When we think of horse racing, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of a horse’s life being only relevant for the period that they’re actually taking part in races. We will think about how many times a horse of a specific age has won a race, or that horses over a given age have never won an important race such as the Gold Cup. Yet how many of us know what age a racehorse actually tends to live to?
It’s also worth considering whether a racehorse’s life is typically shorter than horses that aren’t bred for racing. Obviously the ones that lose their lives tragically when racing won’t live as long as others, but is the same true for the horses that make it through their racing career without suffering such a serious injury? The life expectancy of race horses is a fascinating topic that we’ll delve into in more detail here.
Genetics, Diet & Lifestyle Influence A Horse’s Lifespan
This might surprise you, but most racehorses will live between 22 and 28 years. The reason it’s a surprise is that we rarely hear of horses still taking part in races after the age of about 12 or 13. Indeed, only two horses to date have won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham aged 12, with Silver Frame achieving it in April of 1951 and What A Myth repeating the trick in 1969, with every other winner being 11 or younger.
If you were to extrapolate that onto a human lifespan it means a racehorse will race until around 35-40, which reflects the general retirement age of most professional sports people. Horses, like humans, become better at doing different things as they age too. Straight line speed is best in adolescence and early adulthood while stamina, strength and experience all increase with age. This is why you have 4 year olds winning the leading flat sprint races and horses as old as 13 winning long stayers races like the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham or the Grand National.
How long a horse lives for is, like with humans and most other animals, determined by the lifestyle that they lead. Genetics and diet are important factors in a horse’s likely lifespan, with those that lead healthier lives living for longer. It’s the same considerations that are given to normal horses that are used for racehorses, with modern day horses much more likely to outlive those of decades ago.
This, of course, is down to the advancement in our knowledge around training, nutrition and veterinary medicine. It’s hardly an outrageous thing to suggest that horses from decades ago won’t have been treated in the same way as modern horses are, often left to fend for themselves or abandoned altogether when their usefulness as racing horses was over and done with.
The work of organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has done wonders to develop our understanding of why it’s important to ensure that horses have a good life after the end of their careers in racing. It’s another reason why a horse’s life expectancy has gone up in recent times, though not truly by any significant amount in the same way that humans’ have.
Good genes are perhaps one of the most influential things when it comes to a horse’s lifespan. Just as parents pass down eye colour to their offspring, so too is risk of picking up a disease a part of genetics for horses. Larger breeds also have a shorter lifespan than lighter ones, whilst inbreeding is also a factor in a horse’s shorter lifespan. The Friesian horse breed, for example, only lives for around 16 years.
Horses need to be fed accordingly to their needs, with food being an important fuel for horses. Young, athletic horses that are in training will need more food than older horses that are no longer racing. Good quality hay and vitamins, alongside other dietary needs, will help a retired horse maintain its weight and energy. Giving a horse essential vitamins and nutrients throughout its life will help it in old age, too.
Helping Horses Live Longer
There are obvious things that can be done to extent a horse’s lifespan, with ensuring that they get regular exercise being high on the list. It’s important for them to exercise not just from a physical point of view but from an emotional one too. A horse that gets isolated can quickly become depressed, which in turn can stymy its growth. Free movement outside doesn’t have to be much, but it will prevent the likes of arthritis setting in.
Just like with humans, getting horses checked regularly is also key to extending their lives. Allowing a vet to check for disease and prevent parasites taking hold and other healthcare issues is important. Even something like dental care will allow a horses to properly chew food, helping to stave off malnutrition, weight loss and other health issues.
It sounds simple, but it’s an important part of a horse’s welfare after retirement.
Why Horses Die
Other than horses that die tragically in racing accidents, the main reason horses die in later life are not hugely dissimilar to those things that kill humans. In most instances it is a gradual worsening of conditions, usually with one or more taking their toll over time. The University of Kentucky’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory did a study on horses that died aged 15 and over, discovering two main causes of death:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Disorders of the digestive system
The majority of digestive issues will have developed from colic, which is a major killer in all horses. Meanwhile, uterine artery rupture was responsible for around half of the cardiovascular deaths, with broodmares in particular being at risk of this. When you consider that most European horses are considered to be old once they’ve hit the age of 15, it’s not outrageous that so many die at around that age.
Horses Are Living Longer
The evidence is there to suggest that horses are living for longer nowadays. In the United States of America, for example, the National Animal Health Monitoring System carries out surveys of horses owners on a regular basis. This is done in order to gain a decent overview of where the horse racing industry is at at any given moment, using results from those that own five horses or more.
The study found that in 1998 around 7.5% of horses in the United States were 20 years of age or older. In 2015, the survey discovered that this had increased to 11.4% of horses. Even more impressive is the fact that, of that 11.4%, 1.5% of the horses in question were aged 30 or older. When you consider that just 2.2% of horses were aged 20 or older in 1989, you can see just how far we’ve come in looking after them.
What Happens To Retired Race Horses?
To some, what happens to race horses after they have been retired from racing is seen as a ‘dirty little secret’. This is because the horses aren’t always treated in the best way possible, especially if they haven’t been all that useful during their careers. There are numerous reasons why a horse might be retired from racing, with the following being the main ones on the list:
- Poor performance
- Illness or injury
- Unsuitable temperament
Obviously the reason for the retirement from racing will often help to explain the manner in which they’re treated. Horses that are sent off for breeding, for example, will be seen as expensive and useful commodities; things that can continue to earn money for the owners in the future. A horse with a bad temperament, meanwhile, will struggle to find someone willing to look after it long-term.
The next question, then, is about what happens to them after they’ve retired. The answer, of course, will differ from case to case. The vast majority will be rehired where possible, used for other equestrian pursuits. Another large chunk of them will be used for breeding, especially if they’ve been successful during their career or shown attributes that the owners or breeders feel are worth using.
Sadly, there is also a much lager percentage of horses than there should be sent for slaughter after their careers have run their course. The numbers on that front are higher for standard bred horses than for thoroughbreds. Again, these figures will differ from country to country, with some places having a more humane approach to dealing with horses at the end of their careers than others.
Ultimately, the fate of a horse will be dictated according to their owners’ ability to make money from them. Owners will want to break even as much as possible, so the future that provides them with the most money returned will likely be the one that they opt for. Some will be sent to sale yards and there sold to knackeries, with the new owners hoping to eek out the last little bit of work left in them.
There are a number of horses that have, to use the euphemism, ‘had a good innings’. Prospect Point, for example, was a horse born in Kentucky that lived until he was 38-years-old. He was the oldest thoroughbred on record, with those records being well maintained enough to mean that the declaration can be made with some certainty. He also had a good pedigree, which doubtless helped.
The reason we’re talking about records when it comes to Prospect Point is that the likes of Orchid, who was born in Essex, had a dispute over her birth year. Whether she was born in 1964 or 1965 will determine whether she was 49 or 50 when he died, which is impressive either way. Neglected and abused, Orchid spent most of her life at the Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary and was only rescued a year before death.
None of them can come close to Old Billy, who is considered to be the oldest horse that’s ever lived. The English stallion was still trotting when he was 62, according to records. Born in Woolston, Lancashire in 1760, he spent most of his life working as a barge horse. He was still working even as his back became bent, eventually becoming something of a local celebrity and being painted by W. Taylor.