How Old Is an Old Horse?

takingnotes_bvcEvery so often in a work of fiction, a writer wants or needs to include an “old” horse. This is perfectly fine, until the reader finds out that the horse is twelve years old.

Horses are not, as I’ve said before, dogs. The world’s oldest living dog is twenty-one years old. This is what a twenty-one-year-old horse looks like:


Not exactly on her last legs, is she?

The average life expectancy of a horse is about twenty-four years–in short, they live just about twice as long as a dog. Some breeds mature later than others; in those breeds, the horse may not even reach full height and body mass until age ten or older. My twenty-one-year-old mare (and her two twenty-two-year-old herdmates) can expect, barring accident or illness, to live and work for another five to eight good years, and quite possibly longer. It’s not at all unheard of for a horse to make it past thirty. One of their royal Austrian cousins in fact was still giving international performances of the highest level of training up to and past age twenty-six; he was retired at twenty-eight.

And then there’s the wonderful Elmer Bandit ( –some useful details here about the physiological effects of age on a horse, too), who turned 38 this past April and is still actively competing in long-distance rides. He’s not the oldest horse out there, either. There are various contenders for the title of oldest living horse; most are around age 50.

Short form: Horses can live quite a long time.


As with any other animal including the human one, genetics and environment have a lot to do with the longevity of a horse. There are circumstances in which a twelve-year-old horse is, physiologically and emotionallly, an old horse. Neglect, abuse, and poor nutrition can age a horse rapidly. So can too much work too young. Modern racehorses and show horses, too many of whom are ridden before their second birthday and competed heavily as two-year-olds, long before their bodies are in any way mature, will be labeled “aged” at five and retired, broken down, by age six or eight. Even horses that are given a little more time to mature before being pounded by the demands of competition, such as the international dressage stars, get used up much more quickly than their genetics would indicate. International dressage horses are barred from competition before their third birthday, but will hit the top ranks of the circuit at age eight (if not earlier thanks to an accelerated, or let’s just call it short-cut, training schedule), be held together with duct tape and baling wire through the teens, and hobble toward retirement around age seventeen. By contrast, the stallions of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, who are brought along much more slowly and subjected to considerably fewer stresses on their bodies and minds, will be just entering their prime at seventeen (which is the average age of the horses in the quadrille or eight-horse exhibition group) and will continue to perform through retirement at age twenty-five or later. Those boys work hard, too–what they do requires tremendous strength and coordination.

It’s all in the way they’re handled–how soon, how long, and how much. But the basic genetics and physiology point to an animal that can, with sensible management, enjoy a good two decades or more (sometimes much more) of working life.

Dedicated to Capria, top contender for title of Best Horse Ever, who trotted into my life on September 22, 1992–Capria1992_bvc

young, slender, and as green as a spring twig, but just as wonderful a teacher then as she is today.capriatrot091609_bvc




How Old Is an Old Horse? — 5 Comments

  1. I think exceptionally beautiful animals, like exceptionally beautiful Hollywood stars, accept and expect adoration as their natural due. I have a cat, a Scottish Fold, who seems to know no fear. How can he, when everyone without exception greets him with, “Aww, how cute!”?

  2. *carrots for all, and two for Capria*

    also, Beau says he has at Least 2 More Years, and maybe more, of light work in him. He is 24 ;).

  3. The workaholics can go on forever, as long as you accommodate the physiological changes. Capria’s withers are more prominent now, so her saddle needs a bit more padding. But the rest of her looks fantastic.

    She’s the Sophia Loren of horsedom. ;>

    As for Pooka, I sometimes refer to him as Zoolander. Male model, OH yeah.