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Good news and bad news about senior horse care

Scientific advances have helped horses live longer healthier lives, but caring for old horses can take a toll.

A study from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University confirms what many dedicated horse owners have long known: Caring for a geriatric horse with a chronic health condition can be a significant physical and emotional burden.

“The idea of caregiver burden is a topic only recently studied in companion animals and now horses,” says Seana Dowling- Guyer, MS, at Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy. “This probably relates to our complicated relationship with them. Horses serve different purposes and often fill multiple roles ranging from sports athlete to pleasure ride to companion. Some horses are cared for by their owners but others are looked after by other people. That likely moderates the experience of caregiving. Like smaller companion animals, horses are living longer than ever before and have many more treatment and care options. Caretakers may struggle with decisions related to these options.”

And older chestnut horse with a gray face looking off camera

Caring for a geriatric horse with a chronic health condition can be a significant physical and emotional burden, but owners have indicated they are willing to face these obstacles.

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The researchers used online questionnaires to gather information from 1,448 owners of geriatric horses, asking specifically about the oldest horse in the respondent’s care. The questionnaire was designed to gather information on the health status of the horse, the perceived physical care burden—the “time, cost and labor taken to manage an older horse,” according to the study—and the perceived emotional care burden, described by researchers as “various stressors experienced by the care- giver that can include heavy workload, feelings of depression and guilt, and communication difficulties, which may result in emotional limits to one’s coping ability.” For the purposes of the study, a chronic condition was defined as any health issue lasting more than three months.

The survey also included questions addressing the level of attachment between the horse and the person, veterinary care decisions, any traumatic events involving the horse and the emotional reaction to the death of the horse.

The data showed that an owner of an older horse with a chronic condition spent 1.41 more hours per week managing the animal than did owners of older horses without chronic conditions. Owners of horses with chronic conditions also reported more frequent veterinary visits and higher equine health care costs, which contributed to a greater emotional burden. The data showed that these owners thought about the needs of their horses more often than did people who owned horses without chronic conditions.

These findings underscore the toll that caring for older horses can take on people, say the researchers. “With horses living longer and so more likely to develop age-related and other conditions, owners may need to physically monitor their horse more often as well as the environment in which their horse lives,” says Megan E. Ballou, MS, a graduate of Tufts Masters in Animals and Public Policy program. “There may need to be more visits from the veterinarian, which not only takes time but also money. Finally, there is an emotional burden due to the regular monitoring and worry about an older horse, especially one with a chronic condition. Caregiver burden can have elements of physical, financial and emotional strain and even potentially layers of complexity created from the overlap of different care burdens.”

How people manage these burdens varies, says Dowling-Guyer: “Some owners worry more, some check their horse more often, some avoid going as often and rely on someone else to monitor their horse. Although we did not ask about how caregiver burden might impact the decisions caregivers made, it’s fair to think burden is a factor in care decisions. That’s not unreasonable, none of us have unlimited time, money, and emotional capacity.”

Nonetheless, the study respondents indicated they were willing to face these obstacles to help their horses. “One of the things we learned from our study was that owners of older horses with chronic conditions cared a lot about their horse’s quality of life and they were willing to shoulder this care burden for their horse,” says Megan K. Mueller, PhD, assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Recognizing these physical and emotional burdens is an important first step in helping owners cope with them, says Ballou. “Owners should not feel any shame related to the burden they feel. Acknowledge those feelings and reach out to talk to others in a similar situation. There’s a lot of support available from other owners.”

Dowling-Guyer adds that veterinarians can also offer support. “[Our study found] owners of older horses, regardless of chronic condition status, turned to their veterinarian most often for help in making care decisions for their horse. It’s okay to acknowledge limitations, sometimes alternative options can be found, but the veterinarian may not know to explore those if she doesn’t know the owner’s situation.”

Reference: “Aging Equines: Understanding the Experience of Caring for a Geriatric Horse with a Chronic Condition,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, July 2020

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