Shadow of Equus: Truly Old Horses
By Margaret Evans
Over the decades, we’ve owned several horses and ponies that have lived into their thirties. As the years went by, they aged and retired to pasture. When their time came, they passed quickly and quietly, and we blessed the fact that we had enjoyed so many happy years with them. But were they old? Judging from the equine Methuselahs out there, our aged horses were merely spring chickens!
Two years ago, the world’s oldest living pony died in England. “Sugar Puff” was a dark brown, ten hand high, Shetland-Exmoor cross who lived in West Sussex. When he passed away on May 25, 2007, he was 56 years old and had made it into the Guinness Book of Records, meaning that his birth records and age were verifiable.
Horses and ponies, on average, live about 28 years and signs of aging may start to show in their mid twenties. They may develop sway backs, a drooping lower lip, deeper hollows over the eyes, a dull greying coat, slowness in shedding seasonal hair, lack of muscle tone, stiffness, and slowness of movement. They may have age-related health issues, worn teeth, and difficulty maintaining weight. Yet, despite the creep of age, a great many survive comfortably into their thirties and there are a good number of anecdotes of equines that are 40-something. Making it to their fifties and then some, though, deserves attention.
One such horse is 51-year-old “Badger,” an Arab-Welsh cross who, in 2004, was verified by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest horse. Born in Wales in 1953, Badger competed successfully on the show jumping circuit when he was known as Little Boy Blue.
Photo: Courtesy of Daily Mail, UK
“Badger was a very special horse,” said Julianne Aston, founder of the Veteran Horse Society in Cardigan, Wales. “He had a very strict routine — four feeds a day — and had a peaceful and quiet life.”
Aston started the Society in 2000 after she lost her 45-year-old Irish Draught cross, “Minty,” who she had owned for over 20 years. She is dedicated to improving the lives of older horses, educating owners on their special care, and promoting the role of the older horse at shows. Today, the organization has 24 horses, the youngest being 15. The oldest is “Timmy,” a 41-year-old grey Welsh pony that was recently awarded the title Charity Pony of the Year by Horse & Pony magazine. Despite having arthritis, cushings, and failing sight, and having suffered from a stroke and laminitis, Timmy continues to enjoy his days, picking at food with his four remaining teeth and maintaining good health.
When Badger died in 2004, another candidate came forward as the oldest horse. An article in Missouri’s Columbia Daily Tribune, April 2004, suggested that the oldest living horse in the U.S. was 51-year-old “Copper,” an ex-police horse from St. Louis, Missouri.
But if there is a genuine historical equine Methuselah, it has to be “Old Billy,” a black Cob-Shire cross with a white blaze. Born in 1760, Old Billy’s story predates the start of the Industrial Revolution, which he lived through to the ripe and verifiable age of 62.
Why some equines defy the odds and live truly geriatric lives is likely due less to the science of animal husbandry as a combination of steady work, good care, great genetics, and marvelous luck.
Billy was born in Warrington, Cheshire, and lived out his life at the Old Manor House (later to be known as Latchford Grange), a home that dates back to 1647 when it had been built by the River Mersey. The original owner of the home was John Earle and a branch of his family moved to Liverpool’s shipping district. Billy was well into his thirties when, during the 1790s, the family was supplying goods to Britain’s greatest naval hero, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson. By the time Nelson was mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Billy (now in his forties) had become a well seasoned barge horse pulling vessels along the Latchford Canal which had opened in 1804. Canals were the links between mills and industrial towns, and horses, treading tow paths alongside the canals, pulled the barges from villages to towns and shipping docks with long ropes.
Billy’s career took a new turn when he became a gin horse. A gin was a mechanical device to lift heavy loads such as coal or water from beneath the ground. The cog and rung apparatus consisted of a wooden gear mechanism turned by a horse walking a circular path.
By the time Billy retired from his gin days in 1819, he was 59. The following year, at the ripe age of 60, Billy took part in the Manchester celebrations of the coronation of King George IV. Even then, he was a celebrity in his own right.
Billy died in 1822. Over the centuries, the Grange changed hands a number of times, eventually becoming the Grange Sports & Social Club where Billy’s picture hangs to this day. He is shown with Henry Harrison who was 76 at the time and who had known Billy for 59 years.
Photo: Courtesy of Daily Mail, UK
What is it about some horses that defy the odds and live truly long lives? “Teeth play a huge part in their welfare,” stressed Aston. “Their dental care is something I feel very strongly about. It’s vital a fully qualified dentist looks at their teeth at least once a year. Feeding is also vital and it’s not only what you feed but how you feed it.”
Aston dispels the myth that horses with few or no teeth won’t survive but she recognizes that a feeding routine for these animals is very specialized. “It is sometimes easier to keep a horse with few teeth as you know and can monitor exactly what they eat.”
Expert animal husbandry is clearly central to their survival but great genetics and marvelous luck must also play a part. After all, Old Billy’s owner would not have had the dental and nutrition knowledge horse owners have today. But by whatever means of care and welfare, some horses clearly have Methusalah’s genes.
Note: If you have a horse 15 years or older, Julianne Aston would love to hear from you to further everyone’s understanding of the care and special needs of aging horses. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.veteran-horse-society.co.uk.
Main article photo: Courtesy of Daily Mail, UK - Badger, an Arab-Welsh cross who lived to 51 years old, was a true equine Methuselah.