Understanding the emotional and physical impact of caring for an older horse *H&H Plus*

  • Equine OAPs are in the limelight in the latest research round-up from Peter Green MRCVS

    Care conundrum

    There is overwhelming evidence that keeping a pet or caring for an animal like a horse or pony is good for our mental wellbeing.

    With the increase in pleasure horse ownership, the distinction between horses as working or competition animals and as pets has become less clear. Horses are also being kept into their geriatric years more than they used to be; in the US, the proportion of those aged 20 or older has increased by over 50% since 2005 and the same trend is apparent in the UK.

    Vets and social scientists in the US have explored the physical, emotional and mental burden of caring for horses over 20 years old. Using a survey of nearly 1,500 owners or keepers, they investigated the costs, the worry and the strength of the attachment of the carer to their horse.

    The results showed that having an older equine with a chronic health condition was likely to increase the emotional burden upon the carer. People with an unwell or lame veteran were more preoccupied with him than owners of younger horses or older animals in good health. The burdens of time, work and vet costs were also factors in adding stress and worry.

    Crucially, the majority of carers said quality of life was the most important criterion upon which to make end-of-life decisions, and looked to their vet to advise them.

    The research raises some important questions. When do the emotional and physical burdens of caring for an old, unwell animal outweigh the mental wellbeing benefits of horse ownership? Are equine vets aware of the role they play? And are they sufficiently trained to give the best advice, not only for the benefit of the animal, but also of the carer?

    What’s the buzz?

    In autumn, as colder weather sets in, older horses can become immunosuppressed. As resistance to infection becomes depressed, these veterans are likely to succumb to bacterial or viral illness.

    A team of Polish vets took blood samples from 16 warmbloods, aged 15 to 26 years, from mid-October to mid-November while adding 60g of soaked bee pollen to the feeds of half the horses.

    Bee pollen is different from honey, being the mixture of flower pollen and bee saliva that honey bees pack into cells as a food store. The horses not fed the bee pollen showed reductions in red blood cells and haemoglobin and increases in blood proteins and lipids, suggesting some seasonal immunosuppression. But those that received it did not show these changes.

    Further reading

    Veterans and carers: Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 90, 102993
    Bee pollen: Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 90, 103024

    Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020