Horse Care Other

Horse Lifespan 101 (Life Stages, Teeth, Senior Horse Care)

Horse-Lifespan
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Written by Susie W.

Learn how long horses normally live, how to care for a senior horse, and easy ways to help your horse live longer.

Many factors affect both horse lifespan and quality of life, including diet and nutrition, genetics, environment, and disease. While horse years do not directly correlate to human years, it is possible to calculate which life stage your horse is currently in.

On average, horses live 25-30 years. This article covers the different horse life stages and what ages correspond to human development benchmarks we can relate to. There are four main areas to focus on to ensure a good quality of life for your horse during the “golden years”: Nutrition, dental care, exercise, and veterinary care. Finally, we will discuss the leading causes of mortality in horses.

Understanding your horse’s life stage is important in determining nutritional needs, exercise requirements, and necessary dental veterinary care that can help you maximize the quality of life and longevity of your equine partner.

Horse Life Stages

A horse’s life is divided into life stages, similar to people. Here’s a quick summary of approximately how horse and human life stages align:

A six-year-old horse is equivalent to a 25-year-old human; after six, each horse year equals approximately 1.5 human years.

Summary of horse life stages compared to human lifespan

Youth/Adolescence

Horses have a gestation period of ~11 months.

When born, baby horses are called foals. Female foals are called fillies; males are referred to as colts.

Horse-Life-Stages-Foal

Young foal stretches his new legs

Colts are generally gelded between 6 and 12 months of age. Gelding, or castration, generally results in horses that are more even-tempered and easier to handle and train. Some people wait longer to geld a horse if they think he has breeding potential.

Fun Fact: Geldings grow taller than if they were left as intact stallions, as their growth plates remain open longer than in stallions.

Once horses turn four, the fillies are referred to as mares and colts are called geldings or stallions.

Adulthood

Horses are generally considered fully-grown by five years old, but some breeds may continue to grow for another year.

Horse-Life-Stages-Adult

Adult, fully-grown Quarter Horse gelding

Warmblood breeds, for example, are generally slower to mature.

This is generally when Adulthood begins in the horse lifespan, and it’s also when most equestrians spend the greatest amount of time riding their horses.

Seniors

Horses can be classified as “seniors” once they reach 15-20 years old.

Some common signs of aging include5:

  • A swaybacked appearance as the back dips
  • General loss of muscle / a bony appearance
  • Hollowed depression around the eyes
  • Gray hairs around eyes/muzzle
  • A droopy lower lip
  • Stained, worn out, or missing teeth
Horse-Life-Stages-Senior

Swaybacks are common in senior horses.

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So, how old is my horse in human years?

Trying to equate your horse’s age to human years isn’t easy—it’s not a linear relationship. A horse can stand, walk, and even run a few hours after birth, while it takes human children around 18 months to take their first steps.

Simply put, it’s comparing humans and horses isn’t apples to apples!

For example, a one-year-old horse can be compared to a six-year-old child. However, a 10-year-old horse is not equivalent to a 60-year-old human. At 10 years of age, a horse is more similar to a human in her 30s.

There’s no universally accepted multiple for assigning human age to your horse. 

While you can’t get a scientific result, it’s really fun to estimate how your horse’s life stage compares to yours with our horse to human age calculator.

Note: Remember, there’s no universal standard for horse/human age comparison, and the calculator does not factor in specific health issues or abnormalities of your horse. Treat these results as a fun estimate. Do not use this calculator to make health and wellness decisions without consulting your veterinarian.

Help Your Horse Live Its Best Life

There is an endless stream of information out there advising how to extend your horse’s lifespan and improve their quality of life in later years. The top four areas to focus on, as previously mentioned, include nutrition, dental care, exercise, and veterinary care.

Horse Nutrition

Proper nutrition is critical to give your horse the best chance at a healthy, long life. Nutrition begins in-utero, so feeding the dam (i.e. mother) correctly to meet nutritional needs throughout her pregnancy is important.

adult-horse-nutrition

Nutrition has a critical impact on your horse’s overall health.

If you got your horse as an adult and don’t know its nutritional history, don’t despair. It’s never too late to start feeding your horse well to promote good health.

Young Horses

As young horses grow, their bodies require extra energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals to build strong bones and healthy muscles. Proper nutrition is especially important up to 2 years of age.

Nutrients must be provided in the proper amount; deficiencies can cause issues. Imbalances can also cause problems—for example, calcium and phosphorous need to be balanced in a 1:1 ratio for adult horses, but a 2:1 ratio for growing horses6.

If the ratio isn’t met, your horse may have bone and cartilage issues later in life.

Finding a high-quality feed specific to this life stage will help ensure your horse is getting all the nutrients needed, in proper balance, to grow to their full potential.

Adult Horses

Diet and nutrition should be tailored to the horse’s activity level. Competition horses require more calories than pasture pets.

Maintaining a healthy body weight will help your horse live longer—if a horse is too skinny, it can negatively impact the body’s organs and their ability to properly function.

Obese horses are at risk for other diseases such as Cushing’s disease and laminitis; these are discussed in more detail later.

High-quality feed and a well-designed feeding program will help prevent colic, a leading cause of death in horses.

Senior Horses

As horses age, their digestive systems change. Proper dental care, discussed below, can help the horse properly chew and utilize typical feeds longer.

A senior horse may essentially “run out” of teeth and become unable to chew hay or grass anymore. If this happens, an easy alternative is a senior feed. These feeds are specially formulated to meet older horses’ needs—they are higher in protein, fiber, and fat, and able to be fed as a complete feed.

Feed can also be soaked to make it easier to eat.

Retirement may be an option for senior horses, especially those who can no longer compete at the highest levels anymore.

Horse retirement sounds more idyllic than it could actually be, however, and it’s important to learn what options are available and what you can afford.

This article has some great perspectives on what to consider along with retirement from the horses’ perspective.

Here is a feed trial we did on my 18-year-old Quarter Horse, Cleo, in 2014.

We pulled her out of the pasture and put her back in training 3 months before Quarter Horse Congress.

horse-feed-trial

Proper nutrition can make a big difference in your horse’s health and appearance.

Previously, she was fed 5 lbs of oats per day and good quality hay, and we switched her to 6 lbs per day of Nutrena Senior.

We also added a senior horse/joint supplement from SmartPak.

The result? She put on muscle, developed a better topline, and I saw improvements to her coat and hoof quality.

Cleo is now 23 years old and still showing!

quarter-horse-congress

Cleo showing in Senior Hunter Under Saddle at the All American Quarter Horse Congress in 2014

Supplements

Supplements can also be helpful in addressing specific signs of aging or improving overall wellness, especially in a senior horse.

Joint supplements are especially common to improve mobility in older horses or maintain healthy function in competition horses.

Always consider supplements as part of your overall nutrition program, although overfeeding certain nutrients can result in imbalances, or the extra nutrients may not be absorbed, which could be a waste of money.

Horse Dental Care

Dental care should be part of your horse’s annual health plan. Equine teeth grow, very slowly, throughout their lifetime to compensate for wear.

equine-dental-care

Equine dental care is too often overlooked

As they chew, the molars wear down, but not necessarily evenly. A vet or an equine dental specialist should inspect your horse’s teeth annually for sharp edges, symmetry and tooth alignment.

If needed, they can file down any sharp points or unevenness, a process called “floating.” Horses should be sedated for this process7.

Certain states only allow a veterinarian to perform equine dentistry. The technology around equine dentistry is changing and improving—for example, now most professionals utilize power dentistry tools as opposed to the metal rasp (called a “float”) that was originally used for the task.

These tools are generally safer and more efficient than the old methods. It’s always a good idea to check and make sure the person working on your horse is qualified and has training that is up-to-date.

Looking at a horse’s teeth is also a good way to estimate their age.

The bite of the horse changes each year until they are fully grown, at five years of age, making it easier to distinguish a younger horse’s age.

After five years, an experienced professional can guesstimate age based on the wear, the shape of the teeth, the slope of the teeth, and if Galvayne’s Groove is present on the third incisor. This groove begins to appear in horses around 10 years of age.

Colorado State has a good article with visuals for estimating age here.

Blanketing

Depending on several factors, blanketing your senior horse may improve its quality of life in inclement weather.

Check out our horse blanketing guide for specific recommendations, but you may want to blanket your horse if: 

  • Your horse has a short coat that won’t keep him warm enough for your climate
  • You still ride your senior horse a lot and want to keep him cleaner and drier
  • Your horse is from a warmer climate and has not acclimated to a colder environment
  • No protective shelter is available
  • Your senior is a hard keeper who gets even thinner during winter
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Horse Exercise4

Regular exercise and access to turnout help horses stay healthy longer. Mobility helps maintain muscle tone and keeps joints moving.

horse-exercise

Regular exercise keeps your horse in shape over the long run.

Turnout can be important for other body systems as well. Fresh air helps maintain a healthy respiratory system and can help prevent the development of Heaves (i.e. chronic coughing and/or labored breathing), which can be tougher to manage as the horse gets older.

Moving is natural—encouraging natural grazing patterns can help reduce the chance of colic by increasing gut motility.

Horse Veterinary Care

Preventative medicine is critical to preventing disease. Problems are easier to manage when caught early.

Some vets offer specialized “geriatric” wellness programs for older horses—this could include a blood screening to check for internal organ dysfunction, a Cushing’s test, and X-rays to check for laminitis.

horse-vet-care

Proactive veterinary care helps you avoid costly issues.

Annual exams, generally speaking, are a very good idea—this allows your vet to develop more of a relationship with you and your horse, increasing the chances that they could catch an early sign of a disease.

It also allows your vet to better understand you and your situation to help you make better decisions regarding your horse’s care.

In addition to the four areas discussed above, genetics and environment also play a factor.

Genetics

Nutrition and environment only account for so much; some horses are simply genetically predisposed to a longer or healthier life. Similar to dogs, smaller breeds of horses and ponies are generally reported to live longer than larger horses.

Environment

A group of horses is called a herd. Horses are social animals and thrive when they are around other horses. It’s not recommended to keep a horse by itself. Sometimes, other animals such as goats are used as companion animals to horses.

Most domesticated horses don’t have to worry about natural predators, such as gray wolves, coyotes, or mountain lions9.

Leading Causes of Death in Horses

According to a 2016 article on the Kentucky Equine Research website1, the leading causes of death in horses are as follows:

  1. Gastrointestinal disease, including colic
  2. Cushing’s disease
  3. Lameness/laminitis

The USDA published a report in 2015 detailing the causes of death in horses older than 202. The pie chart below illustrates death by cause. It is important to note these causes are owner reported and were not necessarily verified by a veterinarian.

Colic

Colic, an umbrella-like term for a variety of issues, covers gastrointestinal issues in horses. The word actually means “abdominal pain.”

Since horses cannot throw up, problems in the gut can have dramatic consequences.

Colic gets riskier when the horse rolls or thrashes around. This can twist an intestine and cause it to rupture. It is common to see someone hand-walking a horse that has colic for this reason. Supervised exercise is important to keep things in the gut moving.

Cushings Disease

Cushing’s disease10 affects the pituitary gland, resulting in hormone imbalances. Some common signs of Cushing’s include:

horse-cushings-disease

Note the stereotypical coat condition

    • Long, wavy hair that doesn’t shed out
    • Chronic lameness
    • Sweating (excessively)
    • Decreased athletic performance

 

  • Weight loss & muscle loss, especially in the top line

This disease is typically seen in horses in their teens and senior years; the average age at diagnosis is 20. There are some medications that can help normalize the pituitary gland function.

Specific feeds, formulated to minimize carbohydrates, are helpful in managing horses with Cushing’s. Sweet feeds or molasses is not recommended.

Clipping horses to remove excess hair during hot, summer months is a good idea to help the horse stay comfortable and avoid overheating.

Management of Cushings is life-long, as there is no cure or way to reverse the symptoms of the disease.

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Lameness and Laminitis

Lameness and Laminitis3 are two different things.

Lameness is a generic term meaning the horse has pain which causes limping or unsoundness. This could be caused by something as simple as an ill-fitting tack, to a more complex soft-tissue injury, like a bowed tendon.

More extreme causes of lameness, such as a broken leg, could be cause for euthanasia.

Laminitis can also be referred to as founder. It is more specific, and can occur for many reasons, but is commonly associated with obesity in horses. Technically speaking, laminitis is “inflammation of the laminae in the foot” and founder is when the coffin bone actually rotates inside of the hoof.

Eventually, the coffin bone can descend through the bottom of the hoof. The degree of rotation helps determine when it is time for euthanasia.

When to Euthanize a Horse

Old age is commonly listed in many articles discussing the causes of death in horses. However, old age isn’t an actual cause; it is a generic term that can apply to many different root causes.

horse-life-stage-senior

Eventually, it will be time to say goodbye.

Usually, the horse owner must make a difficult decision to euthanize their horse.

Our horses are more than just livestock—they are pets—and these decisions are incredibly difficult. It’s important to recognize when the quality of life has deteriorated to the point where euthanasia is the kindest end.

Common signs:

  • The horse struggles to eat enough to maintain a healthy body condition, usually due to poor dentition, or perhaps lack of appetite
  • The horse is unable to get up from lying down without a struggle
  • A chronic issue is causing constant pain or discomfort

Your vet, along with other equine professionals, such as a trainer, can help you make an educated decision on when it might be time to say goodbye.

Age is Just a Number

With proper nutrition, exercise, dental and veterinary care, horses can live long, healthy lives.

Regular check-ups by a vet can help catch and treat any problems early. Your vet is also a good resource for determining the proper exercise level for your horse, and when it might be time to consider retirement.

The most important thing to remember is that every moment you share with your horse is special. Cherish them!

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Sources:
  1. https://ker.com/equinews/causes-death-older-horses-examined/
  2. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/equine/downloads/equine15/
  3. https://dressagedifferent.com/2013/11/18/the-big-four-the-most-common-causes-of-equine-fatalities/
  4. https://equusmagazine.com/management/livelonger_052207-8303
  5. https://backroadsliving.com/how-long-do-horses-live/
  6. https://thehorse.com/116083/common-nutrient-deficiencies-in-horses/
  7. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/equine-dental-care-what-every-horse-owner-should-know
  8. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/castration-stallion-gelding
  9. https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Equus_caballus/
  10. https://aaep.org/horsehealth/equine-endocrinology-cushings-disease-and-metabolic-syndrome
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About the author

mm

Susie W.

Horses are my first love, but travel is a close second! I grew up riding in 4-H and went on to ride on my college equestrian team. As an adult, I've ridden and shown Quarter Horses for 20+ years, including several wins at Quarter Horse Congress. I also worked for 7 years at a leading horse feed company, and I'm passionate about equine health and nutrition. Lastly, I have a big soft spot in my heart for senior horses!