Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Equine Fountain of Youth - What's In It?

Keeping humans looking and feeling young is a multi-million dollar industry. Between human growth hormones and Botox injections, lots of people are making a lot of money promising to stop time, one way or another. But we feel the same way about our horses. No one wants to see them get old and sick, or break down physically. We'd all like them to live as long as possible while staying as sound and healthy as possible. So what elements go into that?

As with humans, good nutrition is a factor. While horses fortunately do not have access to the wide variety of unhealthy foods that we do, getting the right blend of vitamins and minerals still counts. We've talked before about how to feed young horses so that you don't create leg issues and permanent damage, and about how to feed old horses so that they don't lose weight.

Also as with humans, exercise is a good idea. Remember the 37 year old endurance horse? I do believe that sound horses who continue to be ridden are likely to live longer, but there is nothing wrong with a "good" retirement - one that involves lots of turnout, if not all turnout, but also attention. I hate the misguided idea that an idyllic retirement for a horse involves being thrown out into a field and left alone. People do this all the time with horses who were used to daily attention and the result is usually a horse who goes downhill fast, both physically and emotionally. A typically social "people horse" needs continued interaction. If he can't be ridden, he can at least be groomed and brought treats. I've seen people teach their old horses in-hand trail, just to give them something new to do, and I've seen the horses love it!

I've also seen people use the "well, they're not being ridden anymore" excuse to skimp on farrier care, which is sad because older horses so often have issues with abscesses and many times the farrier is the first one to catch a horse who is at risk of founder. It's a safe assumption your older horse will need all the same care, and more, that he did when he was in his competitive years.

And there are plenty of little things you can do that decrease the risk that you will lose a horse too early. Colic does not need to be as common as it is. Keeping fresh, clean water in front of horses 24/7, making sure your old horse is not being stressed out by an aggressive one in the pasture, lots of turnout, and feeding a supplement for sand control if you live in the southwest are all things that can keep you from ever having to deal with colic.

Finally, we've all seen the sad older person whose family has abandoned them, who sinks into depression. This is the same for a lot of older horses. A 25 or 30 year old shouldn't be hanging out all day with his head in the corner. That's not normal and it's a sign he's not happy about something in his environment. Either he's not receiving the attention he was used to from people or he's unhappy with his equine companions, or something hurts so much that it's keeping him from enjoying life. I've met many bright, happy 30+ year olds. If yours isn't, there's probably a reason.

Interesting article by Deb Bennett about extending your horse's life.

So here is my question: If you have a horse who is over 25, how is he doing? What is his history - riding, competition? Is he still being ridden? What is his lifestyle - stall, pasture, etc.? Do you have problems keeping weight on him or is he an easy keeper? Do you know when he began his riding career? Have you had a light bulb moment with regard to care of your older horse that you'd like to share?

What would you tell the person with a three year old horse who'd like to be riding that horse twenty years from now?

On the left is my 29 year old. Much of her life, she was stalled half the year (polo season) and out the rest, and then she's been out 24/7 since 1995. Harmony was broke out at three and retired sound at fifteen. The last time I jumped on her was 2005 and she still shook her head and reminded me she could offload me if she wanted to. She has mostly eaten alfalfa in her life - even in polo, we grained very minimally, with a little Clovite and Red Cell for vitamins. She loves being with the herd and maintains weight easily. We had a colic scare when she was 8 and were told she had a 20% chance of survival, but I walked her all night and here she is today. (Pretty sure that was caused by inconsistent watering at her boarding barn at the time, by the way) She moved to a milder climate in 2006 and I think it does help her continue to thrive. Thanks to Paradigm Farm for continuing to give her fantastic retirement care!