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…


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.


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.

Should My Horse Exercise on an Empty Stomach?

This is the title of an article in theHorse.com yesterday, 18 March 2019. The question is answered by Clair Thunes PhD, an ‘equine nutritionist’. This qualification is itself very questionable; like the veterinary reliance on the farrier, believing in tradition rather than science, the world of equine nutrition is also one based very much on tradition. Both have a passing acknowledgment of the real science but neither accept it fully. So we still see horses being fed all manner of things rubbish or unnecessary : grains, cereals, molasses, haylage, sugar-beet pulp, alfalfa etc… So what is Thunes’ answer: ‘…veterinarians now generally understand that horses should have some amount of food in their stomach, ideally, at all times. Any veterinary surgeon who DOES NOT know this, is not worth his salt – saying they ‘generally understand’ is a very poor reflection on the veterinary profession –it is not my intention to comment here on the current level of veterinary thinking, rather on the statement.
Grazing horse

Horse grazing on short grass

The author goes on to describe how food protects the stomach, explaining the existence of the protected [lower third] and unprotected [upper two-thirds of the] stomach lining and how the normal food of the horse forms a buffer, preventing stomach acid splashing onto the unprotected lining. She also explains that meal feeds will not create such a buffer.

She explains that ‘after your horse has finished eating, it takes only about 6 hours for the majority of that meal to leave the stomach‘. This is a clear lack of knowledge for an equine nutritionist. Unlike the human stomach, which plays a significant role in the digestion of food, the equine stomach has very little involvement in the actual process of digestion, nor even preparation. The main function of the equine stomach is to act as a sort of ‘holding pen’ for food. The size of the stomach, relative to the size of the animal is one of the determining factors here. For an animal so large, the stomach is of very restricted proportions and cannot contain any notable quantity of food for any significant period of time. This is in fact in keeping with the escape mechanism of the horse. An overfull stomach would be detrimental to any fast action and to this end, the horse is required to eat relatively small quantities regularly.

As a result, the time that the food remains in the horse’s stomach is not 6 hours, it is only thirty minutes. Considerably less than the ‘only six hours’ in the article. If only for this reason alone, horses must have permanent grazing access.

The author rounds up by talking of preventing ulcers. The first sentence begins ‘The best thing you can do when your horse hasn’t eaten for several hours before a ride‘…surely this is closing the gate after the horse has bolted. The fact that the horse has not eaten for several hours means that it is already exposed to the danger of stomach ulcers – recent research has identified that 80 – 85% of horses has stomach ulcers. She goes on to talk about alfalfa being high in calcium (basic) and this combating the acid of the stomach but alfalfa, also known as lucerne, is excessively high in proteins and can cause notable negative reactions elsewhere. She also notes the availability of buffering and coating supplements.

But surely there is one simple –and cheap– answer. Feed your horse as he is meant to feed. Permanent access to grazing; a mixture of grasses, weeds etc. and at times of shortage, the winter, for example, good quality hay. It is oft bemoaned that good quality hay is too expensive to feed all the time but it will always be cheaper than the enormous quantity of inappropriate meal feeds and supplements given. And if you still think the hay is too expensive, then mix it with slightly lesser quality hay…it will still serve perfectly.

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Cushing Candidate?

As my followers (and detractors) will undoubtedly confirm, I am often dismissive of traces of blood in the white line. Such traces are often the result of a trauma at some indeterminate time in the past and now, often between three and eight months later, neither owner, nor horse, nor hoof have any recollection of anything untoward and at the next trim, the traces will probably have disappeared all by themselves.


(trim incomplete)

Certainly, none of the photos I have ever commented upon, would have given us at Sabots Libres any cause for concern. The traces were small, often relatively vague, and frequently only reported in one foot. But the case I am about to touch on here is definitely a cause for concern and set the alarm bells ringing during a routine 6 weekly trim yesterday.


The horse in question is a 22 year old mare, shod on the recommendation of the breeder/seller until aged about 20 due to a trauma, resulting in club feet, suffered when young. (This is not a classic case of club foot as described elsewhere on this site but could have been avoided by the same means – however, that is beyond the scope of this article).

More significant is that she was being fed grain and cereal up to the age of about 18. This was stopped due to allergic reactions to cereals and pollen–the latter probably being exacerbated by the inappropriate feed. This cessation of feeding supplements and an altered system of distribution of (ad lib) hay was successful in reducing the allergies to an insignificant level.

But the damage had probably already been long done. The last trim showed traces of red in the white line that do set off alarm bells. As we can see from this first photograph, there are red traces extending from the rear into the front quarters.

The extent of the traces is the main cause for concern; they are particularly concentrated around both sides whereas ‘insignificant’ traumatic damage will usually be seen at the front and medially.

When we examine the other hoof, it is clear that something is not right. In this case, the red traces are visible almost full circle. Clearly something out of the ordinary has been going on in the hoof which cannot be written off as a couple of unhandy manoeuvres in the field.

What is also obvious, is that this is not an ‘ordinary’ laminitis. The horse no longer has access to grains nor cereals, the grass is far from rich in sugars and essentially, there has been–and still is–no sign of discomfort in the hoofs. What is noticeable/notable is the poor moult whereby there is still a lot of thicker hair in patches. This gives rise to immediate thoughts of Cushing or, more correctly, PPID (Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction). This is an incurable but reasonably treatable hormonal condition whereby the body loses its ability to control certain functions. This can manifest itself in various symptoms, among which a poor moult, excessive disordered hair-growth and chronic laminitis.


The area top-right is the normal summer coat while bottom-left the coat is clearly a lot thicker

When we add up these factors–a long-term grain diet (which additionally has led to allergic reactions), the poor moult and unusually large traces of blood in the white line–then our suspicions are aroused significantly. Obviously, it is not possible to simply say ‘Cushings’, the need for proper testing is unavoidable. However, this is not the best moment to test. The period of greatest–and most testable–hormonal activity is from August to October with the peak in September; by November, the values have usually receded to insignificant and thus indeterminate levels. For this reason, a blood sample will be taken in a few weeks time and sent off for testing.

The results will be posted here in due course.

Autumn is in the Air

and with it, laminitis…

No, you are not hallucinating! The title is indeed very familiar and refers back to the last available published article, Spring is in the Air.  Many people associate laminitis with the spring and it is probably true to say that the majority of (acute) cases and probably the most severe occur in springtime. Restricted or often no turn-out during the winter followed by exposure to new grass is one of the major triggers for laminitis. With the onset of autumn, these susceptible horses are exposed to conditions similar to the winter/spring exposure; during the summer, they have been feeding on sufficiently rich food that they maintain their sugar levels only to be hammered by the peaks presented by the autumn grasses that, as in the spring, don’t have quite the right conditions to put all the sugars to good use (growth).

However, when we look at the “problem” seriously, it is less laminitis and more the owners that are the danger to the horse. Owners that don’t follow advice, owners that are too embroiled in traditions, owners that consider that they know better, owners that are quite simply bloody-minded!!!

Granted, some cases of laminitis are the result of an accident: the horse breaks out and gorges itself on the stock of chicken feed next door, for instance; others are simply owner ignorance: the horse is overfed on the wrong types of food during the winter, at the same time it is confined to a box 22 hours a day and on the first sunny day of spring, is turned out into the lushest field of rye grass in the whole of Northern Europe! For the whole day…

It is at this point that we get called in… vet and trimmer now working together – or maybe even against each other – to try and get the horse back on track. Not wishing to tar all vets with the same brush, but some – and I can name quite a few – consider shoeing, box-rest and phenylbutazone to be the answer (and we can present all the arguments as to why this is not the route to take). We will take the steps that we as professionals consider essential to get the horse back to normal as quickly as possible but we must have the cooperation of the owner – and that is where it all so often falls down.

The horse must move, must be kept off grain and cereal foods, must not be locked-up at night… And this regime must continue after the horse has recovered. And yet, how many owners revert to their old ways, locking the horse up for up to 22 hours a day, returning to the “two-meals-a-day” commercial food routine with ineffectual balancers, mixers and the o-so-deadly grains and cereals. Even compacted feeds based upon grasses are unacceptable – they cause an imbalance in the continuous digestion of the horse and disrupt the natural working of the intestines. Unfortunately, owners are all too susceptible to the marketing claims of the manufacturers and the back-up of the equine dietary specialists whose research is almost invariably sponsored by the feed manufacturers.

And then the problem rears its ugly head again…and again and again. Sheer bloody-mindedness of the owner puts the horse at risk, initially every spring and autumn and eventually the whole year around – year in, year out.

I would like to say, if you know someone like this with a horse in a similar situation, help them see the error of their ways; but the sad reality is, they will seldom believe you, or they will say “yes, yes, I know…” followed by the inevitable “…but!”

Finally, let me just emphasise once again, I do not wish to tar all vets, nor all owners, with the same brush…


Spring is in the Air

and with it, laminitis…

Although we have come down to earth with a bump and, after the extraordinary February of this year, March has turned out to be a (fairly) normal March, spring is in the air. The trees are beginning to show signs of green, the daffodils are flowering and, here at least, the violets are in full swing. And the grass is starting to grow… Grass has a very bad press these days – and in some ways quite rightly – but should we be panicking?

We have long realised that there is a correlation between grass and founder or laminitis; for many years it was believed to lie in high concentrations of proteins but in recent years we have come to realise that it is a carbohydrate overload in the form of certain sugars that is the primary trigger. Spring grasses have always been to blame but in fact, late summer and autumn grasses can be high in damaging sugars too. So why do we particularly think of spring and is grass really all that bad?

In traditional circles, horses rarely see the light of day in the winter months and will be kept alive on a mixture of hay, possibly haylage, and commercial feed, almost always grain or cereal based with molasses to give it a “temptation factor” and to act is a binding agent. Hay alone is not a big problem, albeit that it is dead grass, it is often of a reasonable quality and has restricted sugar and starch content. Haylage is not simply hay bundled in plastic! Haylage is hay that has been cut “wet” and wrapped immediately. One of the principle reasons for producing haylage is the lack of need to dry the hay for several days, risking it being rained upon. It can also be stored longer, provided it is well sealed and the packing remains undamaged. The disadvantage is that the sugars in the hay are fermented creating a sweet, albeit to some, slightly acrid, smelling soft hay. The alcohol formed by this fermentation is reconverted into sugars by the body. These sugars are then in turn broken down by the body but rather than a slow bacterial breakdown, as with grass and hay, it is a much more rapid conversion similar to grain and cereal. As a result, horses on a diet including haylage and/or commercial feeds are maintaining their blood sugar levels throughout the winter.

Turning out for the first time on a beautiful spring morning, sun shining, birds singing and a crispness in the air that follows an early morning ground frost, would seem to be a great pleasure – and particularly for our horses. But the combination of low temperatures and sunshine will greatly increase the levels of damaging sugars in the grass. Already well stocked up on blood sugars from a winter of restricted movement and bad food, our horse is now confronted with field of delicious grass that will tip the balance completely. The overload results in rapid sugar intoxication and the equally rapid onset of laminitis.

Horses that are kept outdoors 24/7 all year round and not fed any form of grain or cereal based feed are much less likely to suffer from laminitis, even when confronted by the same carbohydrate rich grass. The reason is quite simple; during the winter period, the blood sugar levels drop considerably and a healthy horse will lose weight at this time. This does not mean it loses musculature, but any fat reserves that may have built up during the previous season will certainly have diminished. Because the blood sugar level is now low, the “hit” of spring sugars is not going to have the same effect on the feet. What we are doing, in effect, is breaking the cycle of insulin resistance (IR). If we keep building on the blood sugar levels, year in, year out, then the bomb is bound to go off at some time; if we break the cycle every winter, we effectively “defuse” the bomb. And like many things, if we carry on with a bad habit, the consequences often become irreversible. Insulin resistance is prevalent and is in most cases at the irreversible stage. Metabolic diseases such as PPID and EMS will often have their origins in insulin resistance.

Does the sort of grass make a difference? Yes, and no. Rye grass, very prevalent in Northern Europe because of its ease of growth and high yield, particular for the dairy and meat industry, probably has the worst press – and quite rightly too. Its sugar content is sufficiently high to form a rapid trigger for laminitis problems; nevertheless, many horses that are exposed to rye grass all year round, seem to develop something of a resistance to insulin resistance – a sort of immunity? And horses that are allowed to break their IR cycle every year are highly unlikely to succumb on rye grass.
That said, keeping horses – or any grazer for that matter – on a single type of grass is fundamentally wrong. Different grasses, weeds, plants and shrubs all bring with them their own very important characteristics and properties that horse must be allowed to tap into.
Extract from the Sabots Libres Newsletter, Spring 2016

Senior Horse???

Unbelievable but just two days after I republished an article about safe starting and the life expectancy of the horse, that wonderful dispensary of all knowledge equine, The Horse, publishes an article about “Vaccines, Dewormers, and Nutrition for Senior Horses“. Although the information presented is in itself very dubious (vaccines and dewormers) or just plain wrong (nutrition), the thing that stands out first and foremost is the definition of the “Senior Horse”.

In the article, there is mention of 7 – 15% of the US horse population being over 20 (that is a horrifyingly low percentage) and 29% of the UK population being over 15!!! Over 15? Since when is 15 “senior”? That is atrocious! That relates to calling a 24 year old human, “over the hill”! And those of you that have reached 35 are now complete write-offs…

A study by J.E. Bobick and M. Peffer in 1993 showed that the longevity of the free-roaming horse was 62 years – that of the captive horse 50. Agreed, longevity1 and life-expectancy2 are not the same thing but there is something of a correlation – and when we consider that essentially, the longevity of the human should be around 30 years and we manage more than 2½ times that, that a horse should manage often less than half is shocking. The average age of the horse in captivity in the Netherlands, a country renowned for being “horse lovers”, is an appalling 7 – 8 years. In France – somewhat less renowned for their love of horses – it is 9 (this does not include horses used specifically for the meat trade).

Obviously, somewhere, we are doing things wrong – and the article in The Horse highlights a small part of it; in the section on Nutrition, none of the horses in the experiment were fed a proper diet. There were four options (and no control): Oats and alfalfa pellets; commercial senior feed; commercial senior feed with added probiotics; commercial senior feed with added omega fatty acids. In the absence of a control, this experiment is immediately null and void. Also voiding the experiment is the fact that the horses were specifically fed senior feed and no horses were fed “normal” feed. The control should be the proper feed of a horse – grasses and possibly hay. But even then, the results are unbalanced because it is over a period of just over six months. This does not take into account the full cycle of the year and the effects upon the horse of (extra) feed during the winter nor the breaking – or not – of the IR cycle which is an important contributory factor to horses with PPID and/or EMS.

1) Longevity is the scientifically defined lifespan of an animal under defined criteria
2) Life-expectancy is the actual age an animal can be expected to reach and varies according to heredity, living conditions, working conditions, nutrition, etc. Life-expectancy is usually ascribed to an individual or group of individuals whereas longevity is ascribed to a species.

Uh Oh October…

Actually it should be “uh oh September” but that is both less alliterative and this year not so appropriate. September 2014 was particularly warm and the temperature was rarely lower than 15°C. But now October has arrived and the first really cold nights are just around the corner. Along with the increased dangers of higher fructose content in the grass.

We tend to think of springtime as being the most dangerous period for laminitis in our horses – and to a greater extent, that is true. Low temperatures and plenty of sun means a high rate of photosynthesis but just about no growth which leads to fructose being stored in the plant for later growth. Added to this the fact that many horses are kept indoors throughout the winter because owners believe that their horses are incapable of withstanding temperatures below about 10˚C and they are worried about them getting wet. The state of the pasture is also a consideration. All this means a sledgehammer blow to the system during spring turnout after such a period of “abstinence” and some horses (actually a surprisingly high number) are not capable of coping with this change.

But now the autumn is upon us, even with the possible promise of warmer days in mid-October, we are starting to run into the same sort of circumstances that increase the amount of fructose in the grass. Only now, the danger moment is shifted from the morning to the evening. A sunny day with temperatures not reaching above about 15˚C will mean higher fructose levels in the afternoon and evening rather than early mornings.

Because our horses have been out all summer, they are less prone to the dangers of high fructose levels but those horses that are particularly sensitive need more protection.

This table may be of some help determining the danger moments:

Weather Plant Metabolism Fructose Levels
Night Temp Day Temp Sun Photosynthesis Growth morning afternoon evening night
<0˚C <0˚C No No None 3 3 3 3
<0˚C <0˚C Much Much None 5 5 5 5
<0˚C <15˚C Much Much Low 5 4 4 3
>5˚C <15˚C Much Much Low 1 3 4 2
>15˚C >15˚C Much Much High 1 2 3 2
>15˚C >15˚C No Little Much 1 1 1 1
The risk on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (very high)