30 Is the New 20


Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY BARB CRABBE, DVM

Ad­vances in equine health care have ex­tended your horse’s po­ten­tial life span. Learn what it can mean.

In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll tell you about five ma­jor fac­tors that have rev­o­lu­tion­ized your horse’s po­ten­tial to live a healthy and pro­duc­tive life as a super-se­nior. Along the way, I’ll iden­tify signs he might need help. Fi­nally, I’ll give you the tools to de­ter­mine when enough is enough when it comes to your ef­forts to keep him go­ing.


Why are horses liv­ing longer, health­ier lives than ever be­fore? The fol­low­ing five fac­tors have each clearly played a role.


Then: Decades ago, your horse’s daily ra­tion con­sisted of hay and grain, with a mul­ti­vi­ta­min thrown in for good mea­sure. Hay was cho­sen based on avail­abil­ity and out­ward ap­pear­ance. If it was green and clean, it was prob­a­bly good enough. Grain typ­i­cally con­sisted of oats, corn, and bar­ley— ei­ther plain or mixed with mo­lasses in a sweet feed or a live­stock blend. As horses aged and chew­ing be­came dif­fi­cult, the best avail­able op­tions might’ve in­cluded beet pulp, a bran mash, or soaked al­falfa pel­lets. Now: “Grain” has been re­placed by “con­cen­trates,” or com­bi­na­tion feeds care­fully de­signed by equine nu­tri­tion­ists to meet your horse’s spe­cific needs, es­pe­cially for se­niors.

Is he ap­proach­ing 20? Choose one of many eas­ily chew­able, high-pro­tein se­nior feeds bal­anced with vi­ta­mins and min­er­als to meet his in­creas­ing de­mands. Has he been di­ag­nosed with equine meta­bolic syn­drome or “in­sulin re­sis­tance”? You can find a low-car­bo­hy­drate con­cen­trate that might help him. Add to that the wide va­ri­ety of sup­ple­ments avail­able to help with any health con­di­tion—from arthri­tis to air­way dis­ease—and it’s no won­der your horse’s con­di­tion is bet­ter than ever.

Of course, good-qual­ity hay and pas­ture re­main the most im­por­tant parts of any horse’s diet, and you can run a hay anal­y­sis to de­ter­mine which for­age pro­vides the best nutri­tion for your horse. Science has even helped hay grow­ers pro­duce dif­fer­ent types of hay to meet dif­fer­ent nu­tri­tional de­mands. What to watch for: How can you tell if you horse needs a diet ad­just­ment as he grows older? First and fore­most, keep an eye on his con­di­tion. If he’s los­ing weight, he may need a high­ercalo­rie con­cen­trate. If you no­tice a lack of muscling along his topline, it might be time to in­crease the pro­tein in his diet. Does he have trou­ble chew­ing? Look for an easy-to-chew se­nior diet de­signed to meet all of his needs, even if he can’t eat hay. Fi­nally, if your vet di­ag­noses a med­i­cal con­di­tion such as pi­tu­itary pars in­ter­me­di­ary dys­func­tion (PPID, also called Cushing’s dis­ease) or kid­ney fail­ure, a spe­cially de­signed diet can help im­prove your horse’s health.


Then: Thirty years ago, your horse had his teeth floated with a hand­held file, usu­ally for the first time when his age was well into the dou­ble dig­its. Your vet or den­tist filed down the sharp edges that formed along the out­side of his up­per mo­lars and in­side of his lower mo­lars ev­ery year or two. Rot­ten teeth could be ex­tracted, but this was of­ten a com­pli­cated pro­ce­dure that re­quired gen­eral anes­the­sia. Not many other den­tal treat­ments were avail­able. Now: Per­haps noth­ing in equine ve­teri­nary care has changed more than den­tistry. These days, your horse’s den­tal care be­gins when he’s just a baby. Most den­tal prac­ti­tion­ers rec­om­mend a first den­tal exam at 1 or 2 years of age to check for baby teeth your horse might not be los­ing nor­mally. By iden­ti­fy­ing and treat­ing these prob­lems early, your vet can pre­vent prob­lems from de­vel­op­ing as your horse ma­tures.

A den­tal exam and bal­anc­ing is typ­i­cally rec­om­mended ev­ery year. Your prac­ti­tioner in­serts a specu­lum to hold your horse’s mouth open and en­sure that ev­ery tooth can be ex­am­ined and treated. Power tools ex­pe­dite ad­just­ments and can cor­rect ma­jor prob­lems aris­ing from miss­ing teeth or other mis­align­ments. As your horse grows older, your vet can recognize and treat pe­ri­odon­tal dis­ease or even per­form a root canal to save a dam­aged tooth. And bet­ter tools mean most rot- ten or dam­aged teeth can be re­moved with your horse stand­ing up, elim­i­nat­ing the need for gen­eral anes­the­sia. What to watch for: A yearly den­tal exam al­lows your vet to recognize and treat any den­tal ab­nor­mal­i­ties be­fore they cause a se­ri­ous prob­lem. If you no­tice your horse has a dif­fi­cult time chew­ing, he’s “quid­ding” (spit­ting out balls of feed), or you de­tect a foul odor com­ing from his mouth be­tween ex­ams, it’s time to make a call. Thanks to se­nior di­ets, even older horses with no teeth can thrive for many years. There’s no doubt about it: Im­proved den­tal care has a ma­jor impact on your horse’s longevity.

Par­a­site Con­trol

Then: Decades ago, your vet­eri­nar­ian vis­ited your farm once or twice each year to ad­min­is­ter a toxic sub­stance

di­rectly into your horse’s stom­ach through a na­so­gas­tric tube. Very few de­worm­ing med­i­ca­tions were avail­able, and although they were effective against the par­a­sites, they were also hard on your horse.

Over time, med­i­ca­tions were de­vel­oped that could be ad­min­is­tered orally, first as a pel­let added to your horse’s feed, and later in a paste for­mu­la­tion that helped en­sure your horse got a full dose with ev­ery treat­ment. De­worm­ing pro­grams in­volved giving these med­i­ca­tions ev­ery other month, tar­get­ing pri­mar­ily the large strongyle, a par­a­site that causes se­vere dam­age with dev­as­tat­ing health con­se­quences. Now: The good news is that the large strongyle has largely been elim­i­nated as a health threat, leav­ing other, less-dam­ag­ing par­a­sites such as the small strongyle as the fo­cus of de­worm­ing pro­grams. The bad news is that these re­main­ing par­a­sites have de­vel­oped re­sis­tance to de­worm­ing med­i­ca­tions.

Mod­ern de­worm­ing pro­grams are strate­gi­cally de­signed to con­trol par­a­site pop­u­la­tions while pro­tect­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of avail­able de­worm­ers. Well-de­signed pro­grams in­volve reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing of your horse’s par­a­site load through fe­cal egg counts, and only call for de­worm­ing twice per year un­less your horse has poor nat­u­ral im­mu­nity and har­bors a high par­a­site load. Con­trol pro­grams have also be­gun to recognize and tar­get equine tape­worms that can cause se­ri­ous colic episodes.

Fi­nally, bet­ter hus­bandry—such as pas­ture clean­ing, pas­ture ro­ta­tion, and age-group seg­re­ga­tion—helps min­i­mize par­a­sitic impact and en­cour­ages

a health­ier en­vi­ron­ment for your horse over­all.

What to watch for: If you fol­low rec­om­men­da­tions for strate­gic par­a­site con­trol, you can avoid the con­se­quences of par­a­site prob­lems al­to­gether. High fe­cal egg counts will im­me­di­ately iden­tify prob­lems with re­sis­tance to de­worm­ers and short­com­ings in your horse­keep­ing prac­tices. Even if you’re do­ing everything right, par­a­sites can be a prob­lem. If your horse loses weight, ex­pe­ri­ences chronic di­ar­rhea, has colic episodes, or sim­ply seems un­thrifty, it might mean it’s time to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of

par­a­site prob­lems with your vet­eri­nar­ian. Ad­di­tional fe­cal egg-count test­ing might be rec­om­mended.

Di­ag­nos­ing and Treat­ing PPID (Cushing’s Dis­ease)

Then: Di­ag­nosed in hu­mans for over a cen­tury, the dis­ease then known as Cushing’s wasn’t rec­og­nized in horses un­til the 1960s. For many years, a di­ag­no­sis de­pended on rec­og­niz­ing clin­i­cal signs such as a long hair­coat and loss of mus­cle tone. If Cushing’s was sus­pected, your vet might’ve rec­om­mended rou­tine blood work to de­tect an in­creased glu­cose level. No spe­cific treat­ment was avail­able; Cushing’s man­age­ment in­cluded body clip­ping, vig­i­lant hoof care to re­duce risk of lamini­tis, and care­ful mon­i­tor­ing for skin in­fec­tions that can ac­com­pany the dis­ease.

Now: Now more specif­i­cally named, PPID can be di­ag­nosed with a blood test, and med­i­ca­tions are avail­able to help con­trol symp­toms. Most com­monly, your vet will per­form a test that mea­sures ACTH, a hor­mone that’s el­e­vated in horses with PPID, to make the di­ag­no­sis. Other tests are avail­able, in­clud­ing a stim­u­la­tion test that’s even more sen­si­tive and can specif­i­cally di­ag­nose PPID ear­lier in horses show­ing symp­toms. Although the dis­ease can’t be cured, early di­ag­no­sis and spe­cific treat­ment helps con­trol symp­toms, which might help your horse live a longer, health­ier life.

What to watch for: Es­ti­mates say that 20 per­cent of horses older than age 15 have PPID. With that in mind, it makes sense to put it on your radar sim­ply be­cause your horse is grow­ing older. Con­sider in­clud­ing a screen­ing test as a part of your an­nual health-care plan. If your horse de­vel­ops a long, curly hair coat that doesn’t shed out in the spring; chronic skin in­fec­tions; or re­cur­rent den­tal prob­lems, it might also be time to re­quest a test.

If your horse is di­ag­nosed with PPID, don’t de­lay in start­ing the rec­om­mended treat­ment. Pay at­ten­tion to on­go­ing re­search about this dis­ease to keep your­self in­formed. Vet­eri­nar­i­ans and re­searchers are learn­ing more about PPID ev­ery day.

Lame­ness Di­ag­no­sis and Treat­ment

Then: Just like hu­mans, pre­vi­ous in­juries and a life­time of wear and tear can haunt your horse as he grows older. In decades past, a lame­ness di­ag­no­sis of­ten de­pended on a good clin­i­cal exam, nerve blocks, and pos­si­bly some ra­dio­graphs. Treat­ment was typ­i­cally lim­ited to rest, some kind of cor­rec­tive shoe­ing, and per­haps a non­s­teroidal anti-in­flam­ma­tory med­i­ca­tion (such as phenylbu­ta­zone, com­monly re­ferred to as “bute”). Con­trolled re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams fol­low­ing in­juries were un­com­mon, and many a sus­pected ten­don in­jury was man­aged with a year of turnout—noth­ing more. Al­ter­na­tive ther­a­pies, such as acupunc­ture, shock­wave ther­apy, and body­work to help main­tain sound­ness, weren’t widely avail­able to horse own­ers. Pre­ven­tive treat­ments were few and far be­tween. Horses de­pended on good, old-fash­ioned horse­man­ship to keep them sound. Now: Good, old-fash­ioned horse­man­ship is still im­por­tant, but these days the abil­ity to specif­i­cally di­ag­nose a lame­ness and ap­ply a range of tar­geted treat­ments mean horses are stay­ing sounder, longer. If your horse ex­pe­ri­ences an in­jury, di­ag­nos­tic tests—such as de­tailed ul­tra­sound ex­am­i­na­tions, nu­clear scintig­ra­phy, and MRI—pro­vide a good chance of pre­cisely iden­ti­fy­ing the spe­cific dam­age. With a pre­cise di­ag­no­sis, you can take ad­van­tage of in­jury-spe­cific treat­ments, in­clud­ing platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell ther­apy. This means a bet­ter out­come, and a bet­ter chance your horse will heal com­pletely so his in­jury won’t come back to haunt him as he ages, which is vi­tal for se­nior horses to thrive.

Ad­vances in sur­gi­cal tech­niques also play a role in suc­cess­ful treat­ment, rang­ing from the arthro­scopic cleanup of an os­teo­chon­dro­sis le­sion in a young horse that’ll al­low him to stay sound to the re­pair of a bro­ken bone fol­low­ing a cat­a­strophic in­jury.

Fi­nally, the wide range of pre­ven­tive ther­a­pies avail­able means your horse is less likely to be in­jured in the first place and gives you tools to help keep him com­fort­able as he ages. What to watch for: Ask your vet to per­form a yearly sound­ness eval­u­a­tion as your horse grows older. This will al­low you to iden­tify smol­der­ing in­juries as early as pos­si­ble and take ad­van­tage of all of the di­ag­nos­tic tools and treat­ment op­tions avail­able. You can also dis­cuss the ap­pro­pri­ate time to ini­ti­ate any pre­ven­tive ther­a­pies your vet might rec­om­mend.

With all that’s now avail­able, it’s no won­der your horse could still be trav­el­ing down the trail well into his 30s. No doubt about it, 30 is the new 20.  Ac­cess our vast li­brary of se­nior-re­lated in­for­ma­tion on Horse­andRider .com this month.

Ad­vances in equine den­tistry could be the most in­flu­en­tial longevity booster for se­nior horses. A yearly den­tal exam al­lows your vet to recognize po­ten­tial prob­lems and re­move rot­ten teeth—with­out gen­eral anes­the­sia.

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