Senior Horses Aging Gracefully
By Lola Michelin, Director of Education, Northwest School of Animal Massage
The idea of scheduling a massage for your horse may seem luxurious. Yet those who have experienced it will agree that massage can be a valuable tool in managing an animal’s health and well-being, along with other therapies such as chiropractic or acupressure. Senior horses present an opportunity to combine different approaches to health because each horse will have a very specific set of needs depending on their age and stage of life.
Most of my career has been spent providing therapies for athletic horses, race horses, and show jumpers in the prime of their competitive life. When I relocated my animal massage school to a farm outside of Seattle, Washington, the focus became providing a retirement home to many of those horses as they entered their golden years. There was a steep learning curve as we adjusted to designer diets for metabolic cases and creative turnout and exercise solutions for chronic founder cases. It took hay testing and experimenting with slow feeders and soaked rations to dial in just the right feeding programs for our “old gummers” – horses over 30 with failing dentition.
Massage therapy is a natural approach to pain management for the senior horse, and can be a valuable addition to his overall health plan. Photo: Thinkstock/Martin C. Parker
Older horses often age gracefully and may do well with little more than a pasture mate and routine veterinary care and hoof trimming. But as your horse moves into its 20s and hopefully 30s, it is wise to be on the lookout for areas where additional support will be needed.
In my experience, the three most challenging aspects of managing the senior horse are nutrition, pain management, and immune support. While there are many approaches to each, I will focus on the first two for this article, with an emphasis on the therapeutic management of pain.
Managing the diet of the older horse requires knowledge of their individual metabolic ability and their dentition. This is a topic that warrants close attention and detailed research. Keeping diets for older horses simple is key. Nearly all of our horses are on some wet ration, either soaked hay or hay pellets supplemented with salt. Not only is this more palatable, it ensures proper levels of hydration and goes a long way to preventing choke. Less is usually more for these older gals and gents, with little to no grain products, a well-rounded vitamin and mineral supplement, and plenty of access to salt and water. Many older horses suffer from insulin resistance or Cushing’s disease, both of which necessitate the removal of any sugars from the diet. This means sensible treats as well, so we post signs for visitors regarding special diets and treats.
Of particular interest to me as a therapist is the pain management and immune support we provide. Many older horses have some level of arthritic changes or joint pain. Many more have generalized pain or discomfort that is harder to pinpoint but decreases quality of life and suppresses immune function. Natural approaches to pain management include massage, acupressure or acupuncture, and gentle herbal pain formulas along with traditional pain medication when indicated. Due to their suppressing influence on the immune system and a tendency to dehydrate tissues and disrupt gut function, we try to avoid medication when possible but never at the sake of the horses’ comfort. Natural pain reducers such as willow, yucca and devil’s claw can provide significant relief. However, devil’s claw can interfere with metabolic function so owners should talk with their veterinarian before supplementing with this herb.
Movement is probably your greatest weapon in the fight against arthritis. For senior horses, this means frequent low level periods of movement or exercise, such as hand walking, an exercise track around your pasture or paddocks, treat toys that encourage the horse to eat on the move, or a treadmill or walker when available. The key is moderation, with low intensity and short but frequent opportunities for movement. Massage therapists utilize range of motion exercises to gently lubricate joints and keep muscles active.
Older horses benefit from low level exercise, such as hand walking. Photo: iStock/Sitikka
Case in point, we have a 34-year-old horse who came to us after several bouts of founder. In addition, she has cancer (melanoma), Cushing’s disease, and she is insulin resistant. Five years after her arrival, she is living with a pasture mate, barefoot, on minimal medication to support her Cushing’s, her thyroid is in balance and she either hand walks or visits the treadmill daily to keep up her girlish figure. Her weight is closely managed to reduce stress on her joints. She eats a wet ration supplemented with cinnamon and chaste berry. We often ask students and visitors to identify the oldest horse on the property and they rarely choose her.
I caution horse owners about using too many different therapies in the management of their older equines. During competition, horses often do well with regular visits from the chiropractor, bodyworker, and veterinarian. With older horses, less is often more. I strive for a balance between stability and flexibility in older horses, where stability is an important factor in their physical and mental well-being – a horse that feels unstable feels unsafe. These means less aggressive manipulations of the spine and limbs in favour of gentle movements or low-force short level manipulations. Gentle bodywork involving stretches without traction is preferable to deep tissue massage or long traction-type stretching. Stick to a few things you know your horse enjoys and responds to, but maybe consider doing them for shorter sessions and with more frequency. Our horses get a full body massage at least once a month, but they get gentle stretching sessions and energy work several times a week. I have a veterinary chiropractor who checks them over every six to eight weeks, but only adjusts if necessary and never with excessive force.
It is important to recognize that massage is not a substitute for proper veterinary care, and a massage practitioner cannot diagnose specific conditions or prescribe treatment for your horse. However, they can be an important tool in monitoring your aging horse’s health. When seeking the services of an animal massage practitioner, be sure they are licensed to practice or meet the qualifications required in your region. Or take a basic animal massage class yourself and find out firsthand how massage can improve the bond between you and your best friend.
Lola Michelin has been a Licensed Massage Practitioner for people and animals for over 30 years. She is the Director of Education at the Northwest School of Animal Massage, which she founded in 2001. When not practicing massage or teaching, she runs Paxhia Farm, an equine rehabilitation and retirement facility on Vashon Island.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main Photo: For the senior horse, movement is the best defence against arthritis. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Michaela S