WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #112
When should this older horse retire?
Q - WHEN TO RETIRE OLD HORSE?
I've just gotten a 20-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse gelding,
Gus. I've been riding since I was 4 years old, but have had falls
that shook my confidence. Gus will be my confidence builder and
teach me to barrel race and run poles, but I wonder how long it
will be physically safe for him to compete. He runs without
hesitation, but breathes loudly when he does. At what age should
a senior horse retire?
AUTUMN SMITH, Tennessee
A - The decision to retire a horse from athletic competition
shouldn't be based solely on age, but also on overall health. Let
your veterinarian, who can evaluate your horse's health and
investigate any concerns that could limit his ability, help you
in this decision.
Your vet will likely consider three important systems - your
gelding's musculoskeletal system (legs and feet), his heart, and
his airway. By far the most common cause of decreased performance
is lameness. In older horses that have competed for years,
painful arthritis of one or multiple joints is common. Chronic
injuries to soft-tissue structures (tendons and ligaments) and
feet are also common causes of lameness.
As an owner, you may not be aware of subtle lamenesses, and
that's why it's important to have your veterinarian regularly
examine your older horse for these subtle issues. Many can be
managed with medications or corrective shoeing. If, however, the
lameness can't be managed, then competing at a lower level or
retirement could be indicated.
Heart or lung conditions cause decreased performance and noisy
breathing during strenuous exercise. Your vet can listen to your
gelding's heart with a stethoscope to evaluate the rate, rhythm,
and noise produced by blood coursing through the four chambers.
If an abnormality is detected, further diagnostics would likely
include checking the heart's electrical signals
(electrocardiogram or EKG) and/or an ultrasound of the heart
The airway is evaluated by scoping the trachea and lungs. Noise
during exercise is usually associated with abnormalities of the
upper respiratory tract (nasal passages, larynx, and trachea),
and is created by an obstruction of airflow when a horse breathes
in or exhales. This airway obstruction can reduce tolerance to
exercise due to decreased airflow to the lungs.
Vets typically evaluate these abnormalities when the horse is at
rest and/ or during exercise on a treadmill, using a flexible
endoscope and camera passed through the nose to the larynx.
Horses have a very large lung capacity, so lower airway disease
may or may not actually reduce performance.
One common condition of the lower airway that can decrease
performance, however, is known as heaves or recurrent airway
obstruction (RAO). These conditions are evaluated through
sampling of fluid within the lower airway.
In your gelding's case, the only abnormality appears to be the
airway noise during work. For that reason, I recommend you
arrange for an examination of your gelding's upper and possibly
lower airway to try to find the origin of this noise.
LINDSEY HELMS BOONE, DVM Large Animal Clinician University of
Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine
Q - I live in a climate where I can ride year-round, and because
we do have some rocks, I keep shoes on my horse all year.
Lately I've heard it's good to let the feet go barefoot for a few
months each year. Should I try this? Is it necessary?
SADIE RAMIREZ, CALIFORNIA
A - The concept of letting your horse's feet "rest" for a couple
of months every year comes from the time when horses were worked
hard, eight to 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and were
shod every four weeks. There were no hoof reconstruction
materials to patch broken feet, so with the hard work and
frequent shoeings, it was difficult to keep shoes on. Horses then
needed time off to grow enough foot for the farrier to have a
solid hoof to trim and shoe.
There are many reasons for a horse to wear shoes. These include
preventing excessive hoof wear; protecting the hoof from cracking
or breaking; supporting limb conformation defects; preventing or
assisting in the treatment of lameness; providing traction; or
fulfilling the needs of a specific discipline, such as slider
plates on a reining horse.
If your horse wears shoes for any of the above reasons, I'd
advise against removing them for any length of time. If your
horse is well-shod by a competent farrier at least every six to
eight weeks, he can spend his life in shoes without serious
problems. There'd be no reason to pull your horse's shoes and
keep him barefoot for several months.
I have a 20-year-old mare that's been in shoes continually for
almost 18 years, and her feet are in excellent shape. Leave the
shoes on and enjoy your horse all year.
BOB SMITH Owner, Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School Plymouth,
For the benefits of going barefoot, go to HorseandRider.com and
type barefoot into the search box.
Send your horse health, behavior, and hoof-care questions to
firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your horse's age, breed, and
To be continued from time to time