By Holly Clanahan
The elders among us are treasures. Their silver hairs represent decades of life experiences and wisdom, and the long stretch of time they’ve been with us makes us love them even more.
That’s true, of course, of humans. But here, we’re talking about equine senior citizens, whose steady demeanors and kid-training acumen give us riches beyond measure – certainly enough to justify a little anti-inflammatory medication, special feed or whatever it takes to keep them going.
It’s our honor to introduce three super seniors, American Quarter Horses in their 30s and 40s that are a lot like the Energizer Bunny – they’re still ticking and still richly repaying their owners for years of care.
Nobodys Somebody, foaled in 1980, was orphaned and became a bottle baby. Although that early setback may have stunted his growth, it certainly didn’t affect his longevity. At 41, “Nosey” is still going strong.
“We got him when he was 9,” says owner Sheila Hallenbeck of Erie, Michigan. “He is definitely part of the family.”
Nosey was a steady 4-H horse for Sheila’s kids, Jimmy and Christi, as well as a host of others. “He was called the babysitter horse,” Sheila says. “People would borrow him and say, ‘Can we let our daughter or son learn to ride on him?’ He was so gentle and kind.”
He rode English and western and even costume classes. “He did pretty much everything,” Sheila says. “My daughter even jumped him a little bit, just for fun.” He made appearances at the Monroe County Fair for a dozen or more years, and “everybody in Monroe County back then knew who he was.”
After he retired from the show ring, Nosey still kept busy for many years, going on trail rides, helping Sheila give beginner riding lessons, giving first rides to family members and even going to Vacation Bible School a couple of times where he gave first rides to even more kids.
But life hasn’t been easy for the sorrel gelding. He survived West Nile virus nearly 20 years ago, then dealt with a severe choke that required hospitalization and a bout with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis. About two years ago, he developed hoof abscesses that made him severely lame and brought back the neurological symptoms. Now he is taking medication for Cushing’s syndrome, but he has made it through it all.
“Our vet – he is her oldest client – she calls him her miracle horse,” Sheila says. “He is a tough little guy. He’s happy to be alive and happy to be with us.” Since the battle with West Nile, no one rides Nosey except his cat friend, Secret.
Nosey’s a verbal horse with a penchant for pushing open doors or gates, and he has in-and-out privileges during the day, stalled at night. Three times a day, he eats a mushy mixture of sweet feed, senior feed and alfalfa pellets, topped off with CocoSoya oil to add calories.
“His teeth are pretty much gone, but he looks wonderful,” Sheila says. “I can’t imagine not having him.”
At 37 years old, Majors Heritage has been present for the better part of his owner’s life, having joined the Arcuri family as a Christmas present in 1988, just days before Ryan Arcuri turned 11 and the horse officially turned 5.
The Arcuris have a Morgan and Saddlebred training facility in Springfield, Oregon, but when Ryan wanted to learn to rope, the family turned to longtime friend Bob Avila, an AQHA Professional Horseman who then lived in Yamhill, Oregon, not far from the Arcuris. He introduced them to “Harry,” who had just scored two top-10 finishes in heading and heeling at the AQHA World Championship Show. At the time, he wasn’t your typical kid horse.
“He was a lot of horse,” says mom Jeanne Arcuri. “You had to be on your game all the time.” But he and Ryan came to an understanding, and Harry taught the youngster patience, how to listen to a horse and how to work with a horse.
Ryan’s formative years were spent on Harry’s back, going to AQHA shows and nearby jackpots, where they’d arrive in the morning and then rope all day. “It was definitely a special bond,” Ryan remembers. “Growing up with him, we spent a lot of time together.” They were finalists in heading at the 1992 AQHYA World Championship Show.
Now, the sorrel gelding by Major Bonanza has earned a life of leisure. Harry’s stall door is usually left open with a stall guard so that he can peek his head out, and Ryan’s children love to go scratch on his face. Harry is given hand walks in the arena and solo turnout on flat ground. “He’s a little bit like an older person,” Ryan says. “I think social interactions help him.” Dimming eyesight means that Harry needs a verbal warning when someone approaches him, “but as soon as he knows you’re there, oh gosh, he’ll rub on you.”
Soaked complete feed helps Harry stay healthy, even with dentition unable to handle hay. And the Arcuris recently bought another rope horse from Bob and enjoyed a recent lunch with Bob and his wife, Dana, in which they reminisced about that first rope horse, who remains a big part of Arcuri Stables.
“Whew,” Ryan says, “when he decides to go to heaven, that’s going to be tough, a real tough one. I’ve almost spent my entire life with him here with me.”
There probably aren’t many horses who still work for a living at age 36, but Sunset Sugalena, aka “Rebel,” is an active participant in the lesson program at Rolling Hills Farm in Mount Washington, Kentucky.
“He works for his pay,” says farm owner Sally McConnell. “Some days, it’s just letting kids brush on him and love him. Some days, it’s actually riding.”
With the help of joint supplements and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories to tame his arthritis pain and a special low-carbohydrate diet to keep his Cushing’s disease in check, Rebel can sometimes even lope with a small rider. “It’s compared to a camel’s lope,” Sally says, laughing, “but it’s ‘Rebby’s’ lope. He loves to lope.”
There’s one particular lesson rider at the barn who has especially bonded with him. “She has to have Rebby time, whether she rides him or not. She will love him and hug him and brush him. All the kids love him, and we do, too. He’s just a special old man,” Sally says. “You just see that precious face looking at you down the barn aisle, and you think, ‘That’s why I do it.’ He has a second lease on life. He’s a happy horse.”
Rebel is owned by Sally’s neighbor, AQHA member Rick Miller, who purchased the sorrel gelding in 1996.
“I used to rope off him, and both my boys learned to rope off him,” Rick says. “You could take him to a roping and head and heel and tie calves off him, and then you could turn around the next weekend, and if the kids wanted to run barrels on him, they could. It was just amazing.”
Rick sometimes rode Rebel with a neck strap, moving him with just leg pressure. “We used him a lot,” Rick says. “He’s really good minded.”
And a well-trained horse who has been out and seen the sights is just perfect to teach beginners, Sally says.
“The best horses are about 26,” she says. Rebel, who has been with her since 2017, is well past that, but he still has a purpose, a fun personality and plenty of affection.
“He’s a hoot,” Sally says. “We love him to death.”
Taking Care of Aging Friends
Obviously, not all horses will age as gracefully or for as long as these three. A veterinarian from the University of Pennsylvania elaborates:
“Horses, like humans, are individuals. They show signs of aging at different rates,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arbittier, assistant professor in equine field service at the New Bolton Center. “Sometimes I’ll see a horse at 15 and see the animal again at 17 and am shocked at how much he or she has clinically aged. Other horses are 25 years old, and you'd never know they’re a day over 12.”
One key to keeping horses healthier longer is regular preventive-care visits. Dr. Arbittier recommends that horses in the mid-teen years see a veterinarian twice a year and have annual bloodwork to test for diseases that start popping up around this time.
Beyond getting regular preventive-care checkups, Dr. Arbittier encourages owners and caretakers to call their veterinarian to report any changes in behavior, even when it seems minor or unimportant.
“No detail is too small if it’s new or a change from the norm,” she says. “One reason that a lot of disease processes are missed early on, when they’re more easily treated, is they tend to create slow and insidious changes.”
Among shifts to look for are drinking and urinating more often than normal, reluctance to walk or move forward, dropping feed while eating, weight loss or gain, shaggy or non-shedding haircoat, lethargy, coughing or a sudden drop in the herd pecking order.
Below are some of the diseases or disorders common to aging horses, as listed by the New Bolton Center, with their symptoms:
- Equine pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), also known as Cushing’s disease: A shaggy, non-shedding hair coat that’s thicker earlier in the season than usual, increased drinking and urination, loss of muscle and/or topline, potbelly, persistent skin infections, frequent hoof abscesses, inappropriate fat pads, laminitis, multiple soft tissue injuries.
- Equine metabolic syndrome: Obesity, weight gain, or inability to lose weight (although some horses with insulin dysfunction will be thin), cresty neck, inappropriate fat pads, laminitis (which can be very slow and insidious and go unnoticed).
- Dental problems: Dropping hay and grain, inability to gain weight.
- Nutritional deficit: Loss of musculature, loss of topline, horse “looks old.”
- Osteoarthritis: Lameness, stiffness, decrease in quality of performance or unable to perform as normal.
- Ocular changes: Tearing (even mild), eye cloudiness (even mild), swelling of the lids (even mild), difficulty with going from bright to dark areas, inability to negotiate obstacles normally, seeming tentative in situations where the horse was previously confident.