How to keep ponies happy and healthy in old age *H&H Plus*

  • Even the most robust pony needs a helping hand in old age, as Rebecca Hamilton-Fletcher MRCVS explains

    “He’s worth his weight in gold!” Such praise is frequently applied to the older schoolmaster pony, who has taken numerous children off the lead-rein for the first time, safely introduced them to the hunting field or helped them enjoy their first Pony Club camp.

    These ponies may not have the looks, conformation or athleticism to win in the show ring or on the performance field, yet they are so sought after that they rarely leave the local area. They are often booked well in advance for the next excited family, even though they may be entering their twenties or even thirties.

    The very fact that they keep going and going, however, frequently passing from one home to the next, means that their routine care – as well as any specific veterinary needs – can become inadvertently overlooked.

    Despite being adored, these family all-rounders rarely carry the same monetary value as high-performance ponies of similar age. Because they tend to cost very little to acquire, are small in size and generally uncomplicated in nature, there’s a tendency to assume they will be equally cheap and straightforward to keep.

    Innate character and behaviour can become “lost” through a succession of different homes, many of which will be novice. A desirable level of tolerance is easily attributed to the pony’s inherently placid nature, rather than something more insidiously clinical.

    These ponies are known for their stoicism and toughness – we often joke that they’ll only stop eating when they stop breathing. Yet they deserve just as much care and attention as any other equine. If this care is properly targeted at their more specific veteran pony needs, they will continue to bring joy to generations of children.

    Routine needs

    Family ponies are often of native type and tend to be good-doers with a steady, sensible temperament and robust limbs and feet.

    This hardiness can sometimes disguise a range of developing age-related problems. A system of care that worked well in one home may not be adhered to in another, for various reasons, so health and management should be reviewed regularly.

    Keeping a series of photos of the pony, taken from all angles, in his passport means that current owners do not lose sight of how he used to look in his prime. This can help to focus attention when subtle changes start to occur, which may not be solely attributable to age.

    Routine care should include:

    • Vaccinations and worming: vulnerability to infections and parasitism increases with age. Maintenance of regular flu and tetanus vaccinations, and targeted worming, is pivotal to health, irrespective of the pony’s role.
    • Dentistry: a pony may carry on eating despite unimaginably painful and compromised dentition, so routine dentistry is essential. If maintenance is neglected until he suddenly starts to lose weight, it may be difficult to restore adequate function to the mouth.
    • Feet and joints: while lower limbs are generally good, economising on regular trimming and/or shoeing can seriously impact a pony’s soundness – both currently and in the longer term.
    • Nutrition: many native types remain good-doers well into their twenties, thriving on basic forage and perhaps a veteran balancer to provide essential vitamins and minerals, probiotics and joint support. Some ponies, such as those predisposed to laminitis, require special dietary measures. The principle of trickle feeding – providing an almost constant supply of forage – applies to all. Age-related dental issues are likely at some stage, but there are now many commercial hay or grass replacer options.
    • Condition checks: condition remains a good indicator of health throughout life, despite the inevitable age-related sagging. Rather than attributing signs such as steady loss of weight or coat shine to old age, always seek veterinary advice. Remember, too, that an excessively heavy winter coat can hide health issues, so keep a check on what’s going on underneath.
    • Tack assessment: do not assume that the tack that came with the pony still fits him – it will probably be just as old and may no longer be suitable for the pony’s changing shape.

    Aches and pains

    These equine OAPs are still working and so deserve extra considerations.

    Be observant – that sought-after docility could actually be hiding a degree of depression or discomfort. A pony may have tolerated a succession of novice children climbing all over him, hanging off his neck and practising star jumps from his back, and he may have chronic aches and pains as a result.

    Some baited (carrot) stretches before being ridden plus a proper warm-up will be much appreciated. Regular physiotherapy is ideal, along with plenty of rest. A pony will also benefit from living out as much as possible, as long as he has adequate shelter and is not bullied by younger or bigger field-mates.

    The pony pensioner

    The patient pony will not complain, so be vigilant for these common age-related conditions:

    Arthritis: an almost inevitable consequence of old age. Steadiness could be stiffness due to discomfort from multiple arthritic sites, which warrants diagnosis, management and treatment on welfare grounds.

    PPID: Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or Cushing’s disease, is typified by the hairy, mildly depressed and borderline laminitic older pony. Latest studies suggest an incidence of up to 20% of 20-year-olds, rising to 30% in the over-twenties. Much can be done in terms of management, such as dietary control, clipping and medication.

    Laminitis: many ponies will have had a lifelong predisposition to laminitis, resulting in chronic foot deformities. Good farriery, with regular trimming and possibly long-term remedial shoeing, can mean they are still able to lead a comfortable, active life.

    Weight loss: thid should never be ignored, especially if there are concurrent issues such as diarrhoea, recurrent colic or subtle behavioural changes. Possible causes include dental and liver problems, and internal tumours.

    Tumours: the incidence of several types of tumour increases with age, yet treatment is often effective – as with Harry, a 30-year-old gelding still going strong five years after penis amputation due to squamous cell carcinoma. Greys, over-represented in this particular demographic due to the Welsh pony influence, are greatly predisposed to melanomas as they get older.

    Heart and mind: cardiac and circulatory issues are rare; most ponies will have been retired for other reasons before reaching the stage of weakness, ataxia (loss of muscle control) or collapse. Other problems seen in our human geriatric population, such as blindness, deafness and senility, are difficult to evaluate in ponies, so more studies are needed. Cataracts and opacities can occur, yet ponies tend to adapt well and are rarely troubled by reduced vision.

    Keeping Rookie on the road

    In his prime, Rookie was a top-class working hunter pony. While the early onset of hock arthritis forced his retirement from the showing circuit, his personality meant that he has adapted easily to a second career as a Pony Club schoolmaster and family all-rounder.

    Now 21, Rookie is kept happy and sound with regular veterinary input and careful management. His arthritis has been controlled with the occasional joint injection or systemic treatment with one of the DMOADs (disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs). He is impeccably shod, his weight is monitored and his exercise is consistent. He also receives bi-monthly physiotherapy.

    With middle daughter Chloe having just taken him over from big sister Frankie, and four-year-old Lily waiting impatiently in the wings, the Lindop family consider the investment into Rookie’s ongoing health as money well spent.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 4 June 2020