rehabbing a senior horse

Rehabbing any lame horse can be a challenge, but those challenges often become compounded with age.

“I got your name from a friend,” says my caller. “The vets and farriers have tried everything, but my 15-year-old gelding is still lame. Can you help?”

My heart sinks. Much of my career in trimming has been like this: I only get the call when all avenues have been tried and the horse is about to be euthanized. In my heart of hearts, I suspect not much can be done, but I always at least return the call and try to do the best I can for these horses.

Wishful Thinking

Let’s backtrack a bit here. When I was first initiated into the barefoot world I was assured that all ills could be cured with the proper trim. Just put all to rights and the horse would be fine. Oh, if it only worked that way!

Jake was my first founder right out of the chute. He was 27 when I met him, and had lymphangitis. Both front coffin bones were through the sole. With Jake, I learned the hard way that with serious bone deterioration you can only do so much. His coffin bone was so deformed I had to trim him every two weeks. Why, you may ask? Because as the hoof wall grows past where the coffin bone is, it has nothing left to attach to and wanders off. So in order to keep the good attachment to what bone he had left, I had to maintain a very exact trim. When Jake’s pasture buddy passed on, he stayed with me until he was in his mid-30s – I loved that horse!

Function Over Beauty

I now ask a battery of questions before rehabbing any horse, including his age, job, lifestyle (I do not trim any horses that are stall kept) and his current level of soundness. Once I know the horse’s circumstances – and his owner’s – I can formulate a plan for him. I have the highest hopes for those that live 24/7 in a herd. Even if I cannot help develop a “beautiful” foot, I can generally make a serviceable, functioning foot.

To Shoe or Not To Shoe

Shoes, especially those with clips, can cause bone loss and deformation as well as many other problems for the horse, which can result in loss of good circulation to the foot.

Toad belonged to a good friend of mine. She’d had him for sale for quite awhile and could not sell him. I would ride him for her when she was away. He was shod all around with bar shoes behind to “fix” bad stifles. In my world, a horse with bad stifles can often be fixed just by lowering the heels. That said, when Toad would not sell, she sold him to me for a dollar (my favorite price). He had very odd clover-shaped walls on his fronts, so I had the vet take x-rays to see what was going on.

The x-rays clearly displayed a “dent” due to loss of bone from years of side clips. Toad’s stifles were declared sound within two months of his arrival. He went on to jump quite remarkably and is retired now at 21.

Are there ever times when it’s best to leave the shoes on? I think so. I met a wonderful gelding in his late 20s that was a fine harness driving horse as well as a three-phase competitor. The hairline on his front feet was wider than the bottom of his hoof wall! In a normal healthy foot the bone diverges, becoming wider at the bottom. Seeing this horse, I told his owner that I could not in good conscience take his shoes off. He probably had so little coffin bone left that he would have been in quite a bit of pain without the restriction of circulation his shoes offered him.

Special Trimming Considerations for Elderly Horses

Now that you’ve met a few of my elderly friends, I have to say that trimming them can be quite the task. Any lame horse can be challenging to trim, but even more so with age. Misshapen feet can cause quite a bit of remodeling in the joints, often in the form of sidebone, ringbone, hock spurs, etc. I find you must accommodate these horses or you get nowhere. There has to be a level of trust – trust that if they really need their foot back they will get it. The other thing I will often do is trim their hind feet off the hoof stand. I know those arthritic joints hurt when they have to hold their legs up in a certain position for any length of time. I have learned to just tip the foot forward, leaving the toe resting on the ground, and to trim like crazy before the horse stands on it.

When rehabbing older horses, due to the long term damage from shoes and/or lifestyles, there is often abscessing when healing takes place. I try very hard to trim minimally to stay away from this – if you work for smaller changes over the long term it can go easier for the horse.

Micky is in his early 30s, and is owner is also quite elderly and spunky. They did many a driving competition in their day and I love to hear her tell the stories. When I met Mickey, he was lame and foundering on all four. I think he was lame for almost three months after I met him, but then he never looked back. He is quite a character.

Since I have taken up trimming and rehabbing horses I have come into contact with some remarkable horses of all breeds, ages, temperaments and soundness levels. They all have something to teach me but I have to say, I particularly love the older ones!

Marilyn Gilligan trims in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. She rehabbed a horse named Juneau at age 17 – this horse went on to compete to Grand Prix and is still showing at age 22. Marilyn trims a few hundred horses a month including endurance horses, show hunters, foxhunters, gaited horses, dressage competitors, eveners and everything in between.