The Joys of Treating an Older Horse

As the owner of several geriatric horses, I know first hand how endearing owning an “oldie” can really be.  A swayed back, a droopy lip, a greyed face, a missing eye are charming qualities that become all the more sweet when you have shared many years together.   I recently attended a webinar given by Dr. Sarah Ralston, nutritionist, who spoke about nutrition for the older horse.  Twenty years ago, no feed company offered a diet for older horses, believing that no one cared about feeding and maintaining the elder equine. Purina was one of the first to offer a “Senior” diet, with the guidance of Dr. Ralston.  Now, senior diets are amongst the top sellers at any feed outlet, and geriatric medicine is a big part of equine veterinary practice in North America.

Talking about the elderly equine got me thinking about how we care for our old companions, and what else could be done for them.  There is no doubt that our older friends have more problems than their younger counterparts.   Early intervention of issues with proper nutrition, dentistry, good husbandry and pain reduction are the keys in my mind to ensuring that as long as they are happy to be munching on hay, they can.   With old horses, little changes can go a long way.  I always find it satisfying to float a set of teeth on an older patient and later hear that they have gained 100 lbs before going into winter!

I am always up for a challenge, especially when approached with the challenge by a fellow colleague.  Dr. Caldwell, from our Niagara practice, approached me about using acupuncture as a non-invasive method for helping an older patient.  This old fellow was 33 years old and had some issues with mobility, keeping weight, as well as some neurological issues.  Upon meeting this bright-eyed gelding, and his kind, dedicated, owners, I was inspired.  We began using acupuncture with the goals of improving mobility, energy and reducing his neurological signs.  My goal was not to make my patient into a young foal again, but to improve his quality of life and make his remaining years as happy as possible.

In an older patient, I use fewer needles, and minimal electro-acupuncture so as not to overwhelm the system.  Our patient had some aches and pains in his hind end and neck, so we worked on those points, also choosing some energy boosting and appetite boosting points.  Being an easy-going guy, he really enjoyed his treatment.   After the first treatment, he was more energetic and more mobile. After another 3 treatments with good responses, we plan on reducing the treatment regime with the idea that “tune-ups” may become less frequent.  We achieved some good improvement from the first few treatments, and I am excited to see how things come along in the next few months.

Acupuncture, as with all aspects of geriatric medicine, is a balance of working on main problems, and helping as much as we can.  Given the level of change in attitudes and therapies for older horses in the past 20 years, it will be interesting to see what happens next.  Do you have any ideas?

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