Age is truly just a number—especially with horses.
One of the thing many of my clients and students have discussed with me is the overall lack of focus on elderly horses in the popular equine literature-something I have found true myself as the owner of a senior equine. I intend to write a series of blogs about my lessons learned about elderly horses- starting with how NOT to treat your elderly horse—how I treated my first old horse---like hand-blown glass.
One of the greatest mistakes I ever made with my horse Tomax as he got into his 20’s was developing a mindset that he was “old” and therefore I needed to slow things down. I did this in part due to influence of well-meaning horse people around me raising their eyebrows and making small comments that he was “an old guy” based purely on his chronological age. In fact, they generally were in awe of Tomax’s physical condition. This belief that because of his age he was “old”, coupled with the fact that I had a new 7 year old mare to ride, led me down a treacherous path. In truth, I had a purebred Arabian horse who had been exercised and ridden several times a week, and suddenly I went to riding him lightly once or twice a week. He was fit as a fiddle, and was the glowing, fire-breathing picture of health. The picture above is of Tomax (the chestnut) at 20 on a trail ride in Montana- my friend who was riding him was having trouble getting him to just stand still long enough to take the photo. Looking back, the decrease in his exercise regime was the impetus that led to a sudden acceleration in aging.
At 21 I took Tomax to his last show. He was boiling over with energy and enthusiasm, so much that he actually bolted across the warm up arena when someone suddenly opened an umbrella near us. The dressage judge asked me about him, and when I said he was 21, she was in disbelief. I decided to retire him from any competitive events after this show- not because he was tired, but because he was so over the top and it was easier to just take my quiet and calm mare instead.
At 23 Tomax was diagnosed with early stage Cushings and I intensified my “bubble wrap” approach to his management. However, within six months the vet was telling me to increase exercises to strengthen Tomax’s topline. Unfortunately, Cushings disease affects ligament structure, and the nuchal ligament- the strong fibrous band that is the fascial “backbone” of the topline- was starting to break down. This was contributing to Tomax’s appearance of a slightly swayed back. IF I had taken the path of NOT bubble-wrapping my horse, his muscular strength would likely have not been so diminished in his back and would have supported his topline strength. By that time, however, I was playing constant catch-up. By the summer of his 23rd year, Tomax actually did finally start showing more physiological signs of aging- he started lagging behind the pack on mountain trail rides, something that before would have been unthinkable. Then he started lagging behind on flat-land hacks around my local neighborhood bridle path, and in April 2013, the vet and farrier told me I had taken my last ride on my old friend.
Today, Tomax is approaching is 27th birthday. His body has caught up with his chronological age, and we manage him as an elderly horse. In future blogs I will go into more detail about specific care aspects I have learned from both Tomax and all the elder horses that have been my teachers.
Truthfully, I can say my professional experience is that horses age much more like cars. Treat them well, keep up their maintenance, and even an old-model car can have relatively “low mileage”. I have seen many year old horses who were in worse shape than Tomax was at 23-indeed, a couple months ago I worked on a 3 year old filly who had already had one set of hock injections and was showing signs of needing them again….whereas none of my horses, middle aged and elder, have any discernible joint arthritis. Your feeding program and dental maintenance can profoundly impact a horse’s function. From my experience a horse’s teeth are a great limiting factor and in the long term, may have a much greater impact on his long term health than other factors. Many of us own horses that were used hard before we got them; their useful life as a riding/competition part truly depends on breed, discipline, genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle management. It would be wise to consider these factors. When I do an intake on a horse, here are some questions I ask to determine the wear and tear on my patient beyond physical age:
· When was the horse started? –the younger and harder it was started, the harder the wear and tear on the body.
· At what age did the horse begin competition, and at what level? –Same as above- and depending on type of competition, can lead to a very high stress, unnatural environment for your horse.
· How often is the horse exercised, what is this exercise, and at what intensity—if a horse is worked hard in the same way several to most days/week, there are likely to be repetitive movement issues and/or emotional stress
· How often are teeth checked? Note I didn’t say floated—some horses only need floating every few years but having them checked is critical
· What is the feed program? High forage diets are more natural, and digestion issues will be less apt to develop. Because of how a horse’s salivary glands work, and size of the stomach, a diet of mostly concentrates dramatically increase chances of gastric ulcers and hind gut dysbiosis, all of which lead to high stress on the horse.
· How often is saddle fit checked? Horses that are ridden for months/years with poorly fitting saddles are MUCH more likely to have long-held compensation patterns in their bodies, even after they get a better fitting saddle.
· How often is the horse ridden by or in presence of an equine professional? Horses ridden with riders who are unbalanced in their seat or overbearing in their hands will also develop emotional and physical imbalances that are stressful to the horse.
These are just a few of the questions I ask to discern the potential emotional and physical starting point of my equine client. The great news is that there are many things owners can do to dramatically improve their horses’ well-being and slow down the inevitable aging process. We will explore some of these in future blogs.
Age--- just a number…behavior, willingness--- this is how your horse will tell you how “old” he feels. I would love to hear from people about their experiences with their equine senior citizens- how old are they telling you they are?