Reconditioning the Older Horse

Horses have tremendous athletic potential but they did not evolve to do most things we ask of them and conditioning is necessary.  On the flip side, periods without work lead to deconditioning and care should be taken to get the horse back in shape gradually. This is especially true for seniors.

by Iva Balk, from Pixabay

Many people don’t realize how much a horse loses fitness when not worked. For example, highly conditioned fit Arabians put in stalls with their only exercise being 30 minutes on a mechanical walker twice a day lost approximately 1% of the bone mineral content of the third metacarpal (cannon bone) every two weeks over a 12 week period. Cardiac changes with deconditioning were monitored for 12 weeks in intensely trained 3 and 4-year-old Standardbreds.  Heart size and function remained unchanged for the first 4 weeks, after which there was steady decline which was continuing at week 12. Skeletal muscle enzymatic efficiency, glycogen stores and mitochondrial numbers also decrease.

Horses on continuous turnout that are very active would have less dramatic declines but will still lose condition. Older horses also have to deal with age-related changes which include:

  • Sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass). This is worse in horses with PPID (Cushing’s disease) but also occurs with age
  • Decreased bone mineral density
  • Development of central core lesions in tendons
  • Reduced number of chondrocytes, the cells which produce joint cartilage
  • Altered heart function

Although you  may hear mention of lung function decreasing with age, this is actually one area where there are no age-related changes. However, horses with chronic lung disease do accumulate irreversible lung damage over time. Even without lung damage, older horses may seem to be working harder to breathe than younger ones at the same workload simply because it is harder for them to perform the work.

If this makes you inclined to want to retire your older horse, don’t!  Exercise actually combats many of the effects of aging. Even arthritis benefits from exercise. The exception is tendon/ligament strength. Because of this limitation, it’s very important to condition the older horse in a way that avoids fatigue.

The type and duration of exercise is not a reliable indicator of its intensity – how hard it is for the horse to perform it. Heart rate (pulse) is best for that. A heart rate of up to 80 immediately after  exercise is light work; up to 120 moderate work; over 120 hard work with 200-220 being maximal intensity. An overweight older horse doing a steep hill can easily reach the upper intensities. You have to check to tell. Keep exercise for the older horse in the moderate range. As he gets more fit, he will be able to do more at that heart rate.

Heart rate recovery is an excellent indicator of how fit the horse is for the work he just did. If he recovers to resting rate in 15 minutes, he’s fit for that level. If it takes 30 minutes, you are working in the safe training zone. If over 30 minutes, the work level is too high to be safe.

In my experience, older horses typically show rather dramatic responses to the correct nutritional support.  A sound diet with adequate quality protein, balanced minerals, salt, vitamin E and omega-3 is the foundation. Beyond that, these are my go-to support for the older horse:

  • Jiaogulan. This is an adaptogen free of the harsh cardiac stimulating effects of Ginsengs that supports exercise capacity by enhancing blood supply to the muscles and encouraging growth of new vessels, via nitric oxide production which also benefits tendon and ligament health.
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine.  The combination of antioxidant effects and support for energy generation and mitochondrial synthesis makes this the perfect exercise complement. i
  • L-leucine.  Highly anabolic amino acid, essential for maintaining and building muscle bulk. Very helpful in overcoming temporary exercise-related muscle discomfort.
  • Joint nutraceuticals (glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronate) plus MSM and herbal support.  Maintaining homeostasis between forces of breakdown and repair is one of the biggest challenges in older horses. I have found a combination of effective dose nutraceuticals with targeted herbals works best.

Condition your seniors carefully with full spectrum support and you will be able to enjoy their experience and wisdom for many years, while helping them maintain their best health at the same time.

Eleanor Kellon, VMD

About Dr. Kellon

Graduate of University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Owner of Equine Nutritional Solutions,, industry and private nutritional consultations, online nutritional courses. Staff Veterinary Expert at Uckele Health and Nutrition.
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3 Responses to Reconditioning the Older Horse

  1. Hello Doc,
    Is it ok to combine MSM with Jiaogulan?

  2. Dear Dr. Kellon:
    I feel I must apologize for thanking you so much in my comments. I can’t help myself. How can I, when every positive aspect of our little mare’s life can be traced directly back to you? Of course, it’s not always easy for a rookie like me to implement your well thought out, scientifically based suggestions, such as those in this article. Even though Carey, of Hazel Run Morgans, helped me find that slippery vein along the jawbone, I simply can’t coax a pulse out of it. So, I’ve had to resort to using a stethoscope to track her heart beat, I don’t yet have the knack of getting it while she trots or canters, but I’m not giving up.

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