Keeping a veteran active for longer *H&H Plus*

  • With advances in medicine, our horses are staying healthy well into their twilight years. Stephanie Bateman discovers how to keep our veterans sound and active for longer

    LONG gone are the days when we’d retire our horses in their early teens. Nowadays, it’s not unheard of to see horses in their twenties still enjoying an active life.

    “Keeping a horse sound into old age is a product of a huge number of factors, but most importantly, it’s about delaying the onset and severity of wear and tear,” says Newmarket Equine Hospital surgeon Matt Chesworth.

    One of the main issues facing older horses who have lived an active life is osteoarthritis.

    “Horses have a few common sites for developing osteoarthritis which become more significant as the horse ages,” explains Matt. “These include the lowest joints within the hocks, the coffin joints, and pastern joints, but arthritis can ultimately develop in any joint.”

    Equine joints, like human joints, have fairly limited means of repairing damage.

    “Damage to the surface of the joint, or joint capsule, and the resulting inflammation can lead to further damage and cartilage loss,” says Matt. “Enzymes produced when a joint is inflamed can affect normal cartilage as well as the injured area, so reducing inflammation minimises the speed of deterioration as well as providing pain relief.”


    One method which may provide pain relief is joint injections, often involving a single or a combination of medications injected into the joints.

    “Often corticosteroids are our treatment of choice due to fairly consistent results; however, other treatments are available which can be used in cases where either corticosteroids have shown a poor response or there is concern over laminitis risk,” says Matt. “Examples include hyaluronan, a normal substance found in joints, interleukin receptor antagonist protein [IRAP] derived from the horse’s own blood, or more recently a polyacrylamide hydrogel.”

    The length of time a joint injection lasts depends on the severity of disease but can be from six months to a few years. Other pain control options include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as low levels of phenylbutazone (bute).

    “If you aren’t competing, a maintenance level of pain relief can help keep the horse comfortable and active, but it’s important to discuss with your vet first,” adds Matt. “Joint supplements are another option to help ensure the optimum environment for joint repair and maintenance.”


    TO help maintain healthy joints, Matt advises ensuring the horse’s feet are in good balance with regular visits from the farrier.

    “Long toes, for example, can significantly increase the forces through the deep digital flexor tendon and therefore the navicular bone,” he explains. “Your farrier will also notice if the horse is less comfortable when being shod, which may indicate arthritis.”

    The type of surface you ride on is important, too.

    “Excessive work on hard ground should be avoided as this can lead to increased forces and vibration through the joints, increasing the wear and tear,” says Matt. “Similarly, overly soft or uneven surfaces can lead to increased strain on tendons and ligaments. Regularly feel your horse’s legs so you pick up any swelling or heat early.”

    When it comes to fitness, older horses require a bit more time to build them up.

    “Veterans require longer getting fit, so take a more gradual approach,” suggests Matt. “Strength is very important in avoiding over-stressing joints and old injuries, so keeping them in a low level of consistent work will help keep them strong, as well as giving them plenty of turnout to prevent muscle wastage and stiffness.”

    Other considerations include dental health.

    “Dental care becomes increasingly important as the horse ages,” Matt says. “Horses have hypsodont teeth which are constantly erupting. This means that regular checks every six to twelve months are important to avoid overgrowths. Also monitor for signs of disease such as facial swelling, discharge from the nostrils, bad breath and quidding [dropping food]. Poor dental condition can reduce the protein intake and therefore their muscle mass.”

    Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, commonly called equine Cushing’s disease) is also associated with veterans.

    “Signs include increased hair length, increased drinking, loss of top-line and a
    pot-bellied appearance, and laminitic symptoms,” says Matt. “It can be diagnosed with a simple blood test.”

    Older horses can also be more prone to heart abnormalities such as murmurs.

    “These are often picked up when your horse has their annual vaccination as the vet will listen to their heart,” says Matt. “Murmurs are often due to leaking valves and vary in type and severity. Your vet will be able to advise if your horse is still safe to ride.”


    warming up with an exercise rug sheet on

    KEEPING our veterans in good physical condition plays a big role in their longevity.

    “In an ideal world, a veteran horse would have been well looked after and had regular physio treatments throughout its life,” says veterinary physiotherapist Hayley Marsh. “The best chance you can give a veteran is to be on top of all the physical issues as soon as they arise through regular physio sessions.”

    When it comes to daily maintenance, Hayley suggests longer warm-ups as well as longer cool-downs, and the use of blankets to help warm up muscles.

    “Know your horse and when he feels stiff,” she says. “If he feels stiff, don’t ask anything of him until he’s loosened up. Make sure he has more breaks during a session; his recovery rate might not be as good as when he was younger.”

    When treating, Hayley spends longer warming older horses up and is more conscious of the range of movements she puts them through.

    “I’ll be looking at making sure the muscles are still functional, supple and flexible and I give the owners low level exercises to increase the muscle the horse is carrying,” she explains. “If a horse isn’t well muscled, it puts more strain on the joints which could increase the rate of arthritis setting in. I’d also be careful about a veteran horse’s weight; you don’t want them carrying extra weight on their joints.

    “All horses should work over their backs properly and have a strong core, too,” says Hayley. “I advise carrot stretches, polework, long and low work and backing up to build and maintain the core.”

    ENSURING our veterans are getting what they need from their diet is essential,
    as independent equine nutritionist Donna Case explains.

    “When feeding the harder-working veteran, their diet should provide an appropriate level of energy – calories – to help maintain an ideal body condition score [BCS],” she says. “They also require quality protein to support muscle repair and development as well as a balanced level of vitamins and minerals.”

    Many horses will drop weight during the colder months, but if you notice a sudden loss of condition, an increase in forage or higher calorie hard feed may be required.

    “Speak to your vet in the first instance to rule out possible underlying health factors,” says Donna. “Consider your horse’s clinical history, too, as this will have a massive bearing on suitable diets. A history of EMS [equine metabolic syndrome], PPID [equine Cushing’s disease], laminitis or ulcers will all have an effect on feed that is suitable. Speak to your own vet or a nutritionist to discuss a suitable diet.”

    When it comes to supplements for older horses, Donna recommends a high-quality joint supplement and a gut balancer.

    “When looking at joint supplements the key ingredients include glucosamine, chondroitin, HA [hyaluronic acid] and MSM [methylsulfonylmethane],” says Donna. “The digestive tract tends to become less efficient with age, so finding a high-quality probiotic and prebiotic gut balancer can help to support a healthy hindgut microbiome.”

    “She’s still in work four days a week”

    KARLEY HUBBARD owns 25-year-old Irish Draught/thoroughbred event mare Sadlers Symphony (Jazz).

    “We bought Jazz in 2008 as my first event horse,” tells Karley. “Although she’s hot-headed, opinionated and hates dressage, she gives you everything cross-country. She’s taken me up the levels, achieving our first British Eventing [BE] point, and numerous top-10 placings, including the Pony Club Eventing Championships and the BE100 under-18 finals.

    “Back in February 2017, aged 21, Jazz degloved her right hind down to the cannon bone. Six-months post injury, I was back on board and in June 2018, we were back out eventing, achieving a double clear and third place.

    “Although she’s dropped down the levels now and is enjoying a quieter life, Jazz is still in work four days a week. We’ll hack, school, use polework and groundwork and she’s jumped once or twice a month to keep our eye in. I ensure we have long and slow warm-ups and cool-downs, she’s turned out every day for as long as possible and we keep a constant eye on her condition.

    “She’s fed Emerald Green Grass-tastic and grass nuts, and in the winter months we add full-fat linseed to maintain condition. She is not on any supplements.

    “She has a six-monthly MOT including a physio and dental check, and all being well we’ll be back out eventing this year at 90cm.”

    This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (22 April, 2021)

    You may also be interested in…