Owning any animal comes with responsibilities and a duty to that animal for the rest of its life. If you are considering purchasing a horse, you should know the ins and outs of what to expect. One of the important questions to contemplate is how long a horse lives.
Horses live an average of twenty to thirty years. Some horses can live longer than this, reaching into their forties or even their fifties. Ponies generally live longer than horses, with large breed horses having the shortest lifespans. Some breeds are known for living longer lives.
Knowing a horse’s lifespan and how they age allows you to provide appropriate care for your horse and make sensible decisions when purchasing a horse.
What Is The Average Lifespan Of A Horse?
Horses have an average lifespan of twenty to thirty years. Some of them can get older than this, and others might die earlier. Many factors contribute to how long a horse can live. They are individuals just like humans.
Horses’ genetic makeup is unique and may predispose them to certain diseases. The work they do throughout their lives will also affect disease processes in the body and ultimately affect the length of their lives.
How Does Work Affect A Horse’s Lifespan?
Some horses are worked too hard too early in life. They pay for this with the breakdown of their bodies at an early age. A prime example of this is racehorses. They are run in races from as early as two years. The industry is money orientated, and the horses are used as tools.
Racehorses generally finish their racing career with severe injuries and arthritis. This compromises their health, and arthritis will set in before the age of ten years, necessitating euthanasia. Horses that have had a successful racing career and raced for many years usually have more damage to their muscles and skeleton than unsuccessful racers.
It is estimated that nineteen to twenty percent of racing horses will die before they are ten years old. Another large percentage will end up at the abattoir. It is difficult to collect accurate figures on this, as it is a secretive practice.
Other horses that develop early arthritis are draught horses. They look big and strong by the age of one or two years but their growth plates only close at approximately seven years of age.
Draught horses may be used to pull carriages or logs in forestry operations, or they may be used as riding horses. Working a horse with an immature skeleton predisposes them to joint degeneration and severe arthritis, ultimately ending in humane euthanasia at an early age.
Broodmares that are bred too often and indiscriminately may die earlier than expected as their bodies cannot keep up with the constant nutritional demands of pregnancy.
Preparing A Horse For Work Extends Their Lives
Horses used by humans are essentially athletes. It is necessary to correctly condition their bodies to ensure they are fit and strong enough to cope with the tasks humans require of them. Just as you would not expect a human to enter a jumping competition without preparation, it is unfair to expect this of horses.
Horses that are worked incorrectly are more prone to injuries, ranging from pulled muscles, tendons, or ligaments to falls with serious and sometimes fatal outcomes. Ensuring that a horse is strong, fit, and mentally prepared for the sport will allow the horse to live a long healthy, pain-free life.
Horses must have their nutritional needs met to cope with their work. Breeding horses need more calories, vitamins and minerals.
What Age Is The Oldest Horse?
The oldest horse was Old Billy, who lived until he was 62 years old. His birthdate was in 1760 and he died on the 22nd of November, 1822. He spent most of his life working as a barge horse and was renowned for having immense strength and stamina.
Orchid, a Thoroughbred cross Arab mare, lived to be 49 – 50 years old. She was born in 1964 or 1965 and died in 2015.
Magic, owned by Bob Manns, died at 51 years. She was born in 1969 and died in March 2020. She holds the title of the oldest registered Arabian horse and produced seven foals in her lifetime. She was still ridden up until a month before her death.
Scribbles was a pony born in 1958. He was 51 years old in 2009 and still doing well. It is unknown if Scribbles is still alive.
Shayne, a liver chestnut gelding, lived until 51 years and died in 2013.
As can be seen, some horses live well past the 30-year mark. This is unusual, and these horses must be provided with good nutrition and care to support them in their old age.
Are Horse Years The Same As Human Years?
Many people say that one human year is equivalent to seven dog years, and they wonder if the same is true about horses. It is a little bit more complex with horses.
The first two years of a horse’s life are equivalent to 6.5 human years. In other words, a one-year-old horse is equivalent to a 6.5-year-old human.
The horse has entered terrible teenage years at two years and is equivalent to a 13-year-old human. Anyone who has dealt with a two-year-old horse can vouch for this.
The aging slows down slightly, and a 3-year-old horse is equivalent to an 18-year-old human. At 5 years, a horse is equal to a 23-year-old person.
At 20 years, a horse is the same age as a 60.5-year-old person. At 30 years, the horse has achieved the grand age of an 85.5-year-old person. At 40 years, a horse is the same whopping age as a 110.5-year-old person.
If you are interested in calculating your horse’s human equivalent age, click here. It is a helpful perspective to know how old your horse is in terms of human years. It explains why it is harder for a twenty-year-old horse to do work or why a yearling may still be wild and silly.
Do Wild Horses Live Longer Than Domesticated Horses?
Some people believe that horses in the wild live longer than domesticated horses. There is a move to ban horse sports from the Olympics, and many animal rights organizations perpetuate the idea that horses should live in the wild as they will have a better life.
The truth is that most domesticated horses live a far longer life than wild horses. This is especially true of horses that belong to equine enthusiasts who engage in equine sports to spend time with their horses.
Domesticated horses are usually given balanced nutrition with carefully adjusted vitamins and minerals. They receive veterinary care when they need it, farriers attend to their hooves, and equine dentists check their teeth are in good order.
Domestic horses are groomed every day, and most horse owners spend a fortune on parasite and insect control. Vaccinations for killer diseases such as West Nile Virus, tetanus, equine encephalomyelitis, equine influenza, rabies, strangles, and many other conditions are given religiously to protect domestic horses.
Wild horses are vulnerable to diseases, and only the hardiest or luckiest survive epidemics that can wipe out entire herds. They are at risk from predators which roam both during the day and night, making it difficult for wild horses to have enough sleep, which affects their health.
Many wild foals die from predation, septic arthritis, and malnutrition. Wild horses are exposed to climate extremes and die of thirst in droughts or drown in floods. Wounds are not treated and can become infected, causing septicemia and death.
Mares have a foal heat seven days after foaling and another heat season three weeks after that. The herd stallion mates with the mare at one of these times. Therefore, wild mares are pregnant for the majority of their lives, which takes an enormous toll on their bodies.
What Happens To Old Horses In The Wild?
Nature is often a cruel master, and although we would like to think that old horses may be looked after and revered in the wild, the opposite occurs.
The survival of the herd is critical in the wild. Old or weak horses are often chased away from the herd as they pose a threat. Their weakness attracts the attention of predators, and as a result, the equine old-timers are no longer wanted.
A lone horse lives a tragic life. Horses are herd animals and need social structure, support, and interaction to maintain their physical and emotional health. They often have bite and kick injuries from being chased out of the herd. These injuries may lead to their death.
An isolated horse cannot rest as it must always be on guard against predators. It becomes skittish and anxious as it has no companionship. A herd protects from predators, but a single horse is easily overcome.
The result is that old horses excommunicated from a herd seldom survive for very long. In the wild, a horse in its teens could be considered old. Herd dynamics in wild horses are often brutal and merciless.
Why Do Domestic Horses Live Longer Than Wild Horses?
Domestic horses have the advantage of nutrition that is especially suited to their needs. In times of drought, horse owners cripple themselves financially to afford grass or hay to feed their horses.
Horses are usually stabled at night and turned out during the day. This allows them the advantage of a safe, secure place to sleep at night, facilitating good health. They are protected from bad weather such as snow, hail, and lightning strikes.
Good nutrition, sleep, and protection from enduring harsh conditions allow the horse’s immune system to function optimally, allowing the horse to live a longer life.
Domestic horses often have records of birth dates, so their age can be easily calculated. Their nutrition, work requirements, and care are adjusted according to their age, further prolonging their lives.
Unless an ongoing research study registers births and deaths, wild horses do not have documented birth dates. This does not often happen, and as a result, proving the age of wild horses is difficult.
There is no adjustment of living conditions for old horses in wild herds. They must continue to survive as they have when they were young.
Do Horses Get Dementia?
We know that elderly people can get dementia. Research has shown that dogs also experience an age-related cognitive decline, but what about horses?
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is the term used to refer to the decline that is associated with aging. Older horses can experience cognitive dysfunction syndrome as they age.
Symptoms of CDS include:
- The horse seems to lose the herd easily and will call loudly in distress for them. This can occur when the herd moves off, and the old horse does not notice.
- The older horse may wander off on their own and then appear to become lost, unsure of how to return to the herd.
- The horse may forget the routines and habits they were used to for years. For example, the older horse may not come back to the barn or gate at feed time or at night. They seem to forget the herd habits of getting water at certain times of the day.
- The horse owner may notice that the horse is suddenly being “bullied” or targeted as they lose their place in the herd hierarchy. The older horse cannot sustain their status and becomes less and less dominant until they are the lowest in the pecking order.
Does Horse Breed Influence Life Span In A Horse?
It is generally accepted that ponies usually live longer than horses. Many attain ages well into their thirties and may even reach forty years or older.
Miniature horses can be exceptionally long-lived. Falabellas, which hold the title of the smallest horse in the world, routinely live to be 40 to 45 years old.
Arabians, Appaloosas, American Paint Horses, Icelandic Horses, and Haflingers are long-living horses. These are all on the smaller side of the spectrum of regular-sized horses.
Larger horses such as Shires, Percherons, and Clydesdales do not usually get as old. Their immense size means that their hearts must work harder, and they are more prone to arthritis in their joints.
Although certain breeds may live longer than others, a horse’s care is critical in determining its lifespan. Any overworked, underfed, and neglected horse is at risk of dying young. There are always exceptions in nature, and horses can surprise us with their life span despite their breed.
What Causes Death In Horses?
Horses are surprisingly delicate for such a large creature. People that do not know much about horses are often surprised at the causes of death in horses.
5.8% of foals die before they are thirty days old. The first two days are the most crucial period. Foals die when they fail to absorb colostrum and develop fatal septicemia. Other causes of death in foals are respiratory problems and failure to get enough milk.
In foals, between one month and one year, the most common cause of death is traumatic injury. Critical wounds arising from trauma account for 27.8% of foal deaths in this age group. Diarrhea accounts for 17.8% of foal deaths in this age group.
In horses between one year and twenty years, colic accounts for 32% to 42% of all deaths. Horses may be euthanized due to arthritis, lameness, laminitis, tumors, neurological problems, and respiratory problems.
In older horses, colic and gastrointestinal problems are common as the older horse struggles to chew food adequately, and absorption of nutrition becomes problematic. This leads to an underweight horse that cannot gain weight, and ultimately the horse is euthanized.
Arthritis is a common reason for euthanasia in older horses. They find it challenging to move around and struggle to stand after lying down.
Sudden death in horses is generally due to a traumatic event in the cardiovascular system, such as an aortic rupture. Aneurisms and heart attacks may also be a cause of sudden death.
Some viruses, such as Dunkop African Horse Sickness, can cause death within a few hours. Some toxic plants such as poison hemlock, yew, and oleander can kill a horse in as little as fifteen minutes or a few hours.
Do Horses Die From Cancer?
Horses do get cancer – not quite as often as humans or dogs, but they can die from cancer. The most common cancers in horses are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma
Is Squamous Cell Carcinoma Common In Horses?
Squamous cell carcinoma commonly occurs in horses’ eyes. It is particularly prevalent in countries with a high ultra-violet index (UVI). Locations with higher altitudes often have a higher UVI. It is imperative to protect the horse from the sun in these areas.
The cancer may be present in the eyelid, the third eyelid, or the eye itself. It invades local tissue slowly. Unfortunately, the brain is close to the eye, and tumors may invade the brain. The only solution at this stage is euthanasia.
Squamous cell carcinoma in the eye occurs more often in a horse with minimal pigment around the eyes, such as appaloosas, cremellos, and some grey horses.
Wearing a protective mask and providing shade may help to prevent eye cancer. Some horses have an eye removed due to cancer and cope well with only one eye.
Do Melanomas Affect a Horse’s Lifespan?
Melanomas start as benign black lumps under the skin in horses. The most common sites are around the tail, anus, genital area, and face.
Eighty percent of gray horses develop melanomas, and they usually remain benign for a long time. Ultimately 80% of melanomas will become malignant or grow to a size that impinges on physical functioning. Melanomas often occur in clusters in gray horses.
Melanomas on non-gray horses usually occur as a single tumor, but they become malignant quickly and are much more dangerous.
Melanomas should be removed when they are small as this is an easy minor procedure. Waiting until the melanomas are large or cancerous risks the horse’s life.
How Do Sarcoids Affect A Horse?
Sarcoids are skin tumors in horses that invade the surrounding tissue but do not spread through the body to other organs. They vary in appearance but often appear to resemble large warts.
Sarcoids are also known as fibrosarcomas and account for forty percent of equine cancers. Sarcoids are not generally fatal unless they invade a vital area or interrupt blood supply. They can become raw and weeping, giving rise to secondary infections.
Sarcoids that protrude from the body are prone to injury or being torn during daily activities. This can lead to pain and discomfort.
Sarcoids are unsightly and secondary infections are painful and irritating, but they do not usually lead to death. A horse with a large number of sarcoids may be euthanized due to difficulty controlling infection, fly strike, and discomfort from the tumors.
Why Do Horses Die From Colic?
Colic is the primary cause of horse death. Horses have a complicated gastrointestinal (GI) tract designed for small amounts of food to trickle through. There is an enormous length of intestines not attached to the body wall. This makes displacement of the intestines a high risk.
There are various causes of colic and many instances when the cause of the colic cannot be pinpointed.
Ideopathic spasmodic colics occur when the bowels spasms for no identifiable reason. The spasms are painful but respond well to antispasmodic medication.
Gas colics occur when there is a gas build-up in the GI tract. This may be in response to inappropriate feed or as a result of a viral infection.
Impaction colics may be thought of as constipation in horses. This kind of colic can occur when there is insufficient water intake, the grass or hay is very dry, or the horse eats its bedding.
Impaction colics may also be caused by the ingestion of sand which the horse picks up while grazing. Sand colic usually only arises when grazing is poor, and the horse is eating very short grass or roots.
Simple colics may be treated at home by a veterinarian. Some impaction colics require expensive and risky colic surgery. Colics should always be treated as an emergency as they go from a simple colic to deadly complications in a short space of time.
The horse’s intestines are prone to displacement, resulting in strangulation and torsion, which are fatal. Surgeries can be performed to correct the displacement. The success rate is only 32%, with an increased risk of further colic.
Colic can result in lethal endotoxemia, where the horse’s own gastric bacteria proliferate and poison the horse. In the case of endotoxemia, the horse can die within 24 hours.
Horses can live up to thirty years which is considerably longer than dogs or cats. Some horses surprise us with the length of their lives. Some sadly die far too young, leaving us feeling bereft and robbed. However long the horse’s life, it is a privilege to love a horse.