritis and Cushing’s disease.
Signs of aging in horses
Possible signs of aging in horses include:
- Poor eyesight
- Hearing loss
- Drooping fetlocks
- Gray hair
- Muscle loss
- Rough, patchy coat
- Limited mobility and stiffness
Horse age compared to human age
Research undertaken by equine veterinarians, which was published by Equine Resources International, compares human aging to horse development. There are several factors that affect aging, but the table below provides a guide to how horses compare to humans:
As you can see from the research conducted by equine veterinarians, horses age at a different pace to human beings. Horses gain independence much earlier than humans, taking their first steps within hours and reaching the equivalent of the teenage years by the time they turn 3.
By the time a horse reaches the age of 30, they are believed to be in extreme old age, equivalent to over 85 years old in humans.
As we have discussed, there are multiple factors that determine when horses start to show signs of aging and how fast these signs progress. The table gives us an idea and it can be fun to see how your horse compares to you or your children, but the information is not accurate for all horses. Some horses will only live for 10-15 years, while others can live for 30, 40 or even 50 years.
How to tell the age of a horse
It can be hard to tell the age of a horse, especially if a pony has had a tough start to life or you’re trying to guess the age of a horse that has endured long, intensive days of work.
One method that owners, riders and veterinarians may use is to inspect the horse’s teeth. It is important to note that while looking at the teeth can provide an accurate insight, it’s not a foolproof way to age horses. There is a margin for error, and this technique will be more effective in some animals than others.
Telling a horse’s age by its teeth
Using a dental inspection is most accurate when trying to estimate the age of young horses. When looking at a horse’s teeth, the first thing to identify is whether the animal has adult or baby teeth.
Foals usually have all their adult teeth by the time they reach the age of 5 years old.
Adult teeth are larger and longer than milk teeth and they have a groove, known as Galyvane’s groove, which grows as the horse gets older as a result of grazing and chewing. This groove usually appears at the base of the gum line at the age of 10 and it will have grown to half the length of the tooth by the age of 15.
By the age of 20-25, the groove will start to disappear. By the time most horses reach the age of 20, it will not be possible to see the Galyvane’s groove any longer.
Many of us will be familiar with the saying, ‘long in the tooth.’ This comes from signs of the aging process, which cause the angle of the tooth to change. As horses get older, the angle of the tooth causes the length between the gum line and the chewing surface of the tooth to increase. It is also common for older horses to have discolored, stained teeth.
Assessing the teeth can be an effective way to estimate the age of a horse, but it’s not always accurate. This is because dental health and development don’t always reflect age. If a horse has poor nutrition or they are neglected, for example, their teeth may look like those of a much older horse.
Variations in horse longevity
The average lifespan of a horse is 20-30 years, but there are several factors that influence life expectancy and this is why there are significant variations in horse longevity.
Typically, ponies tend to live longer than larger horses, but there are examples of draft breeds that have reached the age of 30 or even 40. As equine medicine and veterinary care advances and evolves, horses, just like humans, are living longer.
We can treat and manage symptoms and conditions more effectively and we use technology, combined with traditional methods of caring to look after our horses.
Examples of horse breeds that have a longer life expectancy include:
- American Paint Horses
The breed can influence lifespan, but most important is the care the horse receives. A horse or pony that is treated well and has good nutrition will usually outlive a horse that is not looked after well, regardless of the breed.
Help your horse to live a long and healthy life
As a horse lover, it’s natural to want your pet to live as long as possible. There are many steps you can take to try and reduce the risk of health problems in horses and prolong life expectancy, such as:
- Monitor weight
Bodyweight is important for horses, just as it is for humans. Overweight horses are more susceptible to health issues.
You may be surprised to hear that studies suggest that around 50% of horses are overweight in the US.
Obesity increases the risk of joint and bone problems, insulin-resistance, cardiovascular complications, metabolic syndrome and colic-causing lipomas. Monitor your horse’s body weight and if they appear to be gaining weight, consider making changes to their diet and increasing activity levels.
- Dental care
Dental disease is relatively common in domestic horses. It is beneficial to organize regular dental checks for your horse every 6-12 months.
Horses are naturally active creatures and they like to roam free and run around. Ensure your horse has space to exercise and encourage them to be active. If you don’t have huge fields they can explore, go for regular rides.
Exercise helps to improve mobility, flexibility and suppleness, it has mental benefits for horses and it can also strengthen the joints and muscles.
It’s essential to provide horses with a balanced, nutritious diet and plenty of space to graze. Grazing is critical because it provides fiber, it stimulates saliva production to aid digestion and protect oral health and it regulates stomach acids to lower the risk of ulcers.
- Foot care
It’s hugely beneficial for horse owners to take good care of the feet and keep a close eye on the hooves. Cleaning and scrubbing the hoof regularly and using specially-designed hoof products will help to prevent cracking.
- Veterinary care
Even the healthiest, happiest horses may experience health issues or injuries that need tending to. If you spot any visible symptoms that are worrying you, or you notice changes in your horse’s behavior, don’t hesitate to seek expert advice. It’s also crucial to keep up to date with regular checks and appointments.
Life stages of a horse
Horses go through unique life stages, which are determined by physical changes. These include:
- Suckling foal: these foals are still nursing
- Weanling foal: these foals have been weaned
- Yearling: horses aged between 12 and 24 months
- Colt or filly: colts are male horses and fillies are female horses aged up to 4 years
- Stallion or mare: stallions are male horses and mares are female horses aged over 4 years old
Common causes of early death in horses
Although many horses live long, happy lives, sadly, some die early. The most common causes of premature death in horses include:
Cardiac arrest is usually associated with infections, tumors or underlying health conditions. If symptoms are identified, it is sometimes possible to treat them, but in many cases, heart failure will cause damage that is too severe to treat.
A brain aneurysm causes a blood vessel in the brain to bulge, contributing to a high risk of bleeding. In most cases, there are no clear visible symptoms and hemorrhages tend to happen very quickly with no prior warning.
A ruptured aorta is caused by weakness in the wall of the aorta, which can cause a hemorrhage. Aortic aneurysms usually occur during or after intense bouts of exercise and they lead to sudden death.
Horses of all ages can die prematurely as a result of ingesting toxins while grazing or eating feed that is designed for other animals.
What Should I Do When My Horse Is To Old And I Can’t Use Them Anymore
When you have an old horse with different medical conditions, you’ll soon start to notice their quality of life deteriorating. Pain, discomfort and a lack of appetite are all common problems, and when you find yourself with a horse dealing with such problems, you’re often left pondering what the best path forward is.
No one wants to let their horse go, but their interests should always come first.
Unfortunately, there’s not a long list of specialized sanctuaries queueing up to take on sick and old horses. Finding a safe and long-term placement for an old horse has become close to impossible, and although there are always exceptions to that rule, it’s not something that most horse owners can pin their hopes on.
Many people willing to take on old horses don’t have the resources needed to take care of them, and others simply have bad intentions and will have the horse slaughtered.
When you have a horse dealing with the trappings of old age or chronic illness and you can no longer take care of that horse yourself, you have to take responsibility. Owning a horse is a huge responsibility and that doesn’t change just because the horse is suffering ill health or other issues. Sometimes, the best solution is to make your horse’s final days as happy as they can be and then call your vet to have them put your horse to sleep in a peaceful and humane way.
In the event of finding a placement for your horse, there are a few things you should check out. First of all, get a vet reference and then check out their facilities and resources, inspecting them in person if possible.
The average lifespan of a horse is 20-30 years, but there are significant variations depending on the breed, the horse’s workload and how well it is looked after. The oldest horse on record lived to over 60. Average life expectancy among domestic horses is increasing in line with improved veterinary care and advances in research and technology.