“Splendid Vet”

If you’ve ever read the book 101 Dalmatians, you might remember the Splendid Veterinary Surgeon, who was summoned at all hours to care for the various dog characters in their times of need.  “Splendid Vet” was a family friend as well as trusted caregiver, and his relationship with the Dearly family was a minor plot point in the story.

Bars and I have our own version of Splendid Vet in the form of his primary care veterinarian.  From my previous posts, you’ll remember that Bars’ stressful adaptation to his new home included a “choke,” and the treatment from the “choke” led to an infected nasal passage and a bout with colic—the first time in over 22 years.  For those readers who may not be familiar, colic in horses is an obstruction of some kind in the gut.  Some colics are mild and some are fatal; all are life threatening and should be treated as emergencies.  Needless to say, it’s been an interesting few weeks!

Through all of this, Bars’ Splendid Vet has been an absolute rock.  For a few weeks there we were in touch almost daily via text and phone.  He patiently looked at videos and pictures I sent him, reassured me when he thought things were progressing ok, and has, in my opinion, provided care above and beyond what some other practitioners might.

When I had to call him for the colic (at 5 pm on a cold Monday night) the symptoms were mild and some had improved by the time he arrived (after fighting his way through a winding country road in the dark.)  I had some trepidations about possibly having called him out on a cold dark night for no reason…but he shook his head at me, indicating confidence in my ability to judge whether he needed to drop his evening at home and come.  And I was correct.  Luckily the colic was resolved, thanks in part to my quick assessment and to Splendid Vet’s timely arrival.

Excellent medical or veterinary care is not just about the skill of the practitioner.  It is also about your own awareness of the situation and the relationship you have with the practitioner.  This is especially important in geriatric care, whether the patient is a horse, dog, cat, or human.  You and your veterinarian need to develop some trust in each other; you need to know that your veterinarian has the knowledge and skill necessary to meet your horse’s needs, and your veterinarian needs to know that you are an active partner in your horse’s care.  In general, developing this partnership is fairly straightforward. As a client, you can make your veterinarian’s job much easier by learning to assess your horse’s health when he’s not sick, so that you know beyond doubt when he’s not “normal.”  For years people have made fun of me because I will randomly take Bars’ temperature and get out the stethoscope and listen to his heart & gut.  But because I’ve done this, and I’ve been able to do so over the course of 22+ years, I have a pretty good sixth sense of when things are not quite “normal.”  I can also give my veterinarian reasonably accurate vital signs on the rare occasions that I do need to call, which is very helpful to him-I once had a vet say to me that I was one of her favorite clients, because she always knew what to expect when she came to see Bars.  This was crucial on the night I had to call Splendid Vet away from his well earned evening at home.

Along with learning about your own horse, it can be helpful to educate yourself a little bit about horse care in general.  Take the time to find out about how your horse’s digestive tract, for this example, works.  Read some books or magazine articles.  If your horse has a specific condition, like Bars has Cushings, do a little extra research.  The more educated you are, the stronger your partnership will be.

When you find your own Splendid Vet, pay your bill promptly and without complaint.  Rest assured that nobody goes to vet school to get rich.  Nobody.  Veterinarians operate with tremendous overhead and most often very narrow profit margins.  When you write your vet a check keep in mind that you are paying for all that overhead, which includes equipment, taxes, special fees for owning/leasing medical equipment, office space, whether fixed or mobile, and at least four years of undergraduate education, three to four years of post-graduate education ,AND some kind of fellowship or residency after that.  Many people feel that veterinary care is expensive, but so is your doctor—you just don’t see the total cost of your annual checkups, cancer screenings, and vaccinations because for humans they’re covered by insurance (hopefully.) By comparison, veterinary care is a bargain.

So, thanks to our Splendid Vet and the other members of our team, Bars is now eating, his gut is back in full form, and we’re ready to start riding the trails again.  Now, if only the weather would cooperate a little bit…..

See you on down the trail….

“Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night….”

Complementary Therapies

One of the benefits of living in our modern era is the increasing body of knowledge about so-called “alternative” or “complementary” therapies and how they are beneficial not just to us, but to our furry friends, including our horses.  Once considered fringe or snake oil, chiropractic and acupuncture therapies are now used alongside more traditional Western medicine and, for people anyway, are often covered by medical insurance.

Acupuncture and chiropractic therapies are especially suited to many of the issues that older horses experience, including chronic joint pain, arthritis, laminitis (inflammation of the hoof’s internal structures), and more.  We don’t entirely know for sure how it all works, but it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s a placebo in a nonverbal animal.  There have been some really good double blind studies in mice, for example, that clearly show acupuncture affects parts of the brain controlling pain receptors.

Chiropractic care is largely manipulation of the spine and associated joints.  In people, chiropractors treat a lot of back and neck injuries and pain, and many of them work in concert with physicians and physical therapists.  Because horses are asked to spend a lot of their lives carrying people around on their backs, they, too, often experience a great deal of  stiffness and pain in the neck and spine.  Chiropractic manipulation helps relieve the pain, which then allows the horse to move more freely, which relieves the stiffness and helps the injury heal more completely.

Bars has had multiple ligament injuries in his back legs, has arthritis in his hocks and probably his lower back, and every now and again manages to twist himself into some weird position that causes some soft tissue pain.  All of these conditions can be treated perfectly well with conventional Western medicine, but not without side effects.  We have therefore incorporated periodic acupuncture and chiropractic treatments into his overall health care regime.  These therapies are not a cure, and there is a cost associated, but the benefit is that we have to use fewer drugs to manage his conditions and, at age 30+, he is still sound, feeling good, and has excellent quality of life.  In addition, since acupuncture seems to work by altering the chemical signals passed along nerve channels, it’s been helpful in managing the extreme anxiety he’s been experiencing with the recent move.

I often make jokes about our “veterinary team,” but it’s really true—he has his “regular” veterinarian, his acupuncture/chiropractor veterinarian, and, of course, his farrier.  I’ll discuss the importance of excellent farriery in a future post, but these three professionals together are a large part of having an active senior horse.

For additional information on veterinary chiropractic and acupuncture, visit these links:

Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine: https://www.vetmed.vt.edu/vth/services/equine/equine-chiropractic.asp

University of California, San Diego, Center for Integrative Medicine:


American Association of Equine Practitioners:


American Association of Veterinary Acupuncture: http://www.aava.org/


Dodged A Bullet

When you have an aging loved one in your life, there is always the sense of living on borrowed time.  You know the day is coming when you have to say goodbye, and, depending on your personal belief system, that goodbye is forever.

This week we had a scare, thinking the day might be soon.  Bars got a big wad of food stuck in his throat.  In horse terms, this is known as a “choke,” and it can be quite dangerous.  First, horses can’t vomit, so anything they swallow has to go all the way through, as it were, and if for some reason it gets stuck along the way…well, it’s bad.  Second, sometimes a choked horse ends up with some of the food mass coming out his nose, where it can then be inhaled back into the lungs, causing pneumonia.  Any of these scenarios in an elderly horse is what we call a Big Deal.  And, of course, since it was a Saturday, we had to call out a veterinarian on an emergency basis, so it was also an Expensive Deal.  All these factors made the whole thing a Big Expensive Scary Deal.

For anyone reading this whose not lived through it before, resolving a choke in a horse involves inserting a tube into the throat via the nose, and using gentle application of water, loosen the wad of food and allow it to drain out through the tube.  As you can imagine, even with sedation, having a tube shoved up your nose and into your throat is a traumatic experience.  In addition, antibiotics are often prescribed to prevent pneumonia from starting.  So, now you’ve had a tube shoved in your nose and you’re getting shots and nasty tasting medicine squirted into your mouth for several days, making it all even worse.  So, just when we thought he might be starting to think of his new home as a safe place, all this scary stuff happened to him.

The net result of is that, between having a sore throat from the choke, having a tube stuck into his throat, and now being back to nervous about his new place, Bars went off his feed again.  My big worry here was if he continued to not eat for too long, his chances of a full recovery dropped precipitously.  The longer he went without eating, my frightened brain said, the weaker he’ll get, and, at his age, this is also not good.

We checked in with our terrific veterinarian almost daily via text and phone.  He continued to pick at his food, although he would willingly eat the new fresh grass that’s been sprouting.  Antibiotics can often cause stomach upset, so midway through the week we decided to discontinue the antibiotics, taking a calculated risk that he wouldn’t develop pneumonia.  By Friday he was considerably perkier and within a week was back to eating.  Whew, bullet dodged.  For now.

To some it may seem morbid or macabre to have this sense of borrowed time.  Instead, I choose to use this as continued motivation to enjoy our remaining time together one day at a time, with each day a gift.  We still have things to do together and some new trails to explore.  Looks like we will have the opportunity to do some of that after all.  To paraphrase another of my favorite movies, “The day will come….but it is not this day.”

See you on down the trail….


img_1872Adjusting to changes is part of life for all of us.  We all say we don’t like change, and there’s a real psychological “thing” called “change fatigue,” but we all have to do it, like it or not.  As with people, some horses adapt to changes more easily than others.

Bars has never in his life been the sort of personality that adapts to change easily, and the last two years have seen a lot of changes in his world.  His two best friends have died, and the once bustling busy barn where he’s lived for the last 17 years has grown ever emptier until, most recently, it was announced that the barn managers were closing the business.

Finding a new place to live on 30 days notice is something many people have struggled with.  Finding the “right” place to keep your horse is an equally daunting prospect, and finding even a good place for a geriatric horse is more daunting still.  Not every barn manager is willing to accommodate the needs of an aging horse, and not all barn staff—the people who clean the stalls, feed the horses, and maintain the facilities—are as vigilant as others.  When searching for a new place for your horse to live, all of these things go through your mind.  There is also some form of momentary panic, the inevitable “how will I possibly find a place I like as much as this one?” or “OMG, all the things that have to get done in less than…….”  On top of all this Mr. I Don’t Like Change has lived in the same stall for the last 17+ years—more than half his entire life.

The last time he moved to a new home, he had his brother Tecate with him.  Tecate was a complete bulwark of a horse—very little bothered him, and he looked out for Bars.  As long as Tecate was around, Bars had some sense of security and continuity.  Since Tecate died nearly two years ago, and Bars’ other best friend, Sierra, died in July, we knew this transition would not be easy.

Luckily we were able to secure him a place in a fantastic small barn.  It had a very peaceful “vibe,” nice trails, pretty scenery, and managers who were not intimidated in the least about an older horse with some special needs. As an added bonus, a horse who once lived at our old barn was already there, so there was a familiar face.

We are still working through this transition.  As it turns out, Bars’ anxiety over this change has affected him in some unanticipated ways, including a depressed appetite.  He’s so bonded with his neighbor, the familiar face, that he frequently pauses eating to make sure she’s still in the stall next door.  He fusses and calls when she’s taken out of her stall and if he’s taken away from her.  He has improved with an acupuncture treatment (don’t laugh) and will now eat more and fuss less, but we’re still working on convincing him this is all going to be ok.

Meanwhile, the humans are likewise adjusting to an alteration in traffic plans and schedules.  For more than 17 years our lives have revolved around a geographic triangle of work, home, and barn, and other errands like groceries, hardware stores, garden stores, and so forth have mostly all fitted into that triangle.  Now, like anyone moving into a new neighborhood, we’re adjusting to a new triangle, new traffic patterns, different feed stores, and the like.  Some advance planning is now needed to keep stocked with our preferred brands of horse cookies and dietary supplements, for example.  More adjustments, more alterations, more shifting around of life’s daily patterns.

The upside is that, in an effort to help Bars adjust to his new environment, I’m spending more time on the ground with him and less in the saddle.  As a result, I’m getting a little more exercise and groundwork is always the best way to strengthen your relationship with your horse.  So, we’ll get through this together, with time.  In the meantime, the new trails are really pretty!


“The world is what you make of it, friend.  If it doesn’t fit, make alterations.” Linda Hunt as Stella in Silverado

A very wise veterinarian once said to me that often what horses really need is the right job.  If he doesn’t really like the job you’ve picked for him, he’ll resist, he won’t be successful, and neither of you will be happy.

For many horses a different job means adjusting to a different person, a new home, new horses, and a different life.  Lots of horses have to do this multiple times throughout their lives, if they live long enough.  For Bars, it’s meant adjusting the things I’ve asked him to do over time.  We’ve made alterations.

For most of our lives together, Bars has been a trail horse.  I have no personal interest or stake in winning ribbons, with all the work that entails.  I love riding on trails.  Coincidentally, Bars loves trails, too.  Does he love trails because I love trails?  Well, we could debate that chicken and egg question all day, but it’s worked out happily.  We’ve crossed creeks (filled with invisible horse eating crocodiles!) enjoyed beautiful canyons, gotten good workouts up and down hills, and seen some truly lovely scenery.  We’ve had a great time pounding down the trail at 25+ miles per hour and an equally great time plodding along.  We encountered all kinds of wildlife in all seasons and almost all kinds of weather.

One of the first alterations we had to make was soon after we moved to our current area.  Previously we had been riding around farmland, which in California means lots of flat.  We’d never experienced many hills.  Hills and creeks were a whole new learning experience for both of us!  In addition, Bars had injured a ligament in his back leg (rear suspensory, if anyone’s curious) and the resulting scar tissue has made carrying a rider down a long steep hill uncomfortable and difficult for him from that day to this.  So for years I’ve walked down hills with him.

As he’s gotten older and more arthritic, we’ve made more alterations.  If we go away on a trip and he gets little or no actual work for more than a few days, it takes awhile to limber his joints back up again.  Over time, the definition of “awhile” has lengthened, and I’ve had to think about incorporating more flat work and a little bit less hill work until he’s feeling better.  We’ve been working closely with an equine chiropractor for the last few years, and most recently we’ve added daily doses of anti-inflammatory drugs into his alterations.

It also helps to pay attention.  I’ve often said, when your horse is this age and he still feels like he wants to run, you let him!  Conversely, if he doesn’t feel like it, there’s usually a reason, and it’s ok—he’s allowed to not feel in top condition every day.

Another alteration is food.  Horses’ teeth wear down as they age, and eventually start to fall out.  Bars is now missing three chewing teeth and the ones he has left are pretty worn, so he really can’t chew hay very well any more.  Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, aging horses can now be fed a variety of pelleted feeds, and they can even be soaked in water to make what I call “pony porridge.”  In this way they can eat safely for many years—Rebel, the horse I mentioned in my first post, ate “pony porridge” three times a day.

There will be other alterations to come, and we’ll make them as needed.  In the meantime, we’re still riding the trails every chance we get.


“Am I Going to Need This?”

Anyone is familiar with stuff wearing out and breaking.  If your dishwasher stops working, you replace it, after evaluating how much you can afford to spend, what you’re using it for, and so forth.  If you’re doing lots of stuff with your horse, you need a fair amount of equipment to do it all with.  If you’re traveling for shows, trail rides, parades, or other activities, you need a truck, a trailer, specialized tack, and special clothing.  My husband and I took our horses to living history events off and on for almost half their lives, so our “show turnout” included historically correct saddles, bridles, clothing for ourselves, picket lines, manure forks,…..yeah, you get the picture.

When your horse is older and you’ve reached a point in your own life where you’re not necessarily planning on “the next horse,” you start evaluating things a little differently.  We find we adjust our activities.  We retired our horses from living history activities some time ago, and as Bars has gotten older, he’s not quite up to the same level of running around on our local trails that he once was.  Now, as equipment starts to wear out, we find we really have to stop and evaluate “Are we really going to need this?”

Anyone with an expensive hobby evaluates expenses carefully to some degree, and anyone who owns a horse does this all the time, because few of us have money growing on trees.  But circumstances change, and those changes alter the criteria we use to evaluate expenses.  My current girth is showing signs of wear, and I might conceivably use a new one.  I use it almost five days a week, after all.  But that usage pattern could change drastically and without warning, and then I’d have an almost new girth that I’d have to do something else with.  So, you hold off, asking yourself “do I really need this?”

Sometimes, however, you’re given little choice.  What recently began as a routine service on our trailer has turned into needing a new floor.  For those of you who haven’t had to do this, it’s expensive.  Five years ago, there would have been no question that that money needed to be spent.  But now, since we hardly use the trailer any more, we had to think a little bit.  In the end, we decided, “yes, we really do need this.”

These decisions are often not completely based on whether you can reasonably afford to spend the money, but rather, how long you can expect to use any particular item.  A few years ago Bars stepped on a rein and broke it.  I had a spare bridle, and for awhile I debated whether I really needed another one.  I did a lot of shopping online, comparing the cost of buying just a new set of reins, a whole new bridle, and probably agonized over it more than I needed to.  But I just kept asking myself “am I still going to need this in five years?”  I ended up getting a good deal on a sale bridle & reins that I’m still using.

But you ask yourself these questions all the time.  “Will I still need this in two years?”  “Will today be the last ride?”  When your horse is 30, every day that he’s still standing is a gift, and you have to take each day as it comes, because tomorrow the picture could change drastically and forever.

So, today we still need this.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.4-of-us

How Did We Get Here

IMG_0561.JPGDid you ever stop and ask yourself, at any given moment, how you got to be at your current place and time?  For good or ill, sometimes it’s a good idea to look back at the choices you made 5, 10, 20, or more years ago and think about how those choices led you down the path to your current place in your life’s journey.

And then, sometimes it’s just luck.

I was always the nerdy kid with (almost) no friends that wanted a pony.  Every birthday, every Christmas, I really wanted a pony.  We had plenty of other pets—dogs, cats, chickens, animals kept for 4-H projects like sheep, cattle, goats, and so on.  But it was always a horse that eluded me, and a horse I never gave up on.  It finally happened for me at age 29.

At 29 I finally got my first horse.  He was, in fact, was Bars’ younger brother.  People often refer to multiple pets as siblings, but in this case it was the actual truth—my first horse was Bars’ younger brother Tecate. (I’m not responsible for that name either.)  Tecate is a tale for another day, so for now we’ll just say that Bars came along about a year later, when I was 30 and he was nine.

I was a new horse owner then, and I bought Bars for the absolute worst reason possible—he was Tecate’s brother, I loved the stallion, and, like an idiot, I thought Bars would be just like his father and brother.  O dear, did I have it wrong!

As it happened, Bars had had some unfortunate things happen to him before we found each other, and, as one trainer described it, he had learned that he couldn’t trust his rider.  This is a bad lesson for a horse to learn, and a difficult one to un-learn, especially for a horse with a novice rider.  Someone with more riding experience than I had would have undoubtedly gotten him past his many fears and quirks long before I was able to, but I had some good help, was in no particular rush, and felt pretty strongly that giving up would be a disservice to both of us.  So I hung in there.  We did lots and lots of ground work—for any non-horse people reading this, that means I spent a lot of time doing things with him that didn’t involve riding, like leading him over poles, teaching him to back up with just a tap on the chest, and to respond to voice commands.  Rather like training a dog, in fact.  I read books, I went to lectures at my local university’s vet school, and I subscribed to Equus magazine.  But the bottom line was…I spent time with my horse, which is really what he needed.  And the relationship grew.

As the years went on, we learned new things together.  We moved from an area that had basically flat, unfenced terrain to one where there were all kinds of trail obstacles like gates and creeks, so we had to learn how to open (and close) gates, cross creeks without being afraid of invisible horse-eating crocodiles, and negotiate some steep and rocky terrain.

22 years later, Bars is not the same horse he was when we found each other, and I am not the same woman I was when I was 30. It’s been an interesting and eventful “ride” together, and it ain’t over yet!  I’m so lucky that I made that dumb choice to buy a chestnut horse that nobody else really wanted.

Why Geriatric Horses?

You might be wondering what’s so different about an old horse? Lots of people have old dogs and cats—what makes old horses so special?

Good question.  I’ve asked myself that many times.

It’s just different.  That’s the best I can do.

Maybe it’s because of longevity.  A horse’s life span can be up to two or three times that of a dog or cat.  Sure, there’s horses that don’t live much past 20 and there’s some dogs and cats that live into their late teens, but those are as unusual as a horse that’s past 35.  Most dogs and cats live around15-18 years, where a horse can expect to live at least ten years longer than that—and, in Bars’ case, almost double.  In our case, we’ve been together over 22 years, which is one of the longest, most stable relationships of my life!

Maybe it’s because the nature of the work that horses and riders do together is different.  There’s lots of dogs that are taught to do very high level work, like rescue, agility, search & rescue, and so forth, and they have to work very closely with their people to do their jobs.  But a horse and rider are physically linked in a way that just doesn’t happen with a dog and his handler.  The horse and rider must ultimately learn to move together in something resembling harmony.  The most adept make it look like magic, where the horse and rider move as one, with the tiniest cues that seem invisible to all but the most practiced eye.  The science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey, herself a horsewoman, created the sort of relationship many riders would want with their horses in her Dragonrider books, where the animal, in this case a dragon, is telepathically linked for life to his or her “rider,” who becomes really more like a life partner.

Maybe that’s really it.  The relationship with a horse is, at least for me, more closely resembles a life partnership.  Many people, including myself, have close emotional bonds with other pets, but a horse is a different kind of partner.  If you pay attention, you will grow and learn from each other in ways that parallel a human relationship more than the bond with a dog or cat.

One of my riding coaches once told me that finding the right horse was really like finding the right mate.  The right mate is truly a life partner, and that’s what Bars and I have been for each other.  Hopefully we’ll still have a long time together.

It’s just different.dscf2415

“My horse is 30”

“My horse is 30”

That statement elicits a variety of responses, depending on the who’s hearing it.  It means one thing to an ole cowboy, something else to a serious competitive rider, and something else altogether to someone who’s never shared her life with a horse.  The latter group often want to know, “how long will horses live?”

The oldest horse I ever knew was somewhere past 40—we never knew just how far past.  His name was Rebel, he had an anchor branded on his rump, and best we could tell, he was a Morgan.  He had almost no teeth left, so he ate a “porridge” of pelleted hay mixed with water three times a day instead of hay.  He was the Elder Statesman of the barn, brooked no nonsense, and he was the horse who taught me to ask for and to sit a canter.

At the same time, I also knew a Quarter horse named Tawny, who was 32.  Tawny’s person was an older teenage girl who rode her faithfully and even showed her in some training competitions.  She was sway backed and wheezed a lot, but she had great energy, great personality, and was overall a great horse.  Both Tawny and Rebel were older than I was at the time, and by that I mean that they were both doing horse work before I arrived on the planet.

As my own horse and I have grown older together, I’ve thought often about Rebel and Tawny, and what I learned from them about elderly horses.  Sometimes I don’t believe it all myself—most horses don’t live to see their 30th birthdays, although like people, improvements in nutrition and medical care are allowing dogs, cats, and horses to live longer, more useful lives than anyone would have imagined a generation or two ago.  We have also redefined the phrase “useful life.”  Many old horse hands I encounter assume that a 30-year old horse is retired, or “out to pasture.”  Well, my ole man is far from retired.  I ride him an average of five days a week, and I mean ride—not three rounds around the arena and done, but anywhere from 2-5 miles out on the trail.   We trot, we canter, and we sometimes have a good run.

So, I thought I might share some of what I’ve learned from living with an elderly horse.  These are lessons we can potentially apply to ourselves as we age, and also as our more familiar dogs and cats age and leave us.  And, when the inevitable day comes, then perhaps we can look back on these last months or (hopefully) years and thus enshrine some happy memories.

“Grow old with me; the best is yet to be…”

About my horse:  His name is Bars, which is short for Sir Barcelone, his registered name. I didn’t pick it.  He’s a Morgan, he’s 14.3 hands tall, which for non-horse people means he’s almost five feet tall as measured at the base of his neck.  We came into each other’s lives when I was 30 and he was 8, so we’ve been together a very long time. As of this writing he has arthritis in his back legs and has recently been diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome, a metabolic condition that affects people, dogs, and horses, but each a little differently.  He is the Elder Statesman at his boarding stable and he absolutely loves little kids.  Bars does not live on property we own, but at a boarding stable.

About me: I am 52, and, while I’ve been around horses most of my life, I didn’t have my own horse until I was nearly 30.  Bars was my second horse, and will likely be my last.  We’ve been through a lot together and learned a lot from each other, as couples often do.  Yes, I’m married, and other animals include a cat and a parrot.