MANAGING PHYSICAL CHANGE
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.