Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Old Horse

                                                by Laura Crum

            They say “old age is not for sissies.” I would add that keeping a very old horse is not for the faint-hearted. It sounds easy enough. Just retire your old friend and let him be a pasture pet until he dies. Simple, right? Well, in theory simple, in practice not quite that simple.
            I have taken care of two of my much-loved retired horses into their mid-thirties. My first forever horse, Burt, died at 35, and my current old boy, Gunner, is 34 this spring. And I am here to tell you that somewhere past 30 both of these horses became quite a bit more challenging to care for. Right now Gunner is doing pretty well, but it’s been a real roller coaster ride for the last year.
            About a year ago, Gunner got down and cast—I think he was down pretty much all night. I found him in the morning at feeding time, trapped in a low spot with his back against the fence. It took us several hours and four strong guys to get him out of the hole and on his feet. He was shocky and in deep distress when we finally got him up, but the vet convinced me he would be fine. It took a month—a month in which Gunner’s appetite slowly returned, and he eventually quit pacing, and I hand walked and grazed him every day-- and yes, about a month later he seemed back to normal. But a month or so after that, he slipped and fell when running around his corral, and limped off. It became clear that he’d tweaked his left knee, and since then that knee has been giving him trouble.
            I had the vet out to look at the knee, we settled on a regime of painkillers, and all seemed well enough. Gunner was no longer sound, he was harder to keep weight on than he had been in past years, but still, he seemed to be doing OK. Here’s a photo from September. Pretty good looking 33 year old horse, yes?

            But a few months ago I came down one morning to feed to find Gunner pacing and uninterested in breakfast. It took me awhile to sort it out, but I concluded that something traumatic had happened—Gunner wasn’t colicked, and he wasn’t obviously injured, and he wasn’t significantly lamer than he had been. But he was in a lot of distress. I thought/think he must have gotten “stuck” down for some part of the night and had managed to get up before I came down to feed.
            I had the vet out, and I was very close to putting Gunner down. But I gave the horse some bute instead, and he looked pretty bright, and I just couldn’t do it. Since then, well, it’s been a challenge.
            Gunner is lame. He has a big left front knee that hurts him. I give him painkillers, and it helps, but he’s still lame. He’s lost weight through this, and though his appetite has improved quite a bit since the last setback, he is still thinner than I would like. His vision and hearing are lousy, he’s hard to handle due both to this and a sort of old horse dementia that I’ve observed in other 30 plus horses, and he’s incredibly spoiled. This is my fault, I know, but I cannot bring myself to reprimand the old guy, so he tugs on the leadrope to let me know where he wants to go, and makes gentle but obvious attempts to push past me when I come to his gate to catch him. I cannot blanket him without a helper to hold him, because as soon as I go round to the back leg straps, he just walks off. He is a spoiled old pet of a horse, for sure. And this has begun to cause a problem.
            I can handle Gunner all right. I know him and he knows me, and though he will push on me because he knows I’m unlikely to reprimand him, he also won’t defy me. His training goes too deep. But his “spoiled” behavior is causing a new and real problem. For the last few months I’ve been getting Gunner out to graze him, and he now thinks it’s his due. He is very resentful if I catch another horse for grazing, rather than him. The last time I got a different horse out to graze, Gunner ran around screaming and bucking (yes, he’ll still run despite being lame) in a temper tantrum fueled by jealousy until he slipped and fell down. I will admit that I screamed “Gunner!” in a panic as my old horse hit the ground. Gunner got up, thank God, and limped off—no lamer than before, I don’t think. But I definitely had enough stress for one day. And I put the other horse away. It’s just not worth it.
            As it so happens, it hasn’t rained this winter—virtually at all. So Gunner is leading a relatively comfortable mud-free life in his big corral. There’s also almost no grass to graze on, so I’m not bothering to get horses out very often—thus no need for Gunner to pitch a fit and fall down again. But it is still a difficult situation. I walk down the hill to feed every day hoping that Gunner will be on his feet and looking OK, and worried that he won’t. I am actually afraid to get another horse out to graze without grazing Gunner first—I don’t need a repeat of the temper tantrum and crash. I have nightmares about the old horse going down and breaking a leg or his neck.
            Gunner is still bright eyed and interested in everything I do, he’s cleaning up his senior feed, he can still eat hay, he hangs out with his favorite buddy horse in the sunshine and looks content. He lies down and rolls pretty much every day—and gets back up again—a little staggery, but successfully (so far). When he feels like it he trots and gallops and spins and bucks. He meets me at his gate every time he sees me coming towards him with a halter, and grazes on what little green grass we have with enthusiasm. But that left knee hurts him despite all the painkillers and it’s slowly getting worse. He shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot sometimes. It kills me to watch him do this.
            I love Gunner from the bottom of my heart, and I will stay the course. He’s going to let me know when he’s ready to let go of his life—I believe this. It is still very hard for me to watch him get stiffer and lamer. I had the vet out to see him just a couple of weeks ago—simply because I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t deceiving myself—that Gunner’s weight really was OK, that he wasn’t so lame that I really ought to put him down. The vet said that he thought Gunner looked great for 34. He told me to up the dose of painkiller past the recommended amount—if it gave the horse ulcers, well, that would be that. So I upped the dose. But Gunner is still lame.
 And I have to say that the endless fussing with diet and meds and the worry and the setbacks, well, it’s not the “fun” part of horsekeeping. At the same time, every time I look into Gunner’s eyes, all the many adventures we’ve had together are brought back to me and present in the moment. I’ve owned this horse since I was 25 and he was 3. We have seen a lot together.

            But I will repeat that keeping a very old horse is not for the faint-hearted. It’s worrisome and time consuming and frustrating and emotionally draining. Even though you love that horse with a whole heart. You agonize over what the best course of action is, you wonder if you are doing right by keeping your old friend going despite the fact that he’s lame. It can also be some of the sweetest moments you have ever spent with a horse—as you rub his neck in the sunshine and he leans his head gently on your shoulder, or rests his muzzle against your cheek. At some deep level you know that the two of you are both—equally and mutually—acknowledging the long bond between you. But its also hard, folks, it’s very hard. Those who want to argue with me must have kept a horse well into his/her thirties. I have mostly had very good luck with horses in their twenties, and my 25 and 26 year old horses are no trouble at all. Somewhere past thirty it gets much more difficult. Or so I’ve found. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.



poniegirle said...

My own 30 year old horse got very hard this year. Two years ago, he was too thin when I took him back from a loan situation- he was babysitting weanlings, and spent more time running the other horses off the hay bale than eating. The weight went back on, and he's been fat and happy up until this fall. He lost weight like crazy, to the point where I couldn't change his feed fast enough to get it back on. He's stabilized, but not gaining. Senior feed, beet pulp, chopped forage, weight supplements, fat supplements... three times a day.

He colicked recently, and it scared me to death. The horse who hadn't turned down a meal in the 13 years I've had him couldn't bring himself to eat, and it broke my heart. Fortunately, one vet visit and he cleared right up, but it was terrifying, and I've obsessively watched him eat since then. I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm creepy.

But when he canters away from the gate being turned out, when he wanders down the aisle peeking into stalls to find out which one I'm working in (he's the only horse on the farm with loose-horse privileges), when he lays his head on my shoulder and whuffles just so- I'm certainly not ready for him to go, and he hasn't yet told me that he is.

You couldn't pay me to trade any of theses 'before' days for the ones I know are coming 'after'.

jenj said...

Oh man, I so hear you on this. Even though Cash will "only" be 26 this spring, I'm facing a lot of what you're facing.

After his dental work last week, the vet says that Cash can no longer have hay. The problem is, he'd rather eat hay than his (very expensive) Senior feed. Right now I'm mixing the Senior with soaked BP and soaked Hydration Hay, and he's mostly eating it, but I'm still not able to get anywhere near the 20+ lbs / day of food into him that he should be getting. Red's even had to bat cleanup on what Cash doesn't finish (which Red doesn't mind, lol!)

Of course, not being allowed to have hay means that he can no longer go out with the other horses, at all. We're really not set up for keeping one horse separated from the others 24/7.

He's allowed to graze as much as he wants, but it doesn't rain much here and the grass is pretty poor. So right now he gets grass 16 hours/day, but I keep him up with his feed the rest of the time in hopes that he'll eat something with more calories. So far it's not working very well. And during the summer, he'll have nothing to graze. I have no idea what we'll do then.

This issue you mentioned about them going senile, I'm so glad you brought it up. Cash seems to "forget" what he's doing. He forgets it's time to eat and wanders off. He'll "forget" he's tied and then panic when he realizes he is. If we change the tiniest little thing about the routine, he just cannot handle it. This morning I changed pastures on him, and he paced the fence line for over an hour in front of the gate he thought he "should" be going out of. Mind you, we've put him out in the same pasture for THREE DAYS. It's not like he's been doing this for a year or something. I can no longer put him in the stall, even for meals - he panics and paces himself sweaty, even if the other horses are right there. He panics if any of the other horses go for a ride too. I just don't know how to keep him sane anymore.

Luckily he's still sound and comfortable, so he's got that going for him. Management is just becoming more and more of a challenge and we haven't yet found a solution that works. I'm hoping that in another month he'll be eating more so that will cease to be so much of a worry, but we still have to figure out how to keep him separate from the others 24/7. I envy your setup with the individual runs, I really do!

Dom said...

He is so lucky to have such a dedicated owner. And he looks great.

Laura Crum said...

poniegirlie--You sound so much like me. Despite how stressful it can be, I am grateful for every day, that Gunner looks at me with his big blaze face and nickers. I know those "after" days will be here all too soon.

jenj--I'm with you. I struggle with the exact same issues, maybe in slightly different forms. But its the same constant dilemma. And every thirty-plus horse I've dealt with has had the senile problem to some degree. Gunner imagines things that aren't there, and I can't tie him up any more or put him in a stall or he panics. He sometimes panics for no reason that I can figure out. And when he gets upset he dopes the pacing thing. How come Cash can't have hay? Even when my other old horses spit their hay out in quids, I always gave them some, just cause they liked it. My old horse, Burt, was prone to choking, but he had been this way his whole life and he never choked on hay--pellets and senior food got him a few times. And yeah, the big individual paddocks have, slowly but surely, replaced other forms of horsekeeping for me. I could not keep Gunner well fed and comfortable without this set up.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, Dom. Gunner is kind of like my Ozzy. A big goofball. I've had him for thirty years, and I hope you and Ozzy have the same long run together.

Horseyhabit said...

That is such a hard line to balance on.. you have taken such wonderful care of him!

My thoughts would be also to let him have every day that he can where he's happy & bright eyed, but the downside to that is what if something did happen to him where he injured himself & was in terrible pain? Then, he'd be scared & stressed, rather than happy & content when its time to say goodbye.. :(

Whatever you decide though will be the right decision, & my thoughts are with you.

Breanna said...

My old mare is approaching 26 and starting to have some issues... She's been healthy her whole life (I've had her since she was 9), and this last year has just been terrible. She colicked over Christmas and I was afraid that was going to be the end, but she pulled through and is looking okay. I'm afraid I'm starting to see some "senior moments" though, she seems to forget what she is doing occasionally. Her favorite thing is still trail rides though, she gets very excited when we go out, so I guess we'll continue doing that until she can't any more!

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Horseyhabit, I'm trying to do right by him.

Breanna--It's so great your mare still loves trail rides. My son's horse is 26 and still likes to go out on trail rides. Don't know how long it will last, but I'm happy that Henry still feels good enough to enjoy being ridden.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

The 38 year old barn matriarch died this year. She was a real challenge--no teeth, a bit of that same sort of dementia, a wee bit pushy...

She got naughty right toward the end and got out to tease the other horses a couple of times. But yeah. It was hard. Still, until the very last months, she was happy as could be when she could be groomed by a kid and petted and even lightly ridden by a 4-5 year old. She'd arch her neck and lift her tail proudly--she started many young riders and loved doing it (my son was one of her startees).

Morab, tough-minded mare. It ain't easy, though, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Old horses can be a real challenge, but you're doing the best you can for him. With my Noble, although he had trouble keeping on weight and needed various medications (thyroid for example), he was completely sound until age 30 with only a touch of arthritis in his hind end - he would trot and gallop around the pastures with the others. His teeth were also very good right until the end. He started to be a little stiff getting up from rolling, but then all of a sudden he just stopped eating - not colic - and we knew something was seriously wrong. We didn't ever find out exactly what, but the vet suspected some sort of abdominal cancer. He started to go into kidney failure, and rather than take any extraordinary measures - I didn't want to put an old horse through a tip to the vet hospital and treatments that in the end wouldn't save him from the cancer - so we put him down before he was in any more distress.

You'll know when it's time - just continue enjoying every day you have with him.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce and Kate--I remember reading about both the horses you're talking about on your blogs. I would in some ways welcome a definitive event--like what happened with Noble--I would make the same choice as you did, Kate. So far Gunner looks perky and setbacks have been, well, just setbacks. Yesterday I got Henry out to graze and Gunner, predictably, began galloping around in a temper tantrum. So I put Henry back in his corral. Sigh. I have effectively trained Gunner to have a tantrum when another horse gets out to graze...

But I do treasure every sweet moment with my beloved old horse. Just seeing his blaze face looking at me as I walk down the hill to feed, well, it lifts my heart every morning.

lmel said...

Last winter, a 32 yr old TB at our barn had to be put down when he just couldn't get up one more time on a cold winter day. this is always sad, and though he wasn't my horse, I cried and had to hug mine knowing I'll be facing this one day. You know when it's time and have to keep in mind your horse's quality of life.

Laura Crum said...

Imel--Yes, not being able to get up is the end for many old horses. My good friend had to put down her old horse (the same age as my Gunner) this winter for this reason. It is sad, but also makes it clear that the time has come.

RiderWriter said...

I am very glad that Gunner is hanging in there. We who have read your books really feel like we know him. :-)

I just had to make "the call" myself this morning for my dear guinea pig. He'd been up and down for the past 10 days, but today I knew it was time. He wouldn't take a single bite of his favorite food (carrots), had crusty sunken eyes and cried unhappily when I put him down. He most likely would have passed on his own accord later today but I didn't want him to suffer any longer. Being snuggled by mom and peacefully going to sleep was a better way. I'm sitting here with my eyes nearly swollen shut from crying but at least Barney is now on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge and out of pain.

I know your heart will be broken when you lose Gunner, but you're doing a wonderful job taking care of him. As long as the quality of his life continues to be fine, he's in a good place.

Laura Crum said...

I'm so sorry, RiderWriter. Our animals are vey precious to us and I know your pain. My very first painful animal loss was a guinea pig (Bingo) and I still remember the intensity of that first bereavement. Since then there have been many more sad losses--if we have lots of animals, this is inevitable.

Thank you for your kind comments about Gunner--and I am thinking of you and wishing you peace. You obviously took wonderful care of Barney, and I truly believe that all of our much loved animals will be waiting for us when we die. But it is still so very sad when we lose them.

Val said...

I wish from the bottom of my heart that I could not relate to this post. My horse is not old at 15, but worrying and medication have been dominating our relationship the past couple months (chronic allergic cough, as you know). I had always hoped to keep him until he was 30, but I don't see how that is possible now. Even 20 seems a stretch, as I do not want his progressive disease to dampen his character.

Alison said...

This was a tough post to read, but important. It's good to read about the real experiences of so many animal lovers. Belle has been really stiff this winter and eating slower so I know it's time for a vet exam to see if her joints and teeth are in good shape. This has given me the push I need to call him.

The next post from old horse owners needs to be about how to give meds without stressing out the old horse even more!

Laura Crum said...

Oh, Val, so sorry to hear this. I hope Harley's problems take a turn for the better--allergies can do this. I know how much he means to you.

Alison--You know, that is a really good point. I had been giving Gunner bute paste, which was managing his pain pretty well, but he didn't like taking it and started to run away when he saw me coming to give him his meds. In the end I decided that the stress was worse for him than the med was good, so put him back on Previcox, which goes in his senior feed and he eats it without noticing it. The Previcox does not manage his pain quite as well as the bute, but there is no stress.

Alison said...

Thanks for the heads-up. My old mare is really picky and can get prickly quickly (say that four times fast) when approached with meds. I'd love to read a post on doctoring horses when they don't want to be doctored!