EQUUS - - Career Chances For Older Horses -

Just like a young horse start­ing out, a se­nior horse who is chang­ing ca­reers needs to be pre­pared for the de­mands of his new sport.

“The speci­ficity of train­ing should closely match the speci­ficity of the new dis­ci­pline. But even in the best cases there may be mus­cles and ten­dons and lig­a­ments that have to be adapted, and that needs to be done slowly in the older horse,” ad­vises McKeever.

The rea­son is that mus­cle mass de­clines with age. “Equines, like hu­mans, tend to lose mus­cle as they age, but the good news is that mus­cle in the older horse can be re­stored to a large de­gree through mod­er­ate ex­er­cise,” says McKeever, cit­ing a study he did on the ef­fects of train­ing on young, ma­ture and geri­atric horses. By mea­sur­ing body com­po­si­tion us­ing ul­tra­sound in each group, he found that train­ing re­stored mus­cle mass in the older horses to a greater per­cent­age than in the young and ma­ture groups.

Still, McKeever cau­tions that for older horses es­pe­cially, it’s im­por­tant to avoid overex­er­tion. One rea­son is the aged horse’s de­clin­ing lev­els of cor­ti­sol, the so-called stress hor­mone that helps reg­u­late meta­bolic func­tion.

“We find that the cor­ti­sol re­sponse to acute ex­er­cise is blunted in the older horses, and that’s go­ing to af­fect how well the horse re­sponds to stress, like ex­er­cise,” he says.

Another rea­son, says McKeever, is that the ther­moreg­u­la­tion sys­tem in the horses changes with age, which of­ten means their plasma vol­ume might not be ad­e­quate to main­tain car­dio­vas­cu­lar func­tion along with serv­ing as a fluid re­serve for the sweat­ing needed for

cool­ing dur­ing ex­er­cise. When con­di­tion­ing a horse past the age of 20, he says, it’s im­por­tant to keep him cool and well hy­drated at all times to avoid over­heat­ing.

Many older com­peti­tors will bring into their new ca­reers in­juries from their days on the track or in the per­for­mance arena. If a horse has been a jumper since his early days, or a rein­ing horse has spent a lifetime do­ing slid­ing stops, spe­cific med­i­ca­tions or ther­a­pies may be needed to pre­serve sound­ness. At the other ex­treme, a long­time brood­mare will ben­e­fit from a more grad­ual ex­er­cise reg­i­men to pre­pare her for a more ac­tive life­style. And once the older horse has been ad­e­quately con­di­tioned for his new job, it’s ad­vis­able to keep him fit dur­ing any off-sea­son to avoid the risk of sprains and tears and sore­ness that can oc­cur when com­ing back after a lay­off.

Both McKeever and Mali­nowski sug­gest mon­i­tor­ing heart rate, res­pi­ra­tion, tem­per­a­ture and other vi­tal signs when con­di­tion­ing the el­derly horse, and to watch for ex­ces­sive or in­ad­e­quate sweat­ing. Sup­ple­ment­ing with glu­cosamine0 and chon­droitin0 to support joint health and tak­ing spe­cial care to warm up the older guy be­fore gal­lop­ing around the arena are just a cou­ple of the com­mon­sense habits worth prac­tic­ing.

“The key is to be care­ful and mod­er­ate about things and un­der­stand that the older horse won’t adapt as read­ily as the younger horse,” says McKeever.

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