On average, horses live for between 25 to 30 years but there are many factors that impact lifespan. With improved diagnostic tests and treatments for many previously career- and life-ending conditions, our horses and ponies are living not just longer but are able to stay active and ridden well into their “senior years”.
The 2021 Horse Of The Year Show (HOYS) exceeding 143cm Mountain & Moorland Working Hunter Pony of the Year Blackwood Fernando is one such example. Fernando was 24 years old when he jumped a clear round and put in a foot-perfect show to take the title. The oldest horse to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was Tayberry, who took part in the eventing at the fine age of 20.
Blackwood Fernando, with his proud connections, after winning at HOYS aged 24
Live long, live well, not wild
Domesticated horses generally live longer than their wild cousins. There are many reasons for this but most important is the sustenance, shelter and care they receive from responsible owners. Horses in domestic homes don’t have to worry about finding food, water or shelter. Nor are they at risk of becoming someone else’s meal as they have no predators.
While a life unfettered by fences or the demands of humans has many pluses, wild horses don’t benefit from veterinary or farriery care. Even minor cuts and injuries can develop into serious issues when untreated. Birth control is another factor! Wild mares breeding every year generally shortens their lives.
Just like dogs, smaller breeds tend to live longer than larger ones. Many ponies are native breeds, which are healthy and hardy. Average life expectancy for Shetland ponies, for example, is between 30 and 35: a fit and healthy Shetland can outlive larger horses by at least five years. Due to their sheer weight, heavy horses tend to suffer from degenerative joint disease much earlier in life than smaller equines.
Small breeds, such as Shetland ponies, tend to live longer than larger ones
By the nature of their job, competition horses are finely bred and, despite excellent care, can be at greater risk of injury. Although this potentially limits the span of their careers, such horses can continue to enjoy long retirements, such as American racehorse Prospect Point who lived until 38.
Closer to home, the much-loved, grey chaser Desert Orchid lived until 27 the legendary Red Rum got to 30. And there are always astonishing exceptions to the early retirements: Al Jabal became the oldest racehorse to win a race when he was first past the post in the six-furlong Three Horseshoes Handicap Stakes in 2001 aged 19. Well-known stallion Green Desert continued covering mares into his mid twenties.
You are what you eat
Huge advances have been made in nutrition for horses. Greater understanding, alongside improved food and supplements, ensure horses can receive a diet tailored to their age and level of work. Domestic horses are more prone to some diet-related problems such as laminitis but educational information is widely available for owners. Equally, conditions such as Cushings can be diagnosed and managed with a simple blood test and medication.
However, we all know it is possible to have too much of a good thing and obesity is a huge problem with the modern horse. Horses are designed to be trickle-grazing, roaming animals, eating poor-quality fibre while covering vast distances. Confinement in stables and too much time spent on lush, green pasture, often with little interaction or movement with other horses, predisposes some horses to carry extra weight. It also explains why conditions such as laminitis and Cushings are more common than in the past. As well as putting pressure on the joints, carrying excess weight has a negative impact on the respiratory system and organs.
Dentistry has a huge impact on equine well-being and life expectancy. Horses hide oral pain as it would make them appear vulnerable in the wild. Regular dental check ups for domesticated horses allows problems to be treated before they become irreversible or too serious.
Being able to chew properly is vitally important to equines because of the way they digest their food. Bad teeth and dental pain can result in colic should high-fibre food get stuck and impacted in the gastro-intestinal tract.
What’s in a career?
Work type and load make a considerable difference to horses’ life expectancy. Horses living in the UK are likely to live a long time providing they are well cared for and have sufficient exercise to keep them fit, supple and not overweight.
This is in stark contrast with some horses and ponies in Third World countries that may work long hours in terrible conditions with inadequate food or the care of a farrier and vet. Horses with such tough lives will generally have a far lower life expectancy.
Equally, hugely expensive and well-kept performance horses, such as racehorses and hunters, sometimes have a shortened life expectancy because their job comes with a high risk of serious injury.
For all the benefits of good nutrition and a caring home, sometimes length of life is just luck and genes. Sadly, we all know super-fit, healthy-eating humans who succumb to terminal disease and die prematurely or are unfortunate to be injured or killed in accidents. Horses are no different. Likewise, there are horses – and people – who live to a grand old age when everything appears to be stacked against such chances.
Age is just a number to these seniors!
The oldest recorded horse in the world was a Shire stallion called Old Billy, who lived from 1760 to 1822. He reached the phenomenal age of 62, despite having to work incredibly hard pulling barges for most of his life.
Burghley old timers
There’s something about Burghley and veteran horses. The well-loved grey, Lenamore, ridden by Caroline Powell, won the event at the age of 17 in 2017. This is the same year Swede Christoffer Forsberg competed at his first Burghley at 19, just a year older than his mount 18-year-old Grafman.
Lenamore, ridden by Caroline Powell, flying around Burghley
According to the Guinness World Records, Sugar Puff holds the record for the oldest pony in the world. Sugar Puff, a Shetland-Exmoor cross, lived with his owners in Cornwall until the ripe old age of 56.
John Whitaker’s Hickstead veterans
Gammon, ridden by John Whitaker, holds the record for the oldest horse to win the prestigious Hickstead Derby. Gammon, aged 21, won the event in 1998. Two years later Whitaker took the title again, this time on 20-year-old Welham.
As an Agria Pet Insurance customer, you can speak to a vet completely free whenever you have a question or concern about your pet’s health. Simply download the Agria Vet Guide app for free 24/7 video calls; giving you expert advice to help keep your pet happy and healthy.
Download free from your app store here
Find out more here
Related guides and advice
Keeping your pets cool and safe: Essential tips for hot weather care