August Reflections

September is here; with it the cooler days, the shorter evenings and a little more time to reflect on recent publications.
Three items particularly caught my eye recently, the first being an article discussing the merits and demerits of booting horses; the second was what is termed these days an ‘advertorial’, part of an apparent series on gastric ulcers, promoting a feeding system. The third item, also an advertorial, was for a joint-care product .

Boots and Protective Bandages

Horse and Hound 14 August 2020

This article, written by Professor Roger Smith FRCVS and Professor Michael Schramme, discusses the pros and cons of boots and bandages for exercising. It starts on a somewhat divisive note, stating ‘…some kind of protection is largely seen as essential…’ but does go on to impart some justifiable –myth-busting– information: namely that bandages afford no support whatsoever to the fetlock in an attempt to prevent over-extension. It is stated that research has shown that a well-layered bandage can be of some help in young foals and very small ponies but has no effect on the adult horse. They go on to debunk the idea of flexor-tendon support explaining that a cloth bandage could never compete with kinetic forces of around a tonne.

They then go on to explain that protection against overreach –where the rear foot collides with the front leg– is also very limited when using bandages. They may afford some protection against a light blow (and will also afford protection of the skin in such a situation; ed.) but the blunt trauma of anything more forceful will only be prevented by rigid boots ‘…which can be life-saving.’

At this point, the authors begin to return to the divisive: ‘Limb coverings may also help with a horse’s proprioception… It is thought that bandages might offer sensory “cues” …which can be helpful – especially when the horse is tired.’ Furthermore, they say that ‘Swelling of the legs is common…because of…the length of the leg…gravity and the slow movement of blood back up the limb. Bandaging legs for work will not help…but applying bandages in the stable can be effective in reducing or preventing puffiness.’

The rest of the article discusses the dangers of restricted circulation and hyperthermia in the bandaged/booted limbs, of skin injury from chafing, ventilation and the weight of boots.

Although the article begins by stating that ‘…some kind of protection is largely seen as essential…’ and talks of overreach as being the only justifiable reason, at no point do the authors explain why a horse overreaches. And how to prevent it.

The horse’s legs act like a pendulum. Their length determines their period –the time needed to swing from rear to front and, theoretically, back to the rear. The period is completely independent of the weight of the end of the pendulum. At a walking pace, the pendulum effect does not really come into play since the leg-action is minimal and remains almost completely under muscular control. However, when the horse trots or gallops, it makes use of the pendulum effect to ‘fling’ the hoofs forward, gaining momentum without using a great expense of energy. This action is involuntary since, at this point, it is the laws of physics and not the horse that dictates.

Although the period remains the same, irrespective of the weight, the amplitude or the distance travelled by the end of the pendulum –the hoof, in this case– is related to the weight and when we add weight to the hoof in the form of horseshoes, hoof boots, or even protective boots, we increase the amplitude and the inherent kinetic energy of the leg. This means that the horse will have to physically decelerate the rear leg to avoid a collision with the front which, itself, is hampered in its acceleration away from the rear by the excess weight of the horseshoe. It is extremely rare that an unshod horse taps regularly the rears against the fronts –obviously there are exceptions and often these horses have been shod at some stage in their lives causing a certain loss of coordination, but the effects are minimal.

One thing is certain, to eliminate such catastrophic trauma, the answer is not boots nor bandages, but to avoid shoeing the horse in the first place. And not having the horse shod prevents all manner of other injuries and traumas…but that is another discussion.

Finally, the last comment regarding the application of bandages in the stable brings us again to the well-being and physical needs of the horse. Clearly, if the horse needs bandages in the stable to prevent puffiness, then we are doing something wrong. If the horse is at liberty, then it will be able to move and puffiness is also avoided — locking it up clearly considerably impairs its ability to move…

iFeed

TheHorse.com 31 August 2020

This ‘article’ was written by one of TheHorse.com’s editorial staff as a so-called product review. It is in fact marked up as sponsored content!

It proposes is a ‘natural’ and regular way of feeding your horse — mechanically… In fact, it is a miniaturised version of a HiT Active stable only with a different name. There is little good that can be said of either the article or the system. The article begins with an editor’s note that We…are horse owners like you…and we want to share our experiences with you. These select products are ones we use and love every day.

The writer then goes on to explain the problems of her morning ritual and how she had to get up at 05:00 to feed and muck out her horses… And obviously, this device has revolutionised her life (well, apart from the mucking out).

It goes by the unfortunate name of iFeed Naturally. There is nothing whatsoever natural about it. All it is, is a labour saving device for the traditional horse owner, eliminating the two- or three-feeds-a-day routine by mechanising the whole process. What it does not do, is feed the horse as the horse is intended to feed. Grain or cereal is not a natural nor a correct feed for the horse. But what is even more surprising is that a ‘veterinary nutritional specialist’ recommends frequent small portions over two or three large portions and yet the author still only gives two rations a day… Apparently the units were not cheap but they do make life easier — if you really want to make life easier, don’t lock up your horses and don’t feed them expensive and inappropriate cereals.

Hyaluronex Joint

TheHorse.com various dates

So to the last item, a wonder product for protecting those over-stressed joints.
The photograph used in the advert alone says enough about why this is all wrong…

The respective articles can be found here:

Boots and Protective Bandages

iFeed Naturally

Hyaluronex (pdf)

This article first appeared on 4 September 2020 on the Equine Independent website

one side of the horse - Ronald Searle

Further Hoof Care

Following up on last week’s post about Simple Hoof Care, this week a short film on further hoof care. The method shown here is still relatively simple but this time we look at the use of conventional trimming tools and techniques.

The video lasts just over six minutes. 

Coronavirus and the Horse

For many of us, it is a trying time and, with more and more countries implementing a lock-down, a complicated one. Equestrian centres are closed and, in many cases, even owners are being turned away from visiting their horses. A time to reflect on the welfare of the incarcerated horse…

Boxed Horses Overview

A great many owners consider keeping their horses stabled —incarcerated— as being normal; but now it is the owners themselves that are incarcerated in their own homes. However, they are lucky; they still have some space to move in, unlike the horse, cramped up in what amounts to a telephone box. The owners have the luxury of a separate toilet, unlike the horse, standing —involuntarily— in his own excrement for much of the time. The owners can still eat when they want —and feel the need— to; the horse, with a digestive system adapted to much more frequent replenishment, 12 to 16 ‘meals’ in every 24 hours, is restricted to just two meals a day – and then food for the most part completely unsuitable for his digestive system.

Clearly there is little that can be done at the moment for those horses suffering such incarceration; hopefully, when this period of crisis is passed, owners will reflect on the misery they inflict on their horses simply through their ignorance. Owners in general consider that they are doing the best for their animals but all too often, their best is little better than a purgatory since the owners perceptions are based upon human needs and desires and not on those of their animals.

Remember that if you are under lock-down and your horses are not being tended to by an equestrian centre or similar, you are still responsible for their welfare. That means you have derogation to tend to your animals’ welfare provided you respect all other regulations in force. Horses (and other domestic animals such as cats, dogs, rabbits, rodents etc.) are not vectors for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

This article was also published in The Equine Independent on 23 March 2020

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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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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Veterinary Madness

A while ago, my attention was once again drawn to a typically poor article on theHorse.com. Not unusually, this is an article about feet and, also not unusual, it is written by a vet and contains citations by other vets.

Many people will obviously start to say that ‘the vet will know…’ so why criticise – but there lies the crux, the vets clearly don’t know. The problem lies in the fact that vets are first and foremost biologists – or at least veterinary education is centred around biology with a fair bit of chemistry thrown in. This does have a sound reason; the daily work of a vet is being involved with biological processes and their associated chemical reactions. The latter being aided or modified by often symptom specific drugs. But the mechanical side of things is much less well represented. Particularly when it comes to the limbs. Veterinary science finds itself still stuck in the Middle Ages with techniques and theories that were not even conceived by vets! And this latest article on theHorse.com just underlines the case once more.

The article How Healthy Horse Hooves Help Arthritic Joints by Nancy S. Loving DVM dates from October 2018.

Dr Loving is aided in her article by comments by Andrew Parks, a university professor of veterinary medicine, and Steve Kraus, farrier and instructor at Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine…this last is typically laughable. To have somebody who advocates the nailing of overweight pieces of metal to an animal’s feet being the resident of a university of veterinary medicine should be a major embarrassment.

When offering arthritic horses relief, start from the ground up

The degenerative joint disease arthritis is all too common in active and aging horses. In an effort to slow the progressive deterioration of joint tissue, owners and veterinarians often reach for anti-inflammatory medications and/or regenerative therapies. After all, our goal is to keep these joints comfortable.

One often-overlooked strategy in this effort is hoof care. Certain trimming and shoeing techniques can alter a horse’s limb biomechanics—for better or worse. In this article we’ll discuss how to care for arthritic horses’ hooves for maximum comfort.

As with much of veterinary medicine, this article starts immediately with a treatment rather than with prevention.

If we were to prevent, or at least do what we can to prevent, the onset of a disease –in this case arthritis– then our horses would be in a much more favourable situation. And with many degenerative diseases, prevention or delayed onset is not so difficult to achieve. For the horse, adequate management can mean the difference between a full and comfortable life and a short painful one.

Arthritis is indeed common in active and ageing horses but its roots lie not so much in the age, nor the activity, of the horse but rather its (mis)management. A shod horse is far more likely to develop arthritis than an unshod one, as the article briefly explains. The combination of horseshoes with inappropriate activity will exacerbate the problem and the longer the horse is exposed and thus the older it is, the more severe the problem will become.

The equine world, professional, amateur and veterinary, is very reliant upon the pharmaceutical industry and as the author of the article says, ‘…owners and veterinarians often reach for anti-inflammatory medications and/or regenerative therapies…‘. All too frequently, the anti-inflammatory medication will be one or other proprietary variant of phenylbutazone –a medication so widely abused that if it was in human medicine, a vast number of doctors would have long been struck off the register. Phenylbutazone is indicated exclusively for chronic laminitis.

Quite correctly, the author indicates that hoof-care is an often overlooked strategy. But clearly, even in this early paragraph, has little grasp of the biomechanical consequences of shoeing and trimming.

What Exacerbates Joint Pain?

Arthritic horses try to minimize their joint pain by reducing the load on the affected limb(s) and shortening stride length. “This suggests that pain is associated with the concussion of impact and extreme ranges in motion (ROM),” says Andrew Parks, DVM, Vet MB, MRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Athens.

Professor Parks explains the problem fairly well here. So why can’t he follow up on it with a logical, mechanics-related, conclusion?

Force of impact

The limb’s loading rate (deceleration) when the foot lands affects the force of impact on that leg, as can footing type. “The impact of baked clay in summer or frozen ground in winter is quite different from a soft dirt paddock, bedded stall, or engineered arena,” says Parks. “Anything that slows down the rate of deceleration of the foot is likely to decrease the effect of impact. Materials that absorb energy on hoof landing—either from the ground surface or within the shoeing apparatus—also reduce impact.”

This is actually a bit nonsensical. It is rather typical of the biologists reversed view of mechanics!

It is not the loading rate that affects the force of impact on the leg, it is quite the reverse. The force of the impact –kinetic energy– is the product of mass and velocity. The speed with which this force is dissipated is the deceleration. This dissipation of energy will be found on both sides of the impact point (remember Newton’s third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.) and, as Professor Parks points out, will be affected by the hardness of the surface landed upon. Where he misses a beat is in his assertion that the shoeing apparatus will reduce impact.

The addition of any extra weight to the distal point of the limb will by its very existence increase the kinetic energy of the limb. So immediately we must build-in yet more absorption to compensate for the extra weight…whereas the foot in its lightest form will be able to work together with the tendons, muscles and leg-articulation to create the optimum absorption of impact.

Range of motion

You’re probably already familiar with this concept: Your veterinarian maximizes a joint’s range of motion when he or she performs a diagnostic flexion test to pinpoint soreness in a painful joint. Excessive flexion or extension/dorsiflexion (backward bending or bowing) can aggravate arthritis.

Owners and farriers should handle arthritic horses’ legs with care. “Check range of motion and flexion ability, and don’t force an arthritic horse to bend or flex its limbs beyond its comfort zone,” says Steve Kraus, CJF, resident farrier and instructor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Ithaca, New York. “Use of a foot stand (when trimming or shoeing) keeps hind limbs low and supports the front legs to provide better comfort for both horse and farrier.”

To modify or limit range of motion extremes in locomotion, Parks recommends farriers help the foot lift and roll over (called breakover) more easily. “This may mean not only rolling the toe but also the whole perimeter of the shoe and even the heels,” he says. The easier it is for the horse to lift his heels off the ground, the less dorsiflexion the foot will experience at breakover.

Kraus is right, the limb should not be flexed beyond the comfort zone – ever. It is one of the frequent tests when purchasing a horse to flex the leg and hold it in position. If the horse then limps, there is supposedly something wrong (…but you try walking after forcing your leg into an uncomfortable position for any length of time!).

This is all sound common sense – apart from ‘…rolling the shoe…’ We don’t need a shoe; in fact, we MUST NOT shoe – even less so in an arthritic horse. The shoe will by definition add length and depth to the hoof; this in itself exacerbates the problem demanding rolling of the shoe. Losing the shoe removes this and all other problems in one fell swoop – and if the horse is still having ‘rollover’ problems, then there are two solutions: walk the horse on hard –preferably even– surfaces for a short while every day or, if that is too much effort, add a so-called ‘Mustang roll’ (or simply trim the toe shorter).

Acutely imbalanced horse hoof

Imbalance

Hoof balance is key to keeping an arthritic horse comfortable. Create a more level landing surface by picking out gravel and other debris from hooves daily. Have the feet trimmed every four to seven weeks (depending on hoof growth rate) to help balance the hooves and reduce the horse’s risk of developing long toes and collapsed heels, which can make him more likely to stumble.

“Farriers can manage the hoof capsule with trimming and shoeing to provide proper limb alignment so that forces are distributed equally through the joints,” says Kraus.

If a foot is acutely imbalanced (say, for example, one side has been wedged or trimmed shorter than the other), the joint on the elevated side of the hoof will narrow—something that’s visible on radiographs (X rays) taken immediately following this practice. “However,” says Parks, “if you look at feet with obvious (chronic) coronary band asymmetry and hoof imbalance, an interesting finding is that the imbalance in the joint space usually is not evident on radiographic images.”

This compensatory phenomenon is related to the coffin bone’s movement relative to the hoof capsule. The hoof’s growth rate also changes, slowing on the side experiencing the greater load.

Parks reminds us that the same principles that encourage bone remodeling might also apply to other tissues. Overloading on one side of the hoof might, in fact, slow the rate of cell replication in the coronary band on that side.

“If the hoof wall is imbalanced side-to-side (uneven hoof wall height between medial and lateral—inner and outer—sides), then theoretically, unequal overload stresses can create degenerative joint disease (DJD),” says Parks. “However, a horse’s natural compensatory hoof mechanisms tend to minimize changes within the joints. You may have appreciated how quickly the hoof capsule changes shape once a horse shoe is removed—usually within 24 to 48 hours.”

That said, he points out that if mediolateral imbalance within the foot’s internal structures persists, a horse can develop DJD. Uneven forces place undue pressure on joint components, especially cartilage, which can then create or exacerbate joint deterioration and arthritis, adds Kraus.

Genetics and/or inappropriate trimming can also create dorsopalmar (front to back) imbalances, which affect the hoof-pastern axis (when correct, the front hoof wall should be parallel to the pastern angle).

Here we descend into the mythical world created by the farrier and carried on by many a barefoot ‘specialist’.

Kraus’ claim that ‘farriers can manage the hoof capsule…to provide proper limb alignment…’ is typical of the bilge peddled by this dubious profession and, sadly, believed in all sincerity by a poorly educated veterinary community. There is absolutely NO WAY that a farrier or a barefoot ‘specialist’ will ever be able to sight up a hoof and limb and ‘correct’ or ‘compensate’ for so-called imbalance. For a start, a study some years ago –sadly now lost to the mists of time– showed that farriers were incapable of reproducing treatment during successive visits in around 80% of cases. This is not at all surprising since the hoof is a dynamic structure that the farrier ‘analyses’ in a static situation; the problem is further exacerbated by already present shoes, where applicable, and by the absence of knowledge of what exactly is the horse’s conformation.

Even X-ray photographs cannot give an accurate representation since the foot and leg is always in an ‘artificial’ situation – the horse will never be standing in absolutely perfect balance. Furthermore, as most veterinary surgeons will tell you, often that which is causing pain or discomfort is that which cannot be seen on the X-ray.

In the end, only the horse can correct its stance and its foot conformation. The easiest way to achieve this is to simply trim the hoof adequately and allow the horse to walk on a hard surface like concrete or tarmac to achieve its own personal ‘balance’.

Long Term Imbalance

When trimming and shoeing for balance, one of the farrier’s main goals is to make sure the foot is placed properly beneath the skeletal column, says Kraus. “Caudal (rear) heel support relies on supporting the heels in their proper location beneath the leg,” he says. “This support is important to minimizing arthritic discomfort. As the hoof first strikes the ground, the heels act as a fulcrum. If positioned too far forward under the limb, the leg tends to rock backward on that point of the heels. The horse must exert muscular force to overcome this, which strains the joints. Proper heel support requires trimming the hoof to the widest, highest, rearmost area of the frog. If that cannot be done, it is possible to provide support with shoeing.”

To align the heel properly, farriers usually fit the horse with an appropriately sized shoe that increases the hoof wall’s surface area contact with the ground, says Kraus. This prevents rocking back on the heels or sinking into soft ground, either of which stress joints whether they’re arthritic or healthy.

Farriers might apply egg bar shoes to horses with low-angled, underrun heels, says Kraus. “Caudal heel support from the bars (found at the rearward ends of the hoof wall) reduces backward sinking of the hoof, while also providing a greater bearing surface to spread out the horse’s weight,” he says.

Parks says elevating the heels has been shown to alter the distribution of pressure in the coffin joint, which could potentially increase wear and tear.

“The ideal relationship between the pastern and the hoof is when the dorsal (front) wall of the hoof is parallel to the dorsal pastern, and if the foot is trimmed so that this relationship is not parallel, it has the potential to increase the overall force on the foot during the course of the stride,” says Parks. “Additionally, a long toe increases the lever arm at breakover, which increases the force required to lift the heels off the ground. These phenomena exacerbate arthritic pain in the distal (lower) joints.”

Kraus adds that when horses strain to move their lower limbs and break over a long toe, they can aggravate low or high ringbone (coffin or pastern joint ­arthritis).

Once again, the farrier descends into nonsensical theorising. Talk of ‘…aligning the heel properly…’ and ‘[applying] egg bar shoes to horses with low-angled, underrun heels…’ just goes to show how far from reality these people are. As already explained above, the farrier –indeed, any external agent– will never be in a position to ‘align the heel properly’. Anybody claiming this is a fraud and if you believe him, you are doing yourself an injustice. Three years of farriers’ school, even with a nice diploma at the end, is not an indication of competence; it is an indication that someone is trained in middle-age thinking and practices.

Underrun heels need to be treated, not compensated for. They need correctly trimming to remove the underrun, not the addition of egg-bars to raise the caudal section of the P3. This is nothing more than bone-idleness on the part of the profession and ignorance on the part of the individual farrier.

Smart Trimming & Shoeing Techniques

Backing up the toes

Many farriers attempt to correct a long-toe, low-heel hoof configuration by setting the shoe back at the toe. While Parks says this improves breakover for the short-term, leaving the toe hanging too far over the toe of the shoe means the wall at the toe is not in direct contact with the shoe. Therefore, it receives less mechanical stimulation than the wall that is in direct contact with the shoe from the toe-quarter junction (pillars) to the heels. “This affects the way the wall grows,” he says, reminding us that the wall under greater stress will grow slower and vice versa. “Biofeedback tries to restore a previous state,” he says.

Kraus says farriers often apply rocker or rolled toe shoes to horses with arthritic conditions. “These shoes artificially shorten the distance and, hence, the ­leverage in front of the center of rotation on the foot beyond what can safely be trimmed away,” he says. “Sound, properly trimmed horses need normal toe length for optimum propulsion, but horses with arthritis in their lower joints do better with less-than-normal leverage (i.e., shorter toes).”

Parks says he’s a fan of rocker and roller shoes but warns against removing too much dorsal hoof wall in the shoeing process. “If the farrier uses a rasp to gradually thin the wall at the toe, it may not change hoof wall growth, provided enough stiff wall (the outer one-third to one-half of the wall) is left in contact with the shoe,” he says. “In contrast, if the toe wall is chopped away at a 45-degree angle, while this may ease breakover so that the dorsal wall isn’t in contact with the shoe, it isn’t under as much stress as the adjacent wall. Therefore, on the reasonable assumption that wall under less stress grows faster, the toe will outgrow the adjacent wall, thus changing the conformation of the foot, which may add to arthritic pain.”

One thing that we can clearly add is that the hoof wall is NOT the weight-bearing structure of the foot. It is therefore of little importance where the shoe is affixed, forward, backward, it will always be in the wrong place, transferring the weight of the horse to the hoof wall and thus through the delicate laminae which can easily be demonstrated as not being designed for such use.

The growth of the hoof wall is not slowed but rather stimulated by ‘stress’ or, as it can also be termed, ‘use’. This is readily demonstrable in any horse that has the good luck to be barefoot; intense use does not wear down the hoof but rather stimulates its growth. Again, a farrier’s fable that the unshod horse will wear its hoofs out working on hard surfaces.

With arthritic horses, it’s a delicate balance between slip and grip.

Steve Kraus, CJF

Protecting the hind limb

Most shoeing practices only have a direct effect on the lowest limb joints—the coffin and pastern joints. However, farriers do attempt shoeing strategies to influence higher joints, such as using lateral extensions or egg bar shoes on the rear hooves of horses with distal hock arthritis (bone spavin). Kraus says a lateral hind shoe extension provides support to prevent a base-­narrow horse’s hocks from rotating outward, while an egg bar shoe might reduce excessive hinge motion that otherwise stresses hock joints.

Study results, however, show that neither rear-foot lateral extensions nor egg bar shoes have a significant effect on stabilizing affected hock joints.

Then there are trailers (or caulks) on hind shoes, which some veterinarians and farriers argue against using because they can cause a foot to stick and torque the joints. Their use, however, often depends on the equestrian activity and terrain conditions.

It can be very regularly demonstrated that the shod horse suffers from shoeing right up the legs and into the shoulders, the hips and ultimately the back. Therefore it cannot be said that the application of shoes does not just affect the distal structures. Just as Kraus declares that there is little result shown in shoeing for proximal structure problems, it should be clear that the addition of shoes will sooner be detrimental – to give him the benefit of the doubt, we could say that any envisaged amelioration will be cancelled out by detriment!

Caulks, trailers, studs –whatever name you might want to use– are always going to turn an already damaging situation into a potential disaster. As stated in the article, the possibility of sticking and ‘torquing’ –spraining– joints brings some veterinary surgeons and farriers, quite rightly, to argue against their use. The final statement rather clinches it though: ‘[their use] often depends on the equestrian activity and terrain conditions’. We are talking arthritic horses here. We should be adapting our activities to the condition of the horse, not trying to prop it up to get it through next year’s equestrian calendar. This is welfare at its lowest – the needs of the rider always seem to go before the needs of the horse. And to say that all this –actually worthless– treatment is for the horse’s welfare, is pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, the rider’s included. 

Applying pads

Traditionally, farriers have applied pads beneath shoes to provide sole protection and shock absorption. Kraus says that in his experience, polyurethane pads provide limited shock absorption and are better suited simply for sole protection. Leather pads do improve shock absorption but deteriorate over time, he says.

“Some synthetic pads are designed to absorb shock; however, with only 1/8-inch of material on a 1,000-pound (or more) horse, how much shock can really be absorbed?” he says. “A pour-in pad or packing a shoe with synthetic gel may be a better option to achieve shock absorption” for arthritic horses. These materials conform to the sole and frog for a more uniform distribution of shock absorption throughout the hoof.

Anything applied to the bottom of the foot is, first and foremost, detrimental to the locomotion of the horse creating an imbalance in movement and moment, raising the heart-rate above normal –partially due to the severe reduction in the hoof-mechanism– increasing the effort exerted for every step.

As the article states, pads have been applied traditionally to provide shock absorption – except generally, they don’t. And in any case, the foot is designed to carry the weight of the horse and, more importantly, to cope with the enormous amounts of kinetic energy generated. It is often argued that the horse is not designed to carry riders, which is true, therefore we must ‘protect the hoof’ against this extra weight. In reality, a horse weighing 500kg will generate almost the same amount of kinetic energy at 16m/s (full gallop) as a 500kg horse with 70kg of rider and tack at 15m/s. The arthritic horses will not –or should not– often be achieving such speeds therefore we should be able to consider that he is already equipped with all the shock absorption he will ever need. And the first point of shock absorption is the frog. Shoeing the horse removes almost all function of the frog and it is not by any means unusual to find this structure almost completely atrophied in the shod horse. 

Considering shoe weight and type

Any type of shoe on a horse’s foot adds weight that the animal must lift from the ground at breakover. To reduce shoe weight, try applying aluminum shoes, which are one-third the weight of steel, says Kraus. “Or, an alternative to bar shoes is the Myron McLane pad that includes frog and heel support,” he says. Wide web shoes are another support option and weigh less than egg bar shoes.

Synthetic shoes—nonmetal or a metal composite with nonmetal materials—absorb the most shock. You can choose from many types of those shoes, both nail-on and glue-on. Remember, however, that plastic materials can be slippery on wet grass or ice and might wear more quickly than steel shoes. “With arthritic horses, it’s a delicate balance between slip and grip,” says Kraus.

‘Try aluminium shoes to reduce weight…they are a third of the weight of steel’ – but they still increase the distal mass by around 50%. This is still a locomotive impediment. And worse still, the weight of the horse is still being moved out onto the non weight-bearing structures: the hoof wall and the laminae, and the impact concussion is not being absorbed but rather amplified (there are numerous videos on the internet which show exactly how this amplification makes itself visible).

Barefoot or Shod?

“Leaving a horse barefoot is generally good, particularly in a nonperforming horse with arthritis,” says Parks. “In most cases, the unshod hoof capsule provides the best damping to assimilate the shock of foot impact. And, a barefoot horse is able to ‘roll’ its own hooves through natural abrasion.”

“When barefoot arthritic horses wear their hooves to their comfort level, this shouldn’t be confused with conformational defects that often wear the hoof in the opposite direction than the horse needs,” says Kraus. However, “barefoot horses with thin soles may become sore-footed and then alter their gait in such a way to strain arthritic joints.”

Still, barefoot advantages might outweigh disadvantages to help curb arthritic pain, and owners can apply hoof boots for riding or navigating rough terrain, if needed. Our sources recommend using a lightweight boot with built-in breakover and adding a viscoelastic pad inside.

There is no question here – the horse should never be shod, arthritic or not. The idea that the horse will get out of its comfort zone implies that we are doing too much with the horse.

Take-Home Message

Before making trimming and shoeing changes, have your veterinarian perform a thorough diagnostic work-up of your horse’s lameness problem. Ask him or her take radiographs to visualize the angles of internal hoof structures, the extent of osteoarthritis in a joint, and the depth of sole a farrier has to work with.

“Shoeing methods for arthritic horses ideally incorporate ways to transfer motion to the ground instead of to painful joints,” says Kraus.

“Shoes modified properly to help with arthritic problems may be a more permanent way to manage some horses with arthritis,” says Parks. “Trimming and shoeing practices are useful adjuncts to multitreatment modalities that include joint injections, non-steroidal anti-­inflammatories, IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein), and in some cases regenerative therapies.”

There is no single trimming or shoeing recipe that farriers can apply to every horse. Following basic principles of balancing the foot, easing breakover, supporting the heels, and aligning the hoof-pastern axis provide the best foundation for both normal and arthritic horses.

The take-home message is clear. DO NOT SHOE. The article states that ‘…[there] is no single trimming or shoeing recipe that farriers can apply to every horse…’, but there is. It is impossible to correct or compensate for arthritic problems with either shoes or trimming. But we can give the horse the ability to find its own balance, its own correction or compensation:

Make sure your horse is trimmed regularly and correctly. That means NOT how the farrier will generally trim, after all, the farrier knows how to trim to shoe, but not for the functioning of the locomotor apparatus; his training will not have given him insight into this (although subsequent experience may). Heels down, wall short. If your horse is high-heeled or underrun, then any changes must be made gradually – this applies just as much to the fully fit as to the arthritic horse.

Remember that it is his welfare we should be considering. Shoes are never the solution and if your horse cannot do what you ask barefoot, then you are either asking the wrong thing, or you are not thinking of his welfare. Shoes and welfare never mix. Riders and owners often say that they shoe because they are thinking of the horse’s welfare and then ask the horse to do those things which are not going to be good for his health…