Maintaining the older athlete

Gail's horse, Lindenberg, was a much-loved competitor on the SA circuit before his death at 19

Gail’s horse, Lindenberg, was a much-loved competitor on the SA circuit before his death at 19

Older horses are great. They’re schoolmasters so they’re pleasant to ride, they save riders from their mistakes, they know their job, and they will carry you to victory. While older horses do need slightly more maintenance than younger prospects, it can all be worth it in the end. With good management and all the knowledge available to us today, horses are healthily competing into their late teens and even their early 20s. HQ chatted to Gail Foxcroft for some additional advice on caring for the older competition horse.

Food and fitness comes first

The foundation for keeping the older horse in competition form is good diet and a good exercise programme.

Balanced meal

The reality of things is that an older horse’s digestive system will start becoming less efficient with age. It’s a good idea to get a nutritionist to advise a well-balanced eating plan, tailor-made for your horse. Vitamins and minerals are important to maintain while supplements can compensate for any nutritional deficiencies.
Good grass will have great natural nutritional content. Dental health is vital – while horses should see a dentist regularly, for older horses this is not negotiable. Older horses will need to be seen by the dentist at least twice a year because their teeth become flatter with age and they may start experiencing difficulty eating and digesting.

Fitness
Edwina Alexander-Tops’ Itot du Chateau retired at the age of 18. Edwina says he hit his prime at 15

Edwina Alexander-Tops’ Itot du Chateau retired at the age of 18. Edwina says he hit his prime at 15

Any working horse’s joints can undergo severe strain if their fitness programmes are not carefully structured. Riders who overdo strenuous work may see their horses retiring at the age of 10. The key is to keep work routines varied and keep demanding work to a minimum. If you start with this structure from a young age, your horse’s working life can easily be prolonged, given there are no injuries that might throw a spanner in the works. Lots of hacking, basic and lateral flatwork keep horses fit without putting severe strain on their joints. If you have access to a horse walker, incorporate a few sessions into your horse’s routine. Jumping and advanced dressage sessions should ideally only happen once a week.

Good housekeeping

Gail strongly believes that older horses, and most competition horses in general, should be on joint supplements to promote comfortable movement and to prevent degeneration of joints. Older horses can start developing arthritic joints and bone inflammation, so owners will need to be prepared.
Gail recommends that electrolytes should be given to any working horse. Electrolytes are largely lost to sweating and this results in dehydration. Sodium, magnesium and probiotics are very important to feed as well.
Gail says that Traumeel injections are also a good idea to administer if you want to treat bruising, muscular pain or joint pain. Traumeel injections are made up of entirely natural and homeopathic substances and therefore have no side effects.

Be on the lookout

Gail cautions horse owners to have a careful look at the therapeutic levels of ingredients when feeding a specific supplement; this can be read from the label on the product packaging.

The professionals are your friends

Therapy

Every equine athlete, regardless of age, should be receiving regular physiotherapy and chiropractic therapy to ensure that the horse isn’t suffering from any strained or sore muscles or misalignment. Competition horses cannot perform at their best unless they are physically well.
All active horses can also benefit largely from electromagnetic therapy. Electromagnetic leg boots, hock boots, neck blankets and body blankets are available and can be used to target specific areas.

Tack

Tack should be checked on a regular basis because older horses can change in shape over short periods. Getting the bit and saddle fitter out on a regular basis will ensure that the two most important pieces of tack fit correctly and aren’t causing your horse any pain or discomfort.

Lorette Knowles-Taylor and Nissan Nabab Forever at the 2014 Derby – Nabab was 19 at the time and continues to compete

Lorette Knowles-Taylor and Nissan Nabab Forever at the 2014 Derby – Nabab was 19 at the time and continues to compete

Respiratory and cardiovascular tests

Try your best to get the vet out when you can to run respiratory and cardiovascular tests. Horses who compete in more fast-paced disciplines such as showjumping, eventing or endurance need to be able to breathe well and have good heart rates.

Preparing for shows

Their muscles do take longer to warm up and recover so good warm-ups and cool-downs are very important. Gail tells HQ that you’ll find riders on older horses spending longer on walk and trot work in the warm-up, and less on cantering and jumping. A good walk and light trot after a round will cool your horse down properly as well. Horses need to be seen by all the relevant experts to ensure that they are physically prepared for the demands of the showy/event. Gail gives her horses at least one week off after any show, and all of December and January off, so that they are well rested.

Is it worth it?

The reality is that all of this maintenance can be very costly. Physiotherapy, chiropractic therapy, electromagnetic therapy, saddle-fitting sessions and nutritionist consultations start from R500. Although it’s ideal to get all the relevant specialists out on a regular basis, it can add up very quickly and often our bank accounts start taking strain. Do as much for your horse as your budget allows.

Caring for older horses really can pay off because they can turn into world-class competitors who have seen and done it all. They can also go on to teach amateurs or help juniors get the confidence they need to start their competitive careers.

Text: Charlotte Bastiaanse
The full article appears in the October issue of HQ.