Longevity…according to TheHorse.com

Once again, that illustrious online publication theHorse.com has come up with a somewhat dubious article. Acknowledged, it is something of a summary of opinions expressed by typical equine veterinary surgeons. The main objective of this analysis is to show how far behind reality the veterinary community actually is and how publications like TheHorse.com perpetuate the situation.

Furthermore, the title of this article is quite incorrect. What is actually meant is life-expectancy, which is the average actual lifespan of a species rather than longevity which is the biological possible lifespan of a species. Longevity is more or less fixed and is not specifically affected by averages. The longevity of the horse is around 50 years. Life-expectancy, on the other hand, is particularly dependent upon environmental factors.
Equine life-expectancy varies from country to country, and even from region to region. In France, fairly recent figures showed a life-expectancy of ±8.7 years; in the Netherlands, a country generally regarded as being more horse friendly than France, the figure was a staggering 7.9 years. These are figures from the respective official bodies, the Haras Nationaux and the KNHS; unfortunately, due to the poorly managed registration of horses, figures are not available for the UK but do not think for a minute that they will be much better than France and the Netherlands.
And many will argue that they know of a horse or horses well into their thirties...but think of it this way, how many horses do you not know that didn't even get to their teens...? And the figures given do not refer to horses destined for the meat trade.

The original publication, The Price of Longevity: Senior Horse Health Needs was posted by Sarah Evers Conrad on 19 October 2019. To effect a clear analysis of the article, it has been copied verbatim; original article copyright remains with the original publishers and authors.

Owning a horse over his lifetime can be rewarding, but be prepared for specific costs related to his care

In barns across America horse owners are talking about their senior horses. They’re posting photos of them on social media platforms and asking questions about their care in online forums. Meanwhile, veterinarians are noticing an increase in senior patients in their practices, and researchers are discovering an upward trend in senior horse population numbers.

With all the old horses out there, it’s important to recognize the financial obligation involved with owning one, because, as horses age, health care needs and their cost can increase depending on what conditions arise. Armed with an understanding of the array of health problems that can crop up and how to monitor for and manage them, owners can mitigate the costs and enjoy their senior horses well into their golden years.

In this article we’ll review senior horse research studies and hear from veterinarians about what conditions these horses face and how husbandry requirements change across their life span.

There is little to add or comment upon here; the scene is simply being set. However, the second paragraph does rankle a bit given the assumption that health problems will arise and need managing; the preference surely would be to avoid provoking these problems in the first place

Defining Old Age

First things first: What is a senior horse? Mary Rose Paradis, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, associate professor emerita at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, in North Grafton, Massachusetts, says researchers around the world disagree on the age a horse is considered old.

Various researchers in England and Australia have completed studies with senior horses starting at age 15, while others have used horses age 20 and older.

Paradis has been studying younger horses and comparing their health data to that of older horses, looking for trends in disease progression. In one of her studies she surveyed U.S. owners, asking them when they thought their horses were starting to show signs of aging—the average response was 23. Researchers in England and Australia reported seeing early degenerative changes most frequently around 18 to 19 in some, but not all, study horses.

As a guideline, Paradis suggests considering your horse aging around 18 to 20 years and having your veterinarian get health baselines for future reference.

First things first: indeed, what is a senior horse? As Paradis explains, there is no consensus among researchers with some, but clearly not all, English and Australian studies considering 15 the starting point.

Paradis is said to have been comparing younger and older horse health data but no mention is made of what even she considers –or has studied– as ‘younger’ or ‘older’.

Interesting to note that her survey of owners brought up an average age of 23 while English and Australian research showed frequent degeneration at 18 to 19…but what is missing here is a reference to the management schemes in place. Horse management, that covers everything from weaning, age broken in and work regime to stabling, feeding practices and farriery. All these factors can have an important influence upon the ageing of a horse–and also its life-expectancy.

Paradis herself suggests between 18 and 20… which is like telling a 35 year-old human that he's past it !

Are Horses Living Longer?

Paradis looked at age demographics in a 2003 study she completed with Margaret Brosnahan, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, a clinical assistant professor at Midwestern University, in Glendale, Arizona. They found that the percentage of horses older than 20 in the university’s annual caseload increased from 2.2% in 1989 to 12.5% in 1999—an almost sixfold increase over a decade.

While Paradis studies horses within a hospital setting, the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) surveys horse owners, industry stakeholders, and government officials periodically to gain an overview of the horse industry based on responses from farm owners with more than five horses. Paradis says NAHMS results likely underestimate older horse numbers because many retired horses live on smaller farms.

In its 1998 study the NAHMS program unit found that 7.5% of U.S. horses were 20 or older, while in 2015 it found that 11.4% of U.S. horses were 20 or older. Of that 11.4%, 1.5% were 30 or older. This could lead to today’s supposition that horses are living longer.   

It is indeed quite possible, even probable, that horses are living longer. Nevertheless, the figures reported are not clearly analysed. When changing attitudes to horses are taken into consideration, added to the advances in equine medical care and treatment, there is a logic behind this greater life-expectancy

Injured horses are less rapidly sent to the abattoir but rather undergo clinical and or medical treatment. Frequently to their detriment, it must be said, since the aim often is to get the horse ridden again as quickly as possible rather than to effect a proper and complete recovery.

Many common health issues are treatable these days, and, with more and more people indeed treating these issues, the price of treatment is somewhat reduced relatively when compared with a few years ago. Also, fewer people accept simply dumping a horse that is no longer (deemed) capable of working; an increasing number of riding-centre animals and even racehorses is being adopted upon their retirement. In the affluent 90s and 2000s particularly, people were more able to afford to do this; however, we are currently seeing a trend where the reverse is happening with numerous owners experiencing economical uncertainty and an increasing number of horses being put down. Will this show a new trend downwards in the life-expectancy of the horse?

Leading Senior Horse Health Issues

When we think about the top senior horse health problems, we need to consider whether a condition is truly one of only older horses or whether it’s a disease that has worsened over time and appears more prominently in old age.

“I think the biggest health issue is the fact that we hardly ever see one thing in isolation,” says Ann Dwyer, DVM, a private equine practitioner at Genesee Valley Equine Clinic, in Scottsville, New York. “When you are older, every single system in your body has undergone the changes that the years bring.”

Paradis says older horses are usually seen for veterinary care because of the gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and respiratory systems.

The comments are essentially clear and well argued. We do indeed need to consider whether the horse has seen a recent onset of a disease or whether it is a slow degeneration more marked with age; life itself wears the body. Nevertheless, the last sentence can be seen as somewhat superfluous (or could be better explained). A major part of veterinary care for horses of any age is related to musculoskeletal problems, often due to questionable management and/or riding practices. For the other disorders, there is a clear logic in these reasons [for seeking veterinary care]: the horses are (considered) older and thus work less or not at all. They may be less likely to have the acute traumas associated with the active worked horse but they have probably suffered from mismanagement for a much greater length of time and are now paying for it.

Endocrine Issues

Paradis says the disease most commonly associated with old age in the horse is pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), commonly known as equine Cushing’s disease. While horses as young as 5-7 can have PPID, she says a large percentage of senior horses develop it, as risk increases with age. This incurable but treatable disorder of the pituitary gland’s pars intermedia is characterized by excessive hair coat, delayed shedding, muscle wasting, abnormal fat distribution, laminitis, recurrent infections, and more.

PPID (equine Cushing’s disease) is indeed a disease associated primarily with the older horse. What is not discussed is why PPID is notable in the senior horse and why the risk –supposedly– increases with age. There is only talk of treatment (there is no cure) but none of prevention.

Musculoskeletal Issues

Dwyer sees many musculoskeletal conditions in older horses, usually from a combination of arthritis and soft tissue diseases such as tendonitis or desmitis (tendon or ligament inflammation, respectively).

Musculoskeletal problems were the second-most-common problem reported in the Brosnahan study. Of the horses seen by university veterinarians for lameness, 37.5% had the hoof disease laminitis (mostly secondary to PPID, she says), while 55% had lameness classified as degenerative disease.

Paradis says some older horses might experience progressive degeneration of the suspensory ligaments (which attach at the top/back of the cannon bone, split two-thirds of the way down the cannon, and attached to the sesamoids) in the hind limbs or be predisposed to osteochondral disease caused by stiff and brittle cartilage.

While it is true that little can be done for a genetic predisposition towards certain diseases, such as brittle cartilage and possibly desmitis, there is much that can be done to prevent the (early) onset of many conditions. Arthritis and tendinitis [sic], for example, although not entirely avoidable, are very frequently a combined result of working practices and farriery.

Gastrointestinal Issues

“Colic is always a big fear for the (owner of the) older horse,” says Paradis, who says 44% of small intestine problems found in her senior horse research were due to lipomas.

Dwyer sees many of these strangulating fatty tumors, which wrap around the small intestine and cut off circulation or cause an obstruction. She calls pedunculated lipomas (benign fatty masses originating from the mesentery, a membrane that supplies blood to the intestines and connects them to the body walls) one of the two most common life-threatening or -ending emergencies she sees in older horses. The other is severe arthritis in the spine or other skeletal region, which can prevent a horse from rising.

Colic is a big fear for ANY horse owner…any horse of any age can have gastrointestinal problems (colic is a non-medical umbrella term for any problem of the digestive system). Like musculoskeletal issues, it is not always avoidable but is often related to management and working practices.

Dental Issues

In 2012 British researchers found that 95% of horses over 15 years of age have dental abnormalities; however, owners surveyed in that study reported that only 10% of the horses had dental disease.

These conditions include a smooth mouth (where the teeth are worn down to root level), wave mouth (unven wearing of the cheek teeth), step mouth (where one tooth is missing and the opposing tooth is overgrown), hooks (sharp points), shear mouth (malocclusion—when the jaws and teeth don’t align—producing marked enamel pointing), and equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis (EOTRH).

Dwyer says she’s concerned about the rise of EOTRH, which is a painful disease of the incisor and canine teeth. It often requires surgical extraction of multiple teeth to restore a horse’s comfort.

Paradis says dental disease probably plays a large role in the incidence of large colon impaction and esophageal choke in older horses. Dental issues often prevent horses from chewing and digesting feed properly, which can lead to these and other conditions, along with weight loss.

Again little surprise here. Although the actual demographics are not mentioned, despite their likely having a profound effect on the overall results, it can be reasonably postulated that the majority of horses surveyed is going to be those kept under traditional conditions and following traditional regimes. Once again, there is no mention of causes and, even more disturbingly, no mention of prevention.

Eye Issues

Two ocular conditions that are part of the eye’s normal aging process are cataracts and senile retinopathy (age-related retina damage), says Fernando Malalana, DVM, Dipl. ECEIM, FHEA, MRCVS, RCVS, European specialist in equine internal medicine at the University of Liverpool Equine Hospital, in England. However, other eye conditions relate to a lifetime of accumulated damage from ongoing inflammation inside the eye, he says. Some can be halted if owners pick up on signs early and seek proper treatment. Other conditions, such as recurrent uveitis or glaucoma, might progress to the point horses need long-term medication and/or surgery.

Dwyer estimates that 1-2% of her practice population loses vision in one or both eyes at some point. “By the time you get to an old horse population, you’re going to see a lot of blind or partially blind older horses,” she says. “But now a lot more people are maintaining blind horses, and many of those horses still have productive lives.”

No particular comment here. There is always going to be a chance of ocular degeneration with age and this is generally unavoidable. However, it would have been worth noting in the article that Appaloosa horses carry a genetic deviation which can often lead to the (early) onset of equine recurring uveitis (ERU) –sometimes known as  recurrent iridocyclitis or moon blindness.

Heart Issues

Paradis says it’s important for veterinarians to auscultate (listen with a stethoscope) the heart because older horses can develop heart murmurs if the aortic valve becomes leaky with age.

Dwyer also says it’s extremely common to find heart murmurs in aged horses but, in her experience, it’s rare for them to be of clinical concern. However, if she observes clinical signs such as a cough, unusual swelling, or exercise intolerance in these horses, she refers them to an equine cardiologist for a workup.

Leaky valves, whether in humans, horses, cats or cars, are a sign of advancing years. As the article states, there is little issue here but in occasional cases it can be of greater concern. Nevertheless, an overworked heart is also more likely to show earlier signs of problems. And this is something that can be prevented or at least slowed down.

Respiratory Issues

When Paradis studied respiratory issues among horses of all ages, she found no difference in their pulmonary function or in lung fluid cytology (microscopic examination of sampled cells), meaning respiratory issues in older horses are not a result of aging lungs.

“If your older horse is having breathing problems, it’s probably due to disease, not just because he is old,” she says. “If you have an older horse with a cough or increased respiratory rate, it’s probably because they have inflammatory airway disease (IAD, a mild condition usually seen in younger equine athletes), and you can treat that. Whereas if it was an aging change, as the lungs started to get worse, there would be nothing you could do.”

Dwyer adds that heaves (now known as equine asthma, a more severe, chronic condition than IAD) might become worse in affected horses as they age.

While the ageing of lungs does not present a problem, it is clear that there are diseases which can. And as with many diseases, they are often preventable –or at least, avoidable– by simple management expedients. But again, no mention…

Cancer

Dwyer says cancer is rarer in horses than in dogs or people. However, she says melanomas that began in middle age (around 14-15 years old) might multiply or expand, causing obstructions that create serious issues such as hindered defecation. In addition, she sees squamous cell carcinomas of the penis in older males. 

‘Rarer…than in dogs or people’ but no mention of the clinically known fact that grey horses are more likely to develop melanomas than other colours.

There may be environmental factors at play here but unlike most other diseases, there is little we can do to prevent the onset of cancer. No further comment.

What’s Involved in Senior Horse Care

Dwyer recommends owners help all horses live healthy lives, which includes designing diets to maintain proper weight. Owners should also schedule regular veterinary examinations that encompass all body systems. If veterinarians detect anything during an examination, owners can monitor or take steps to deal with the problem early on, says Dwyer.

This annual or biannual visit might include a sedated dental exam using a speculum; an eye exam; and geriatric blood screening, which could include a complete blood cell count and chemistry profile and/or tests for PPID.

The most commonly used tests for diagnosing and/or monitoring PPID include those for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH, excessive levels of which can lead to PPID) and insulin levels. Insulin resistance—a decrease in tissue sensitivity to insulin—occurs in about one-third of PPID cases and increases risk for developing laminitis. Veterinarians might also perform an oral sugar test or the combined glucose-insulin test (CGIT) and, less frequently, the overnight dexamethasone suppression test (ODST).

“Blood testing, the type that we’re recommending, is not prohibitively expensive,” says Dwyer, adding that even though your veterinarian might recommend a variety of endocrine tests, individually they are relatively affordable.

Malalana also recommends scheduling at least one detailed eye examination a year to look for inflammatory conditions. “I would also advise owners to contact their vet immediately if they notice any ocular pain or ocular discharge,” he says. “Our research has suggested that eye discharge may be the only sign owners may notice when there is, in fact, something more serious going on with the eye.”

Paradis found during one survey that 10% of participants were still competing with 20-plus-year-old horses. “If you are going to compete an older horse,” says Paradis, “you need to think about the training. If they’ve been laid off, it’s going to take longer to get them to fitness than it would a younger horse.”

She also cautions against using senior horses as weekend warriors—riding them hard one day and then laying them up all week. “You want to make sure they are doing something every day,” she says.

Older horses that have problems chewing or digesting feed might need dietary changes. It’s important to work with your veterinarian because each horse has his own nutritional needs, especially if he has endocrine issues, an inability to maintain weight secondary to a disease, or an increased risk of laminitis.

Horse owners must be prepared to spend money on medication. In the Brosnahan study owners reported that 25% of old horses versus 6% of young horses were on regular medications. These were either for pain relief, recurrent airway obstruction, or PPID.

Brosnahan found that more than half of the older horses examined were also on a supplement, with 66% receiving a general vitamin/mineral supplement and 47% receiving a joint care supplement.

Many owners also find chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, and massage therapy to be helpful for managing various older horse conditions, says Paradis.

Realize that expenses can change as the horse ages. “The feed costs may change because processed foods for digestion are more expensive than less processed foods,” says Dwyer, referring to senior feeds on the market. “Sometimes farrier costs decrease slightly as horses go from being active competitors, where they need special shoes, to more barefoot management. What will go up will be oral care.”

The recommendation by Dwyer is somewhat laughable. For a start, ‘designing diets to maintain proper weight’ is a nonsense. It is principally because of ‘designed diets’ that horses have so many problems.

Paradis' contention that ‘you need to think about the training’ if you are going to compete with a senior is also a proved nonsense. As explained by Patrick Galloux in an IFCE web conference in February 2019, the horse –even if it has done little or nothing in 5 months– is capable of giving almost full capacity very rapidly, even at 25 years of age. If it cannot, then we should be examining its management…

The ‘weekend warrior’ comment sums it all up, actually. This is the life of many horses, of all ages.

An interesting point regarding medication is that Brosnahan reported 6% of young horses on medication...that is actually a lot. Maybe we should be asking why so many young horses; it could also explain part of the 25% of older horses. But again, just when do we consider we are medicating an 'older' horse, and what are we treating?

There may –possibly– be some advantage in giving joint supplements such as MSM but their efficacy is not always clear. However, the main question here is why 66% feel the need to supplement vitamins and minerals? And were they doing this before they considered their horse to be older? Many people feed supplements because they are duped into believing they are necessary –often by other owners who in their turn have been duped...– without any proper understanding.

Agreed, manual therapies can help. They can help the younger horse too, especially given the general living and working conditions often encountered.

With correct management, expenses should little change as the horse ages. Senior feeds do indeed cost more - but, as with all commercial feeds, are completely unnecessary. If your farrier costs decrease, they will most likely be compensated for by the medication needed to treat the disorders resulting from having been shod. And oral care will only increase noticeably if the horse has not seen a dentist while being mismanaged most of its younger life.

In Summary

Dwyer sums up her senior horse care advice with the main thing she says owners need to think about: “If you are going to keep your horse into old age, be aware that old age can go well into the 30s,” she says. “No one can predict which issues that particular horse is going to have, but every geriatric horse is going to have some issues. Whatever those issues are, they will bring some expense over and above the normal husbandry costs.”

‘…old age can go well into the 30s’. In a healthy horse it should go well into the 30s. ‘No one can predict which issues that particular horse is going to have…’; no they can’t, but they can do their best to avoid these issues occurring in the first place.

Conclusion

This is a very typical theHorse.com article drawing at times on what appears to be incomplete, possibly biased, unparameterised research, drawing no proper conclusion, suggesting no general improvement in equine welfare...

So what should we have learned from this research and particularly from this article?

  • Many problems associated with ageing can be prevented, or at least, minimalized, during the whole lifetime of the horse, rather than being treated when it is too late
  • There is no accepted point at which a horse is considered old : for the insurance, it is often 17 years; many people consider around 18 to 20 - and this would tie in with the anticipated death of the horse between 25 and 30. And yet the horse has a greater longevity than man. Man's life-expectance has gone through the roof thanks to medical care, whereas the horse has suffered. Human longevity is actually somewhere between 27 and 37 years while that of the horse is nearer 47. So why is man living almost three times his longevity and the horse about half of his?
  • As stated in the assessment, changes in perception and attitudes, aided by medical advances and individual prosperity, have changed our approach to the older, 'less productive' horse. Whereas in the past, an unused horse was of no use and disposed of, it has now become a companion - but for how long? There is a clear downturn in financial affairs for the less monied horse owner and an ever increasing stream of horses is waiting to be disposed of.
  • Much of the wear and tear shown in later life can be traced back to misuse early on. How things stand up in later years will reflect on how you treated your horse, car or yourself when young. A car can be run for twenty or thirty years with careful attention - but the cars that ran the RAC Rally in the early eighties saw four years wear in as many days... The rugby player who always comes crashing down on the same hip during tackles will, likely as not, be facing a hip replacement in later years. And the horse shod and driven in incorrect gaits over inappropriate surfaces will pay with arthritis, tendinitis and other such debilitating conditions later in life.
  • PPID (Cushing's disease) is NOT a disease of old age, as is so often intimated. It is a disease of luxury and mismanagement. It is a disease brought on by feeding inappropriately for an extended period of time. The horse is a herbivore, not a granivore. Its digestive system is not intended to be fed grain and cereals which cause destructive changes in the intestines and ultimately in the whole metabolism. The reason the horse was traditionally fed grain was a question of army logistics :  it was not possible to transport sufficient quantities of hay to feed the horses; grain, on the other hand, was more concentrated so less was needed. The side effects of colic and such were of no consequence to an army; a horse that could not be ridden was good to eat and another horse could easily be requisitioned. Today, the horse is no longer a war horse and has no need of grain. Some believe that the horse needs grain and cereals for energy; in fact, feeding grain actually reduces the horse's stamina.
    Obesity, although not the exclusive cause, certainly has its role to play in PPID. Many an obese horse ends up with the disease. The problem is again mismanagement; the horse that is overfed, usually in winter, because he seems to be losing weight. Owners rarely realise that the horse should lose weight in winter because that is why he put on weight in the summer...
  • Another tradition that has its origins in the military is the horseshoe. Again, the horse today has no need of horseshoes. The horseshoe was needed essentially because the horse was stabled and, standing in its own excreta, the condition of the hoofs deteriorated to the point of atrocity. At this point, someone had the bright idea to put shoes on the hoofs lifting the now sensitive sole and frog off the ground. The exteroceptive action of the bottom of the foot was removed from the equation and suddenly, the horse could walk again - and how? He could even gallop over stony tracks...bonus point! Except the excess weight of the shoe puts the whole tendinous chain out of balance and increases the forces on the joints – we note this in the oft heard clack of the rear hoofs tapping against the front ones at speed. The upshot is navicular disease, arthritis, tendinitis, demitis, even laminitis. It can mean the growth of bony spurs and the ossification of joints. It can mean early death. Not a problem for an army, as noted under PPID. But for the average horse owner, it is surely not the idea.
    An unshod horse is unrivalled when it comes to crossing difficult terrain. Its only handicap is its rider. The horse makes use of exteroception –sensing what is under its feet, essentially– to keep itself safe. The horse has built in ABS and Dynamic Stability Control, except it works a thousand times faster than in your car; put shoes on your horse and it is almost like putting skis under your car. You are kitted out with all the latest technology but you have isolated it from that what it is supposed to be sensing. The unshod horse can feel when it is safe to gallop, when it needs to go carefully, where exactly to put which foot when it starts to slip...
  • All owners fear colic. And colic is one of those things that can attack any horse. Nevertheless, there are situations which exacerbate the possibility of a colic attack. Incorrect feed is one : the intestines of the horse should never be empty; feeding grain can easily lead to emptying of the intestine by giving the impression of –temporary– fullness but is flushed through the system too rapidly. Horses are often deprived of food before work on the incorrect assumption that it causes colic; in fact the reverse is more likely. An additional problem associated with working on an empty stomach is ulcers.
    When the intestines are empty, the chances of a torsion are increased since they lose some of their form. Impaction can also be a problem; this is usually associated with eating straw. Horses that are incorrectly fed and do not have unhindered access to hay or grasses will eat the straw litter in their stall. But even hay can cause an impaction if the horse has been starved of roughage for any period of time.
    Repeated inappropriate feeding through the years can result in a greatly heightened risk of colic but in all likelihood, an older horse with colic is likely to have already had a few bouts earlier in life. There is absolutely no reason why specifically older horses should get colic.
  • Dental issues are generally yet another result of mismanagement. While it is true that certain breeds, particularly the small ponies, the miniature horses and the Arabs, have unfortunately small mouths and are more susceptible to dental issues, the majority of issues is down to inappropriate feed. A horse fed on cereals does not use its teeth enough to grind its food, even when it chews hay. Once again, the horse is not a granivore. If you ensure that your horse is out to pasture 24/7 –with hay when there is not enough grass– then he will be well fed and his teeth will be good for life; they will wear as they should, they will not risk being over-floated resulting in increased eruption of the tooth (horse's teeth do not grow, they erupt, or are expelled, from the dental cavity as they wear), leading ultimately to premature loss. In theory, a horse will start the process of losing teeth somewhere between 35 and 40 years but should always retain a fair proportion of its dentition up to the age of 45.
  • As said, eye issues in later life are always a possibility with Equine Recurring Uveitis being particularly applicable to Appaloosas, even when young.
  • Generally, the older the heart gets, the squeakier it gets. And some heart issues may well be genetic. But we must be aware that even the heart can be overstressed to the point that it can present problems in later life. The horse is equipped with a large, slow beating organ which has the reputation of being one of, if not the, fastest accelerating heart rates of all mammals. When the horse takes off at a gallop, the heart goes into action; but it is actually intended to be aided by the feet. Each of the hoofs works as a small auxiliary pump, actuated by the hoof mechanism — the expansion and contraction of the hoof capsule with every step. The shod horse is severely handicapped in this mechanism. By almost removing all contact of the hoof with the ground, the frog frequently atrophies and what little remains has not much chance of doing any work since the shoe restricts movement of the hoof wall. The result is that the heart is not getting the assistance it is intended to have and must work harder; it also logically results in a loss of stamina.
  • Almost all the horses we come across with respiratory problems, can lay the blame on mismanagement. That is not to say the owner is blatantly ill-treating his charge; quite often, he is over-protecting. A horse kept in a building is always at risk since there is always going to be dust, be it from skin, hay, straw or pellets. And this dust often carries mites with it — all of which is highly irritating. Similarly the horses feeding outside from a covered hay feeder are going to be putting their noses into dusty, possibly mite infested hay. In both cases, the solution is simple : take away the protection. Put the horse outside where he belongs; uncover the hay bale and leave it in the open in the middle of the field. Avoiding problems like this early on, will go to helping avoid them later too. A problem developed young can easily become chronic if not addressed quickly. And a horse growing towards old age with an underlying, potentially chronic, problem is going to suffer soonest.
  • Cancer is indeed rare, but if you have a grey horse, expect to come across a melanoma one day. Like ERU in the Appaloosa, this seems to be the congenital disorder of the grey horse. Obviously other breeds/colours can also be affected - your mileage may vary. Environmental factors may also be at play but air/grass/waterborne causes are often going to be difficult to track down and identify. Nevertheless, this does not mean we cannot do our bit to avoid as many problems as possible. Correct feed is one of the absolute essentials in good health. And good feed is not commercial, is not supplements and complements. Good feed is simply the grass, weeds and shrubs found in your field...nothing more, nothing less. In times of shortage, quality hay is sufficient.
    As in PPID, obesity is another possible factor in cancer. The obese horse has a system overload. We like our horses to be full and rounded but a well built, properly muscled horse is not round. A horse at the right weight will show a vague outline of its ribs and be slightly hollow ahead of the hip bones. It will have a flat croup, sloping down to the root of the tail.
  • Designer diets and supplements are more of a danger to the horse than an aid. In almost every single case, a designer diet is not adapted to the horse's actual needs (it contains cereals and sugars). Supplements are possibly even more dangerous. Without knowing exactly what is missing and what is in excess, trying to 'balance' your horse's intake will, more likely than, not throw it completely off balance. There is a tendency to believe that what doesn't help, doesn't actually harm, but with minerals and trace elements, this is just not true. They work together : too much of one can completely inhibit the actions of another (iron is a typical case in point - any iron in the horse's diet will immediately hinder the uptake of essential zinc and copper). To repeat, grass, weeds, shrub and where necessary, hay. That is all the horse needs.
  • It is a proved fact that the horse maintains its level of fitness far longer and far better than we do. If we spend a month lounging in front of the TV and then try to do a week of thirty kilometre mountain hikes, we will probably not get to the end of the second day. The horse can be relatively idle for five months and then set off on a week of thirty kilometre mountain hikes at the end of which, he will be in condition to do it all over again –just faster! Where the article is right, is the 'weekend warrior' idea, the horse stabled six days a week and then being ridden hard on the seventh. But the horse should never be stabled. It should be out in the field, all day and every day. With companions, spurring each other on, playing, running. Keeping fit. That is the secret of the active horse.
  • That old age can go on into the thirties, there is no doubt. Even Red Rum got to 30. But with the right management, correct feeding, no shoeing, not being ridden before 5 ½ years, 100% outdoor life with adequate space and shared with a number of other horses, almost every horse should have no trouble going on into its thirties – and not cost the earth at the same time.

Surprise surprise…

This was the headline of an article in the British (online) magazine Horse and Hound last week. It was tagged ‘Overweight horses‘.This study was carried out by the veterinary and agricultural science faculty at the University of Melbourne, Australia on a mere twenty-four horses. Such a small sample is in itself totally inadequate for any truly conclusive study, but such is the trend these days. Although there was a variation in exercise — one group did not work; the others, 15 minutes  “brisk trot”, with five minutes’ walking before and afterwards, five days per week for 12 weeks — there was no diet control group : all the horses were being fed identically.

Considering the study was particularly aimed at the obese horse with restricted diet, we see –once again– the veterinary world trying to accommodate rather than eliminate a serious problem. The main reasons for obesity in horses are the same reasons for obesity in humans : primarily lack of exercise followed by a poorly adapted diet.

The systematic incarceration during the winter combined with commercial feed is sufficient to raise, or at least maintain, the level of insulin resistance. Exposure to sugar-rich grass in the early spring will push the level of insulin resistance higher often resulting in laminitis, at times extremely serious. 

 

Grazing horse

In order to break this cycle, the horse needs to have a naturally restricted diet — that means free access but to less rich food — which will decrease the level of insulin resistance sufficiently to remove the dangers associated with young spring grass. Typically such a diet is winter grasses and in their absence, hay. This does not mean alfalfa (lucerne), soya bean meal or anything similar. In the majority of cases there is also absolutely no reason for giving supplements either. All the horse needs can almost always be found in the field; be aware that minerals must be balanced. Although the supplement itself may apparently be balanced, it does not take into account in any way the living environment of the individual horse. However, the horse itself will frequently be able to balance its requirements if it has sufficient access to natural foodstuffs.

Another Horse and Hound article this week reference a fight against colic. The British Horse Society — an organization like many such similar bodies, not exactly the most exemplary in true equine welfare — is joining up with the University of Nottingham (UK) for their first colic awareness week.

Unsurprisingly, many owners — more than 90% surveyed, according to the article — are incapable of spotting the early signs of colic. The BHS website colic page is amazingly poor. It mentions that “…many years of research and development of new methods of diagnosing and treating colic…” whereas in reality ‘colic’ is a generic name for any intestinal problem, from blockage due to impaction of something ingested to a twisted bowel. There is also reference to REACT, the acronym that can be used to identify potential colic, but anything else requires watching the videos or requesting the information pack.

In fact, the videos add nothing new, either. They merely promote REACT and talk about ‘having a plan’ — basically what do you do at 2 o’clock in the morning and do you envisage being able to pay £5000+ for colic surgery…

Two important things are missing from both the video and the webpage. In the video there is mention of knowing your horse and of TPR –a subject missing on the webpage– explaining that to be able to identify the signs better, you should be aware of what is and what is not normal for your horse: TPR should also be an aid in this. TPR is Temperature, Pulse and Respiration; what is not explained, are the normal values. Although there will be some slight variation from individual to individual, when we look at patient for the first time, we know the order of the numbers we are seeing; we know that a horse with 39º is febrile, that if respiration and heartrate at rest are much off 12  and 40 per minute respectively, that something is amiss…But many owners don’t. And it is not always one’s own horse with which one may be confronted. Frequently it is other owners or the yard owner that discover the horse in distress.

The second item missing is probably even more important in the long run: how to minimise the chances of colic. This is a fundamental point, particularly if we want to address the problem effectively. We don’t just want to be able to treat colic; we want to not have to treat it.

We will never be able to eliminate colic completely. It is not like a viral or bacterial infection that can be avoided by vaccination; colic is often an impaction caused by accidental ingestion of a foreign body or torsion, the twisting of the bowel. But we can reduce many of the factors which will contribute to the chances of a colic.

The majority of horses spend at least
half of their lives locked up like this...
  • Incarceration or any restriction of movement does not encourage a good bowel movement (typically in the BHS video, we see the stabled horse – an abomination in itself so much at odds with the BHS ethos of equine welfare)
  • Feeding –or provision of– inappropriate foodstuffs: incarcerated horses rarely have sufficient hay and end up eating their bedding; straw, wood chippings, copra, and such materials are highly dangerous; incorrect feeds such as grains and cereals can contribute similarly
  • Baling twine not properly removed from hay bales can be ingested accidentally; similarly, plastic packaging
  • Rubbish tipped or even just blown into the field

These are just a few of the causes of colic but they are the most prevalent – particularly the first two which are also the two that can be addressed the most easily…

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Safety Shoes and the Toilet

I regularly get asked what is so bad about horseshoes. And why horses are shod, if horseshoes are really so bad.

To answer the first question, the easiest comparison we can make is that of safety shoes. Imagine that, day in, day out, twenty-four hours a day, you were to wear a pair of safety shoes–initially one size too small but after four or five weeks, they are now two sizes too small… Imagine that you had to do everything in those shoes: sleep, walk, run… Imagine that, after six to eight weeks, you could take those shoes off–for ten minutes, before putting on a new pair, again one size too small.

Now, there are sceptics who will say that this is not completely true and that it is different with horses… Yes, indeed, it isn’t completely true because the safety shoe offers some flexibility in the sole that we don’t see in a horseshoe. The safety shoe gives a degree of support over the whole of the underside of the foot, whereas the horseshoe the shifts the point of support to the nail on the outside of the foot–the frog and the sole are excluded from the equation completely. The safety shoe has a rubber sole which will give some shock absorption while the horseshoe doesn’t give until it reaches a temperature of ±600˚C.

The safety shoe is also put on without the application of heat–the majority of horses are hot-shod and the horseshoe is between 600˚C and 800˚C when the fit is checked. The farrier will tell you that this does not hurt the horse–but why does he wear protective gloves and use large tongs to keep the hot shoe at a distance? The farrier is full of contradictions: this apparently doesn’t hurt because the hoof is thick…but the horse cannot go without horseshoes because the hoof is too thin!

Why do we do this then?

Simply because the majority of horses still live in a toilet. In the era of the military horse, in order to be at the ready all of the time, horses were kept in stables–searching for and catching a horse in the field is not conducive to a rapid deployment. But, stabled, they are standing for hours on end in their own excrement–an acidic environment very damaging to the bare hoof. And then some bright spark came up with the idea that a lump of metal under the hoof might help, and so the horseshoe was born. With, as added bonus, the horse no longer felt the ground under its feet and so took no care how or where he walked. Many horses died young through serious injury but for the military, that did not pose a problem; there were always other horses available or they could be appropriated and the dead horse was sent to the canteen to feed the troops.

Meanwhile, the last real war-horses fought their last battles around a century ago and yet we still continue to use horseshoes. The reasons are long forgotten and the military vision of the horse is far behind us–and yet, we still find it necessary to lock our horses up in the toilet and to treat them in a military fashion.

‘But it isn’t as bad as all that…’

What, because the stables are mucked out every day? Just think about it–a horse poos, on average, 10-15 times a day. The number of time is pees is also quite considerable. Mucking out just once a day, even for a horse that spends a couple of hours turned out–and in the winter this is often not allowed–this is simply not enough. And we haven’t even got to the psychological maltreatment that incarceration means.

‘But he’s on horseshoes…’

Have you really not understood a word that has been said? And horseshoes are not the solution for a stabled horse in any case; there will always be muck that gets between the hoof and the horseshoe. Muck that slowly eats away at the hoof wall, muck under the sole, in the grooves at the side of the frog and on the frog itself.

The only place for a horse is outside and the only protection it needs for its feet is the hoof itself. The hoof is to a greater extent self-cleaning, self-regulating–given enough activity–and has been developed over millions of years…unlike the several hundred for the horseshoe.

‘But my horse is a thoroughbred and it is well known that thoroughbreds have poor hoofs…’ Undoubtedly poor breeding management…no? No, the truth is that thoroughbreds, in contrast with ponies, are almost always shod from an early age and so, from an early age, have poor hoofs. Give them the chance and they will improve.

And finally, for those who say their horse really asks to return to the toilet to the stable every evening:

Horses do not ask to go into their stables. Horses are not happier in a stable. That is the human vision of the world (we like a warm, cosy house with a soft bed, therefore so do our pets). ‘But he asks to come in every evening by parading back and forth in the field…’ Study the behaviour of horses (this is called ethology) and you will see that almost all horses start to wander, to parade up and down, to play ‘follow-the-leader’ when evening falls, when the light begins to fail. Even the horses that have never known a stable…

 

 

First published on 2 May 2017 on the Dutch sister site

Locking up your Children

IncarceratedThis week, a study by Nottingham Trent University (UK) reached the mainstream British media. The study told us nothing new – but it did manage, with this media coverage, to suddenly reach a much wider audience. Essentially it was a study into the well-being of horses and the effects of stabling.

The study showed that stabled horses have higher cortisone levels – cortisone is the stress hormone – than horses kept in paddocks and fields and also makes the point that much of our reasoning behind stabling horses is based upon our own human views of comfort and safety. But – probably unsurprisingly – there was immediately a backlash from owners, at least in the MailOnline coverage, that this was all nonsense and their horses positively love to go indoors.

So, is the study bunk, and do our horses “love” their boxes, or has Trent Uni got a point? And what are the ethics –  something neither party has really looked at?

Like the majority of prey animals, horses seek safety in numbers. They form herds to reduce their chances of being singled out and caught by a hunter. But a horse in a stable does not have a “hunter” to single it out so it should be happy alone, right? Wrong! The herd instinct is an evolutionary factor – you don’t breed it out in a few generations. In fact, genetically, the horse today is just about identical to its first domesticated forefather 5,500 years ago. Furthermore, the horse does not have a prefrontal cortex in its brain that allows for reasoning. This means that a horse cannot go into its box thinking “oh, this is safer than out in the field”; in fact, if the horse was capable of reasoning like a human, I for one would not expect it to put up with being locked up for large parts of the day!

So we can agree that the horse is a herd animal and will benefit from some contact with others of its species – “but my horse can see other horses when it is in its box”. Horses may not have the higher reasoning powers of humans but they do have greater sensitivity to each other – and their surroundings – than do humans. Horses don’t just need to see each other, they need to touch, to smell, to groom. Just as we do with good friends. With horses, seeing is NOT believing; proximity, touch, smell, sound are so very important in the equine experience. It is one of the reasons a horse will run if it sees a plastic bag flapping at 500 paces; but introduce the horse to the bag and they could become good friends!

“But he loves his box, he goes in all by himself” – quite possibly true. Firstly, despite being a scaredy pants (see previous paragraph), he is also inquisitive by nature. It is that which gives the horse a successful interspecies relationship with humans. So if the horse is given the possibility to explore in an (apparently) safe environment, it will do so. If the entrance to stalls or boxes is in shadow, the horse will often have much less difficulty in going in than when the entrance is in sunlight – horses have fairly restricted vision, not in peripheral observation but focus and vision upwards and light sensitivity plays a big role too (horses are essentially nocturnal*). The horse will also not see the door and think it is going to be locked up – open is open.
The other – often overlooked – reason why a horse will show willingness to go into a box is addiction and craving. The vast majority of horses that live in a stable are fed commercial food. This contains starches and – despite labelling to the contrary – sugars in very unnatural quantities for the horse. Sugar (of which starch is really just another form) is addictive; a study in 2007, highlighted again last November, showed that sugar is substantially more addictive than cocaine†. Because of this addiction, there is a craving for sugar which the horse may be able to satisfy by going into the box where there is usually another shot.

So, what about the ethics? The majority of owners will say they love their horse and want the best for it – even the major racing trainers and owners, despite the atrocious treatment their horses are actually receiving. Keeping their horse “happy” is often a very large expenditure for the average owner: a good stable, clean bedding, quality food, rugs, blankets, inoculations, regular shoeing… The individual’s attention paid to equine welfare is often far greater than that paid to child welfare. And yet, if we were to treat children as we treat our horses, we would be committing atrocities in our quest to do the right thing. To continue with the analogy: we would be feeding our child Cadbury’s Creme Eggs as its main meal, but only once a week; he would get a lettuce leaf every three days as a snack between “meals”; he would be wearing thermal underwear, an Aran pullover and a duffel coat in the summer; we would make him work delivering newspapers (on foot) from the age of three, all the time with a pencil in his mouth which he could only take out when he was finished; and when he got home, we would lock him in the toilet – which unfortunately, he can’t get to flush – and throw his food in with him.
This may seem an exaggerated analogy but sadly it is not far from the truth, and if it was a child being treated like this, then the social services would be down on the parents like a ton of bricks. And yet for horses, we accept it as “normal” to treat them in this way.

 

* Numerous studies of free-roaming horses have shown greater activity during hours of darkness
† Lenoir, M. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward PLoSOne, 2007, 8 : e698

But…

How often do we hear, or use, this word when talking about horses? Often in the context of knowing something is actually better for the horse but my horse can’t because of all sorts of carefully created and formulated excuses.

I know that roughage is best for horses but my horse needs extra cubes/mix/nuggets etc because…
Barefoot is OK for some horses but my horse couldn’t possibly go barefoot because…
Some horses can stay outdoors all year round but my horse gets bored/gets cold/gets wet/prefers his stall…

And so the excuses proliferate. Where do they actually originate? Sadly, many are the result of peer pressure; in the average riding school there is always a majority of “traditionalists” that considers its knowledge superior to that of specialists. But even this knowledge is often promulgated by small groups of key professionals.

How often does the vet suggest oats and barley and other grain-based foods for sluggish or scrawny horses?
How often does the farrier tell people that their horse will “never again be able to be ridden on the road” if they deshoe?
How often does the trainer advocate Rollkur – or whatever name it carries these days?
When the errors of their ways are pointed out, the main line of defence is BUT… we’ve been doing it for XX years so it must be right…

Well let me put it this way:
Children have been subjected to sexual abuse through the centuries – does that make it acceptable?
Women have been paid less for the same work for decades – does that make it acceptable?
Girls have been circumcised in Africa throughout the ages – does that make it acceptable?
People with disabilities were locked up in lunatic asylums in the past – now we realise there are better ways to help them.
Slavery was rife the world over until the late 19th century – now we condemn societies where it is still practiced.

History does not make something right; nor does peer pressure, nor marketing. We are frequently told that our horses are used differently from many years past – very true – but they are still horses! The evolution of the horse in the 5000 years since domestication is but a fraction of the 5 million years preceding that. Nature got it right!

Rubbish in the Meadow

Ragwort

Ragwort, Tansy [Ragwort] (Western US)

It is vitally important to know what is lying around your horse’s field. Although horses are not stupid and, in general, they don’t eat things they are not supposed to eat (at least, not when they are grazing) there are moments when this can break down.

There is a lot of worry among horse owners about various poisonous plants found around the meadow at different times of the year: certain varieties of nightshade – of which there are more than 2300 species, among which the tomato, potato, aubergine and pepper – are known to be poisonous for horses, as is the ragwort (otherwise amusingly know as mare’s fart!).

black-nightshade

Black Nightshade

Happily for us, our horses will tend to avoid these plants even when they are spread throughout the meadow – although it is not unknown that horses will eat ragwort and other poisonous plants in small amounts as a form of auto therapy. The real problem comes in the winter when the edible plants have all been eaten and all that is left are the poisonous ones.

Then the horses have little choice unless fed plentiful amounts of hay. And here again, one has to be careful that the hay has not been made from grassland with a high density of poisonous plants – when they dry out, horses have more difficulty in identifying them and will eat them up without hesitation.

img_1045

Impacted plastic and fæcal matter

But an even greater threat is possibly the rubbish that we wrap our haylage and silage in. These photos show faecal matter that is compacted with a piece of plastic sheet used for wrapping hay.

img_1047

Impacted plastic and fæcal matter

The mass is sitting on a sheet of standard kitchen roll, to give an idea of scale – but the last photo shows the unravelled plastic with a fountain pen next to it.

img_1049

Unravelled plastic with fountain pen for scale

This plastic is thus big enough to very effectively cause a blockage in the intestinal tract of our horse.

Windchill

For many of us, the weather is rather inclement at the moment. In many parts of Europe snowfall has given a very wintry vista and the wind has also started to get up. The combination of low temperatures and wind has given us a new addition to our vocabulary in the past thirty odd years – Windchill.
What is windchill? Very simply, it is the cooling effect of wind – we notice it on a summer’s day when, despite temperatures in the high 20s, the breeze makes for a slightly more amenable feeling. In the winter we notice it even more – it is the difference between a crisp, windless morning with the temperature around -5˚C and the equally crisp but windy morning with the temperature barely below zero. Despite its higher temperature, the latter is decidedly less pleasant, feeling as if the temperature is closer to -10˚C.
Which is in effect what we are feeling. The wind is drawing the heat off the skin giving the effect of a lower temperature than measured (in fact, air temperature is measured in a Stevenson Screen where the effects of sun and wind are minimized).
There are various tables for actually determining windchill – some don’t go above 4˚C because above that temperature, the dangers of windchill are, to all intents and purposes, nil, although it does not mean the effects aren’t felt. The purpose of this article is not to be able to calculate windchill – there are enough references to be found by Googling – rather to look at the effects in horses.
We have the tendency to look at our pets and make human considerations about their wellbeing. We raise food bowls, we provide soft beds with blankets/straw, we put coats on them, give them clean tapwater etc. And yet, they prefer to drink out of dirty puddles, eat from the ground, roll in the snow and sleep on the hard floor!
So, what about horses and windchill? Well, as far as I know, there has been no direct research into the subject. Nevertheless, it can be very easily concluded that the “feels like” temperatures we are given, cannot be applied to horses. Why not? Simply because the “feels like” temperatures are derived from windchill data and that is based upon temperature loss on exposed skin. And specifically, human skin. Although basically similar, a horse has a much thicker insulating skin than a human and then obviously a much denser coating of hair. The skin alone will make quite a difference to the “feels like” temperature – with the hair on top, the difference is vast.
So next time you think it is too cold for your horse, think again… It probably isn’t!