Many horses live to be over thirty years old, much longer than even the oldest cats or dogs. In fact, many horses live beyond the age of 30 with good care; some senior horses are still ridden or driven lightly.
Variations in Horse Longevity
Advances in the understanding of animal care and veterinary medicine have increased the lifespan of horses, just as improved medical and nutritional knowledge has benefited humans. This means horses and ponies are living longer than ever just as many people are. The reality, however, is that some breeds live longer than others.
The average lifespan of a domestic horse is 20 to 30 years. Many horses go well beyond this average. Ponies tend to live longer, with many ponies still serving as schoolmasters well into their 30s. A few ponies and horses may even reach the age of 40 or over. Larger horses like draft breeds are generally not as long-lived as smaller breeds such as Arabians. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There are some really elderly draft horses out there.
Hard to Know the Age of a Horse
Extreme old age can be hard to verify, however, especially if horses don’t have identifying paperwork and have changed owners several times. You can tell the approximate age by looking at a horse’s teeth, but teeth are not a 100 percent accurate way to determine its age, especially as they advance in age beyond their twenties. So unless a horse has some sort of competition passport or registration papers verifying its identity, information about age may be lost.
Help Your Horse Live a Long and Healthy Life
Many people report that with good care, their senior horses continue to live healthy and useful lives. With careful attention to basic maintenance of a senior horse such as feed, dental, and hoof care, many horses can remain sound and useful into their senior years and remain a joy to their owners even when fully retired. Some may still be used to give children lessons while other senior and retired horses keep young horses company and teach them good horse manners. Others are just enjoyed for their personality and presence.
Sometimes, a health issue will force an owner to euthanize a horse before it lives out its natural lifespan. Complications from colic will force a decision, or a horse may be in constant pain from a soundness issue. While it doesn’t seem natural and is a very difficult decision, euthanasia is preferable to the horse living a life of pain and struggle. However, horses in good physical shape have a much greater chance of living a healthy and useful life far beyond horses several decades ago.
Common Causes of Sudden Death
When an apparently healthy horse suddenly dies for no obvious reason, it can leave you feeling confused as well as bereaved. Although a rare occurrence, this could happen to an otherwise healthy adult horse. Here are a few of the more common reasons why this could happen.
The aorta is the large main artery that comes directly from the heart and distributes blood to the rest of the body. In some animals (including humans), a part of the wall of the aorta, which is typically very muscular and rubbery, is thin and weak. This weakened area in the blood vessel is called an aneurysm. A ruptured aorta occurs when this area of weakness bursts. Since the aorta is a major blood vessel, once ruptured, the horse quickly hemorrhages.
A horse can die unexpectedly and quite rapidly after ingesting a toxin. Toxins in the environment can include various weeds in the pasture and tree leaves such as bracken fern, red oak, wilted cherry tree leaves, and others. Botulism is caused by harmful bacteria that may be in fodder such as silage, or water. Some feed meant for other livestock, such as cattle and chicken, maybe deadly to horses because it contains drugs called ionophores. Ionophores are lethal in small doses to horses and cause rapid death.
Many pastures included forested areas. These provide important shade and shelter from the wind and are a nice addition to a natural setting. But, you may want to check that there are no trees that are actually toxic to your horse. The links in the following list will take you to descriptions of the trees for easy identification. Toxic trees and shrubs include:
- Cherry, Peach and Plum trees
- Locusts, including honey and black
- Mountain Laurel
- Box (Shrub)
- Horse Chestnut
- Pines (when eaten in great quantity)
- Black Walnut
- Red Oak
- White Sumac
Ingesting the leaves or needles, wood, or bark of these trees can be fatal. Chances are if your horse snatches a mouthful of red maple or oak leaves while trail riding, it won’t be harmed. Many of these trees, bushes, or shrubs won’t be attractive to your horse. They probably don’t taste good, and if better food is available, the horse won’t touch them. But if your horse gets hungry or greedy, a stomach full of leaves or tender bark could spell trouble, however.
Because most of these toxic trees don’t taste very good, horses will leave them alone. But, during drought, when pasture grass is sparse, your horse might snack on the trees despite the taste. In the springtime, emerging leaves may taste fresher to your horse than a dry hay bale. Storms can down branches, putting otherwise unattainable tempting leaves within reach. And, in the autumn leaves on the ground may be attractive to some horses. Sometimes it’s simply not practical to cut all the trees down that may be toxic. Instead, be vigilant for opportunities or situations that might lead to your horse ingesting any part of a toxic tree.
Allergic reactions to a drug given to a horse can be rapid and difficult to treat. If treatment starts very soon after a reaction is noticed, there may be a good chance for recovery. Despite this, a severe reaction can lead to death very quickly due to anaphylactic shock. Fortunately, this type of extreme reaction is rarely seen in horses on the farm.
Distention and rupture in your horse’s stomach or intestines can cause acute death. The first indication of a severe gastrointestinal problem is colic symptoms. Dehydration and impaction, severe parasite load, a twisting or telescoping of the intestine, and other blockages can cause the intestine or stomach to rupture. Although sometimes these symptoms occur over a period of a day or so, some gut issues may occur quickly, resulting in acute signs that lead to sudden death.
Horses can be born with congenital defects that can lead to sudden death. There may be no outward sign that anything is wrong in the foal. Depending on what the congenital defect is, the horse may survive until adulthood but suddenly die. Some cardiac defects manifest clinically this way.
If Your Horse Suddenly Dies
Necropsy (autopsy on an animal) may reveal the cause of death; this requires the expertise of a veterinarian. Providing the best care possible for your horse is the best way to help your horse live a long and comfortable life.