We cherish our older horses. In some cases we have a long history and lots of wonderful memories with them. In others, we value their kind and quiet personalities with our kids and (not-so-horsey) spouses. However they came in to our lives, the Seniors often show us the best qualities of horses and as ambassadors for the equine world they deserve the best in care. Caring for senior horses is easier than ever with modern feeds, health monitoring, and medications.
Let’s start with health monitoring. Providing regular dental care to your young horse means good teeth for many years to come. Dr. Lacher posted a picture of her 30 year old horse to Facebook demonstrating his excellent teeth. Just last week she saw another 25 year old horse who had received great dental care her whole life and as a result had perfect teeth. A good set of chompers means these two horses can eat normal feed and roughage keeping feeding costs down, maintain a happier gut, and experience a higher quality of life.
If your older horse didn’t have the luck to have a fantastic owner is his younger years don’t despair. Senior feeds and leafy hays keep these guys in on the action for a long time. These horses do experience more dental problems such as loose teeth and tooth root infections. A call to Springhill Equine at the slightest hint of dental pain allows us to manage most of these problems quickly and easily.
After dental disease, Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Cushings disease are the next most common issues we face with our older horses. EMS and Cushings go together like peanuts and peanut butter most of the time. Wait isn’t it peanut butter and jelly? Yes but in this case EMS affects younger horses (as young as 3-4 years old) and over time many of those horses develop Cushings. So just like you start with peanuts to get to peanut butter, we often see EMS first and then see Cushings.
There are ways to identify EMS horses using blood tests but often we simply evaluate your horse’s body condition score (BCS). Horses who are a BCS of 7 or higher on a scale of 9 are almost always afflicted with EMS. This disease is similar to Type II Diabetes in humans and is managed with similar diet and exercise life changes. EMS leads to Cushings if not well managed because these horses are in a Pro-Inflammatory State. That means the immune system is always looking for places to take out its aggression and it doesn’t always find the right place to do that. If we are unsure if a horse has EMS we have a very simple blood test which can be performed: you, the owner, give about 100cc of Karo syrup and then about 90-120 minutes later we come out, draw blood, and send it off for insulin levels.
Cushings disease is recognized commonly in horses, dogs, and humans. Of course, horses have to be special by developing the disease in a different area of the pituitary gland than humans or dogs. Humans and dogs have a problem with the back of the pituitary gland or the adrenal glands, while horses develop their problem in the middle of the pituitary gland. What’s the big deal you ask? 5,000 different possible hormones is the big deal. While humans and dogs primarily release cortisol (the nasty stress hormone), your horse might release any combination of the 5,000 different hormones controlled by the middle of the pituitary gland. These hormones are primarily responsible for maintaining status quo in the body. They let the body know if it’s hot or cold, hungry or thirsty, should we grow feet or stop, etc. This means we can’t look at any given horse and say “Yep, You’ve got Cushings.” Luckily we have two great blood tests that give us pretty good answers. ACTH levels are a simple blood draw and if elevated we can reliably say “This horse has Cushings.” Because of that whole 5,000 hormones thing sometimes we have a strong suspicion that a horse has Cushings but ACTH levels come back normal. In that case we go a second test know as a TRH stimulation. This test involves a shot of TRH, waiting 15 minutes, and then another quick and easy blood draw to test ACTH levels. Horses who have Cushings disease are managed with a combination of medications depending on ACTH levels and symptoms.
Last but not least: The Dreaded L Word. Laminitis has the power to strike fear in to any horse owner’s heart. Watching our horses hobble around is almost as painful for us as it is for them. Turns out most laminitis is secondary to EMS and Cushings so good monitoring for these two conditions will dramatically reduce your horse’s chances of developing laminitis. Here at Springhill Equine we also strongly recommend radio-graphs (x-rays) of your senior horse’s feet every year. Many EMS horses suffer from very low levels of laminitis which cause slowly progressive changes in the feet. Often they don’t show us signs until they have progressed quite far. By taking radio-graphs yearly we can identify subtle cases early and form a plan with your farrier.
Our Senior horses have worked hard for us, in return let’s give them a great retirement! Springhill Equine’s Senior Wellness Program has been designed to evaluate all the common problems we talked about in this newsletter. If you would like more information or have questions about your Senior horse contact any of the Springhill Team.