Your Aging Horse: Conditioning

By Christine Barakat, EQUUS Magazine

If 60 is the new 40 for riders, 20 is the new 15 for their horses. Advances in veterinary medicine have not only extended equine lives, but made soundness and good health common even among aged horses---many now remain vigorous well into what used to be considered retirement years. Some of these seniors never stopped being active; others have been retrained for a second career.

Just as in people, the benefits of exercise for aging horses are myriad and self-reinforcing. "Horses who move around a lot and are active stay supple longer than their peers who loaf around stalls and fields all day," says veterinarian and endurance rider Jeanette Mero, DVM. Exercise can help keep horses from becoming obese and developing related metabolic issues. Fit horses also generally have better hooves and are less prone to musculoskeletal injuries.

Not only can exercise prevent health issues in older horses, it aids in the management of conditions they already have. "We know that exercise can help horses with arthritis, for instance," says Mero. "The trick is striking the right balance---finding the level of activity that gets him fit and keeps everything in good working order, but doesn't cause problems itself."

How long a horse can keep going depends on many factors. But, says Mero, "if a client asks me, I usually say 25 is the limit for serious athletic activity. Not that some horses can't handle it, but at that point I think a horse has earned a retirement of lighter use. But from ages 17 to the early 20s, assuming there aren't other issues, such as navicular or significant arthritis, there's really no reason that horses can't be put on a sensible conditioning program, fitted up and enjoyed by their riders."

Plan for fitness
Before putting any horse over the age of 15 into a conditioning program, check with your veterinarian. She may suggest a full workup to ensure that your horse is physically able to get back in shape. With your veterinarian's approval, you can then begin to devise a fitness plan for your older horse, based on his situation and your goals.

A horse's earlier career influences which fitness program will suit him best later in life. For starters, it's easier to get an old athlete back in shape than it is to transform an aged equine paddock-loafer into a top performer. "There is such thing as muscle memory, and tendon and ligament memory," says Mero. "If those structures have been in good shape before---even years before---it will be much, much easier than if they had never been in shape."

That said, an active youth also means a horse's muscles, bones and joints have sustained more wear and tear. "A horse who was lightly trail ridden for most of his life is likely going to have fewer physical problems as he ages than a horse who was roped off of during those same years," says Mero. "People like to say a horse only has so many miles, and in some respect it is a finite thing, but what they spent those miles doing is also a major factor." A horse who spent his younger years in high-speed sports is more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems than one who was involved only in low-impact activities.

Often the effects of a strenuous past don't emerge until years after the fact. "It's like an NBA player who retires healthy, but then develops arthritis in both knees and hips years later," says Mero. "The damage was done, it just took some time to be evident.

Take it slowly
Conditioning programs for older horses generally differ from those for their younger peers only in time frame and pace. "You can use all the same tactics, including distance work, hill work and skill-specific drills; you just have to go much more slowly with an older horse," says Mero.

At the outset, "plan to do lots and lots of miles at a walk," she advises. "If the horse is very out of shape, that might mean several weeks of walking before you start light jogging." As with younger horses, increase either the distance or the speed of a workout as the horse progresses, never both at the same time. Be patient: Plan on spending at least three months conditioning an older horse for pleasure trail riding, and longer for more demanding tasks such as jumping.

Downtime is critical for older equine athletes. Conditioning occurs when tissues are stressed then given time to recover as stronger, fitter structures. If that period isn't sufficient, however, injury can occur. Factor in more rest time for an older horse than you would for a younger one: "They may need two days off after a hard ride where a younger horse may need only one," says Mero. "Their tissues are older and you need to be more conservative."

Let your horse be your guide
Arthritis is the most likely condition to limit a horse's activity later in life but, as Mero notes, it can usually be managed. "You can exercise a horse with mild arthritis and probably should," she says, "but if you push an arthritic horse too far, you'll only accelerate his decline."

How much work a mildly arthritic horse can do varies depending how he feels on particular days. "Watch him walk in the field and take time as you groom to really look at him," Mero says. "How does he feel? Is he just a little stiff or really having trouble? The more you know your horse and pay attention to him, the more accurately you'll be able to answer those questions."

Navicular syndrome is another musculoskeletal condition that can interfere with an older horse's fitness plan. Characterized by inflammation of the structures around a horse's navicular bone deep in the hoof, this condition can often be managed with specialized trimming and shoeing. But excessive work, especially on unforgiving footing, can lead to painful flare-ups. It may be tempting to just give a navicular horse some bute and forge ahead, but the painkiller will only mask signs, which can lead to further damage.

Cushing's disease, a malfunction of the horse's pituitary gland, is very common in older horses but doesn't necessarily limit their activities. "I treat a number of mild to moderate Cushing's horses that are used for roping," says Mero. "The excess corticosteroids these horses produce can put stress on soft tissues, and they may be prone to overheating with a thick coat, but they are on pergolide and seem to be doing well."

Of course, you'll also want to take into account any old injuries your horse had in his younger years. Serious, acute injuries---such as a torn tendon or fracture---can significantly limit the amount of activity a horse can tolerate later in life. Reinjury is a worry, or a horse may simply become unsound as his work increases. If you're aware of your horse's old injuries, discuss their potential effects on a fitness program with your veterinarian.

Respond quickly to signs of trouble
As your fitness plan progresses, watch for signs of stress in your older horse. "You need to look at his legs often and very carefully," says Mero. "Check them over before and after each ride. Are there new windpuffs, or an area of heat?" Older horses will likely have a collection of bumps and lumps, but any that are new, tender or hot are cause for concern.

Mero says that, in her experience, the inferior and superior check ligaments on each leg, which stabilize the knee and take load off the flexor tendons, seem more prone to injury in older horses than younger ones. She's not sure exactly why but says it probably relates to tissue changes.

"Old ligaments, and tendons and muscles for that matter, just don't stretch as much as they did when they were younger," says Mero. "The check ligaments might undergo these changes before or more dramatically than other structures." Check-ligament injuries can cause lameness and swelling on the back of the cannon---looking like a bowed0 tendon---and can take many months to heal.

In addition to obvious lumps and injuries, signs that an older horse may be having trouble with a conditioning program include tripping, loss of balance or a general lack of luster. You may have to look carefully for these signs, as many horses will soldier on, even when stressed. "Some horses are very stoic," says Mero. "Particularly those that have been around and seen a lot. They tend to not be the complainers."

You need not worry about your older horse's heart and lungs, however. "Horses are amazing cardiovascularly," says Mero. "Assuming your horse doesn't have a murmur0 or other previous condition, he's not going to have a heart attack or stroke while getting back in shape. Horses don't have that worry like humans do."

When working with an older horse, be realistic: Even if he is extremely fit and active, he may not be able to keep up with his younger peers. "Remember that he's probably not going to be able to perform like he used to," says Mero. "Yes, there are 19- and 20-year-old horses holding their own in very high-level competitions, but those are the exceptional cases."

It may help to keep in mind that your horse isn't looking back on his youth wistfully. He's not burdened by the urge to prove that he can still jump big fences or gallop as fast as he once did. He's no doubt content with the well-being that fitness alone can bring.

At A Glance: To Get Your Older Horse Fit:
1. Consult with your veterinarian before you start so you're aware of your horse's physical problems or potential vulnerabilities.

2. Proceed slowly, allowing a longer time frame to achieve fitness goals than you would for a younger horse.

3. Let your horse be your guide day to day: Go easy on him when he's feeling his age.

4. Provide ample recovery time: Be prepared to double the downtime you'd afford a younger horse.

5. Respond quickly to signs of trouble.