EQUUS - - Career Chances For Older Horses -

Horses, like peo­ple, tend to mel­low with age, which can mean a job that was out of the ques­tion when the horse was a bun­dle of en­ergy at 8 could very well be ideal for the same horse when he is 20 years old. Ex­pe­ri­ence in the show ring, around crowds and with a myr­iad of sit­u­a­tions en­coun­tered dur­ing a long life all help make a horse adapt­able to a new job and sur­round­ings. Even so, it’s im­por­tant to pre­pare the older horse for change.

Mali­nowski and her col­leagues mon­i­tored the cor­ti­sol lev­els---which tend to rise in re­sponse to stress---of 36 show horses in four dif­fer­ent set­tings: at the barn, when they ar­rived at the show, in their show stalls be­fore com­pe­ti­tion and fi­nally, the minute they came off the course. Pre­dictably, the more pre­pared and ex­pe­ri­enced show horses had lower cor­ti­sol lev­els at the event it­self com­pared to the less ex­pe­ri­enced horses.

To help the horse make the men­tal shift into a new ca­reer, Mali­nowski ad­vises con­tin­u­ing his fa­mil­iar ac­tiv­i­ties ---such as do­ing a few rou­tine ex­er­cises in the arena or at­tend­ing fa­mil­iar com­pe­ti­tions, if only as a spec­ta­tor, at least once a week---and watch­ing for warn­ing signs for at least two weeks be­fore de­cid­ing if the new ca­reer is a good match. “In many cases the nov­elty of a new en­vi­ron­ment might ac­tu­ally be more stress­ful to the horse than the ac­tual ca­reer change, which is why you want to give him time to set­tle in be­fore mak­ing a decision,” she says.

A horse who spooks more than usual, seems lethar­gic or goes off his feed might be sig­nal­ing that he is hav­ing a hard time mak­ing the tran­si­tion from his old job to his new one. And keep in mind that some horses un­der a great deal of stress don’t give off any warn­ings. This is likely to be the horse who seems to take change in stride, but in re­al­ity has no way of ex­press­ing stress, ac­cord­ing to Mali­nowski.

When com­par­ing cor­ti­sol lev­els in horses at home and in higher stress ar­eas such as the per­for­mance arena, she was sur­prised to find that the ther­a­peu­tic-rid­ing horses showed the most stress of all the horse groups. Even more sur­pris­ing: The horses sam­pled for the stress test had been in the ther­a­peu­tic pro­gram for years. “Based on their cor­ti­sol con­cen­tra­tions, their stress was through the roof,” says Mali­nowski, who sus­pects th­ese horses in­ter­nal­ize stress more than a horse who prances or is gen­er­ally ner­vous.

For­tu­nately, the re­search also sug­gests an an­ti­dote of sorts for this type of stress: phys­i­cal ex­er­tion. “It’s tempt­ing to over­look ex­er­cise for the older horse, but in many cases that might be the best way for him to work off any anx­i­ety he might be hav­ing in a change sit­u­a­tion,” Mali­nowski says.

All the more rea­son to keep your se­nior horse ac­tive, even if it means mov­ing him through a suc­ces­sion of new ca­reers as the years go by.

A sport or ac­tiv­ity that was out of the ques­tion when a horse was young may be ideal for him after he has mel­lowed with age.

ELIXIR: One of the best ways of re­duc­ing a horse’s stress lev­els is to en­sure that he re­ceives ad­e­quate ex­er­cise.

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