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Companion For The Older Horse

16 August 2011 No Comment

Companion For The Older Horse
By Dr. Jessica Jahiel

Dear Jessica,
My question involves my 20-year-old gelding, Sam. The poor fella hasn’t had the easiest life. He’s had 17 owners and was always “trained” with very abusive methods up until I bought him three years ago. Because of his past, any kind of change in his situation or routine is disturbing to him. For example, I’m the only human he wants to deal with on a regular basis, and he’s also particular about which horses he wants to be friends with. Despite all this, he’s a brave and reliable mount and has become my favorite of the horses on the farm.
Sam is currently pastured with three other geldings (ages 9, 11, and 12) who all get along reasonably well. His best friend is dominant in the little herd and for the two years they’ve been together, has aggressively kept him from being picked on by the others, but I’ve noticed lately that he’s started bullying Sam a bit himself. Nothing too dramatic so far, just things like jostling him to the other side of the hay bales out in the field, but it concerns me. All the other horses are much bigger than Sam and I hate to think about what might happen to him if he starts moving to the bottom of the pasture hierarchy. I’m contemplating buying an older, smaller pony so that he and Sam can share a pasture without facing so much competition. That seems like a way to keep Sam happy and stress-free for as many more years as possible, which is my main objective!
It’s not an easy decision, though, since Sam adores his current best buddy, and it seems cruel to separate them, especially considering how much separation Sam’s already had to endure in his life. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.
Do you have any advice for me? I love the old boy so much that I’m afraid my judgment is too clouded to see the situation clearly.

Dear Elizabeth!

Sam was lucky to have found you after so many owners and so many bad experiences. I can see that you’re trying to make up for his earlier experiences – good for you!

After two years of sharing a pasture with the other three geldings, Sam should be fairly secure in his position in the “herd”. If the pasture is large and there is plenty of grazing, and/or the hay is always distributed in piles that total at least two or three more than the number of horses in the field, then even the “bottom horse” is likely to be healthy and well-fed. And the bottom horse isn’t at all insecure, by the way – it always knows exactly what its position is! The most secure horses in any herd are those at the very top and at the very bottom – it’s the ones in the middle that push and shove each other to see who’s number five or who’s number six TODAY. Being at the bottom of the pecking order in a well-managed pasture isn’t a bad thing. It’s the change in Sam’s position that is worrisome. If his status is changing, then there may be a reason for it, and that’s what you’ll need to investigate.

Sam is much older than the others are, but that’s not necessarily a reason to get picked on. In fact, older horses are often the top horses in a group. Size isn’t necessarily related to whether or not a horse gets picked on, either – there are herds in which a smaller, faster, more determined horse holds the top position, above more passive horses that may be two or three hands taller.

It’s possible that Sam may become a little more passive as he ages, but this isn’t guaranteed to happen, so if I were you, I would look for another cause, probably a physical one, for the changes you think you are seeing. Physical changes are important, both in themselves and because of the underlying reasons for the changes – and they’re not always easy to see.

Has Sam lost weight recently? If it’s winter where you live, be sure that you run your hands over Sam to check his condition, and don’t just look at him over the fence. In winter, older horses can look like teddy bears, and a heavy winter coat can disguise a significant weight loss. If he has lost weight, you may want to have his teeth checked thoroughly, review his deworming program, and perhaps make some changes to his diet.

There can be other physical changes, too. Older horses can become arthritic and stiff, and find it more difficult to cope with cold weather and restricted movement. Many owners of older horses are reporting good results from feed-through products such as glucosamines and chondroitin sulphates – it can’t hurt to try some if you think Sam is a little stiff and uncomfortable. Twenty is not old, but horses can age more quickly if they aren’t maintained well and not all twenty-year-old horses are equal. (Think about two cars: same model, same age, one poorly maintained with high mileage, the other well maintained and with half the mileage of the other). Since Sam has had so many owners in his 20 years, it’s quite likely that there has been more wear and tear on his body than would have been the case if he had belonged to one good owner all that time.

Sometimes a horse-owner’s first clue that a horse isn’t well is observing that the horse’s usual companions are treating it differently – follow up on this. If their attitude toward him is changing, it might be a good idea to have your vet give Sam a careful examination – something about Sam may be changing, and he may need more dental work, different feed, a feed supplement, or perhaps some sort of medication. Horses that are healthy and feel good in themselves can continue to be active and cheerful into their twenties and thirties and sometimes even longer. It’s possible that a session with an equine dentist, followed by a more nutritious diet, might get Sam back to normal.

If you have the vet out to check Sam’s condition and make suggestions, ask him to check Sam’s eyes. Loss of vision can make a horse timid. Sam probably has perfectly normal vision, but it can’t hurt to check – it’s just one more possibility to investigate.

In addition to bringing the vet out for a look, it might be helpful to bring along a friend. It can be hard for a loving, hands-on owner to notice changes in a horse, because seeing the horse every day can make small incremental changes difficult to spot. Vets usually see healthy horses twice a year, which allows too many months to go by between “sightings”. If you have a friend who knows Sam but doesn’t see him as often as you do, ask him or her to come out with you every few weeks and take a look. It’s always useful to have access to another pair of eyes.

I wouldn’t shift him out of his established group unless there’s a clear reason for doing so. If he and his best buddy are still pals, and the group works well as a whole, there’s no reason to separate Sam from the others. If the group is no longer working well, and if Sam IS getting picked on, you could try putting him and his best buddy into a pasture that adjoins their current pasture.

It’s always easy to find companion animals, and if Sam were alone in a several-acre pasture behind your house, it would make good sense to bring in another animal. As it is, though, he has friends of his own, and is a member of an established group – he’s secure in the group and knows what to expect. I don’t think there’s any reason to change that situation right now. If you do decide to make the change, bring in the new pony and put it in the pasture next to Sam’s group for a month or two, so that they can all become familiar with one another before you put Sam in with the pony. And by the way, for companionship purposes, the “pony” could be a pony, another horse, or even a donkey! I would have included goats in the list, because horses and goats do often get along very well, but sometimes keeping a goat in an enclosure is a problem. There’s an old saying that any fence that holds water will keep a goat in – and as long as it’s also a very TALL fence, that’s true.

Good luck either way, and please keep me informed about Sam!

To find out more about Dr. Jessica Jahiel, click here!

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