Secrets of longevity in equine athletes

There are no magic formulas for keeping elite equine athletes in top shape over the years. Instead, their handlers follow a few simple principles to address their health and well-being. Here’s how you can apply these lessons to your horse’s care.

There’s something uniquely inspiring about watching an older equine athlete who is still “in the game.” Maybe it’s the physical skills he displays after years of experience have honed his reflexes to perfection. Or perhaps it’s his unflappable attitude—his “been there, done that” approach to seemingly daunting competitive challenges. Or we could simply be connecting with the joy we know his rider derives from a long successful partnership with a trusted mount.

A horse going over a show jump
No athlete makes it to the top of his sport without a support crew behind him.

We can do more than just admire these mature equine athletes, though—we can learn from them, applying some of the techniques that keep them sound, healthy and happy in the care of our own horses. The goal, of course, wouldn’t be elite athletic performance; it would be to enable your horse to do more, better and longer—whether he is a weekend trail horse or a regular show competitor.

There are no tricks to keeping horses active longer, nor are there specific prescriptions to follow. Instead, the lessons to be learned from elite equine athletes speak to an all-encompassing approach to horse management.

“Genetics and luck certainly play a role in how long a horse’s athletic career lasts,” says Christiana Ober, DVM, of Peak Performance Equine Services and head veterinarian for the Canadian Three-Day Event Team. “But the single biggest factor in any horse’s long term soundness and health is a good management program. It doesn’t matter if he’s an Olympic athlete or a local hunter or a pleasure horse—having a solid management plan will extend his active and comfortable years.”

Principle 1: Every horse needs a team

No athlete makes it to the top of his sport without a support crew behind him. For elite horses, this crew is made up of a trainer, rider, groom, veterinarian, farrier and a slew of specialists, from a chiropractor to an acupuncturist.

“These horses have a village taking care of them,” says Susan Johns, DVM, of Virginia Equine Imaging, who cares for elite driving and event horses. “There is an entire team working toward the same goal, which is keeping that horse healthy.” At the highest levels of equestrian sport, these experts communicate weekly, even daily during the competition season, to share information—and that’s when everything is going as expected. If the horse has an injury or illness, the team will be in nearly constant communication.

This team approach works well because each person involved tends to “see” the horse through slightly different eyes, says Richard Markell, DVM, of Ranch and Coast Equine Practice, who has cared for top dressage horses and jumpers for nearly three decades. “A groom who has his hands on that horse every day is going to notice a puffiness in a hock or if the horse isn’t eating as enthusiastically as usual. He knows that horse better than anyone. If he passes along that information, the veterinarian can do diagnostic work and then maybe confer with the farrier for soundness issues, or someone who can do a dental checkup if that’s called for. Meanwhile, the rider can be telling all of us what she feels from the saddle, which is a hugely important piece of information.” Your horse’s team is probably smaller than that of an elite athlete, but it’s no less important or influential. “For starters, you’ve got yourself and anyone who handles that horse regularly,” says Johns. “If you’re lucky, it’s a very attentive barn manager. Then there’s your farrier and veterinarian. Do whatever you can to get these people regularly communicating and sharing information about this specific horse, even when the information is just that he’s looking and feeling good.”

To help facilitate those conversations, Johns recommends taking notes you can share and use as a reference. “A lot of grooms maintain logbooks where they record every detail of the horse’s care,” says Johns. “They write down when the farrier came out and what he did, when the horse was vaccinated, when he coughed a few times during warm-up and when he was changed to a different type of hay. You can record whatever level of detail you’d like—some is better than none—and then you can share it with whomever is involved with your horse’s care.”

Principle 2: Downtime can be counterproductive

You might assume that after a major international competition or event, an older competition horse will receive a well-earned break, lounging in a pasture for a few weeks to relax and unwind. Actually, these horses don’t—for several good reasons. 

“For starters, it’s much more difficult to get an older horse fit after a period of rest,” says Markell. “If we let a teenaged horse get unfit, then want to condition him again for competition, it’s going to take longer than when he was younger. We also run the risk of hurting structures when we bring him back, through strain and concussion that comes with the work we are going to need to do to bring him back into shape.”

 Another consideration is that fitness itself keeps the horse sound. “Strong tendons, ligaments and bones just work better,” says Markell. “In an unfit horse, the whole system starts to break down, leaving the horse more prone to injury that will keep him out of work, making him more unfit. It’s a cycle you don’t want to get caught in. The ‘move it or lose it’ philosophy very much applies to older, active horses.” Ober agrees: “I’m certain that if these guys maintain a certain level of fitness, they last longer. It’s the unfit horse at the end of the cross-country who sustains an injury.”

Even if a lack of fitness doesn’t lead to injury, it can still affect how an older horse performs. “A big problem for dressage horses is loss of topline musculature as they age,” says Johns. “People bring in horses in their mid- to late teens complaining about saddle fit. The problem is that the horse is losing condition along his topline. We have the clients do stretching exercises and keep a very regular riding schedule to maintain that muscle condition.” 

Your own horse will enjoy the same benefits of staying active. “Keep riding your older horse as much as you can,” says Ober. “Don’t let him stand around doing nothing.” An experienced horse who knows his job well won’t need schooling or training, and drilling skills too much can lead to burnout. But simply riding him regularly—multiple times a week—with no prolonged time off will maintain his fitness level. 

“I hardly ever say ‘always’ or ‘never’ in practice, but I will say that keeping a horse at the peak of fitness his abilities will allow is always a good idea,” says Markell.

Principle 3: Physical problems are best confronted quickly

Caretakers of older, elite competition horses don’t wait for a horse to become lame, ill or injured to take action. They stay one step ahead, determining what’s normal for an individual horse, looking for potential problems and acting quickly when they see one.

“Four times a year, we will do a full workup on a competition horse,” says Ober. “The idea is to establish a baseline so when we go back and do another exam a few months later, we know if something we notice is a new development.” In addition to these full workups, a veterinarian will often see an older competition horse simply to touch base with his caretakers and give him a quick checkup. 

“A lot of the teenagers we are seeing on a weekly basis during the height of their competition season,” says Ober. “This is as much to see the horses as it is to ask the grooms how things are going and the riders if they’ve noticed any changes.” Having your own veterinarian visit your healthy pleasure horse on a weekly basis is overkill, for sure, but regularly scheduled visits twice or even four times a year can provide invaluable information. 

“I recommend any horse have a full exam before the start of their ‘busy’ season—be it local shows or just trails,” says Markell. “This is a good time to make sure the horse is up-to-date on vaccines and deworming before you start traveling places he will be exposed to other horses and diseases. Make sure you schedule enough time for a musculoskeletal exam with flexions and maybe even x-rays. It will cost you more money, but the value of the information you’ll get is tremendous.”

Markell cautions that being proactive doesn’t mean treating horses “just because” or on a schedule dictated by a calendar alone. “There used to be a school of thought that you’d inject a horse’s hocks every six months, or two weeks before a competition, with no other justification other than it might help. We’re smarter than that now. I’m not going to inject a horse—or otherwise treat him—unless I have a reason to believe he needs it. That said, I’m going to look closely and listen carefully to the horse. If he’s more responsive to flexion tests in one hock than the other, for instance, that might make me consider injections, especially if the rider has also noticed even a slight change in his gait.”

Principle 4: Aging requires continuing adaptation

You might think that a veteran athlete must not have any physical problems. After all, if he did, how could he perform so well for so long? But virtually every single one does. Their caretakers aren’t surprised when the problems develop—in fact, they’ve probably spotted them early—and are ready to adapt their management and training plans as needed. 

“For instance, if you are talking about teenaged sport horses, or really any active older horse, they all have arthritis,” says Ober. “It’s just a matter of where and how much. But it’s not a career-ender by any means, particularly with new therapies. If you can locate it early, before it’s causing soundness problems, you can really limit the impact it will have. We will actually use IRAP0 on a joint very early on, when a few years ago we might have just ‘kept an eye’ on something we noticed on an x-ray. We want to do whatever we can to keep that joint happy and healthy.”

Managing physical changes in older athletes takes much more than medication, however. The horse’s workload and routine need to be adjusted as well. “I have several horses in my practice with chronic back pain, just like millions of older Americans have,” says Markell. “What we typically do for those horses is customize a warm-up routine with lots of walking and then straight to cantering for stretching and contraction before we settle into serious work. You’ve got to listen to what the horse is telling you and make changes based on his needs.” 

The competition schedule of an older athlete may also be influenced by his physical needs. “A lot of times I’ll sit down with a client and carefully plan out a season if the horse has an issue we need to be mindful of,” says Johns. “If he’s having trouble sweating, we will keep him out of Florida in the summer. Don’t go riding your older horse with a ligament issue on a muddy trail. Pass up this ride and wait for another day. A lot of this is common sense, but you have to be willing to recognize the need and be willing to change your plans.”

Principle 5: Healing is slower and less certain in older horses

One of the biggest challenges in managing older elite athletes is bringing them back from an injury. “What ends a career in an older horse usually isn’t something catastrophic,” says Markell. “It’s more likely something small. The sort of injury that a younger horse might come back from but the older guys, for many reasons, just can’t.”

One factor that makes rehabbing older horses more difficult is the adverse effect stall rest can have. “If you lock these horses in a stall for six months for a tendon injury, chances are they are never going to be able to come back,” says Ober. The older horses may become so unfit on stall rest that other problems related to that loss of condition develop. 

Or, the process of getting them back into shape once the injury has healed is too stressful for their bodies, causing other issues to develop. “Unless it’s a fracture situation, where the leg has to be non-weight-bearing, I’m never going to put a horse on complete stall rest,” says Ober. “When they get an injury it’s all about active rehab.” Simply hand-walking an injured horse daily can help maintain his overall fitness while keeping his mind occupied. Very controlled exercise also results in better healing of the injury itself because new tissue fibers are more likely to form in orderly alignment. Hand-walking eventually progresses to walking under saddle and then light riding, but knowing when to move forward with an older horse’s rehabilitation can be tricky. 

“When people are in rehab we have them move and work through a bit of stiffness, but they let us know when it hurts too bad, then we stop before we reinjure the area or injure somewhere else,” says Markell. “You can’t do that with a horse; he can’t tell us when it goes from sore to hurt. And some horses—those true competitors—will grit their teeth and go on, hiding injuries until they are really bad. These are really difficult to rehabilitate.”

Knowing how far to push when rehabilitating an older athlete means being very attentive to subtle clues, such as swellings or the horse’s willingness to work. “You’ve got to be very, very attentive to any changes,” says Johns. “How does he feel? How is he moving? What does the leg look like? Is it swelling again? This is one of those times when communication between all the team members is critical.” 

The sweet spot in a horse’s life, where experience overlaps with good health to make him the perfect partner for any endeavor, is growing larger and larger with each passing year. “I graduated from veterinary school in 1985,” says Markell. “Back then, if you had a 15-year-old horse, you had better enjoy him, because you weren’t going to be able to ride him much longer. If you wanted to take a 17-year-old horse out on a three-hour trail ride, I would have questioned your judgment. Today, though, we see Grand Prix horses in their 20s and pleasure horses being active until nearly 30. And these horses are living great lives. That’s a testament to the kind of care we can provide every horse.”

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #441.

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