Swollen Legs

Horses like to give us something to puzzle over, and last week one of my clients had a mystery filled leg with her horse which has prompted me to compose a checklist for anyone in a similar position. After all, fat legs arise for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes you bring your horse out the stable, or in from the field, and they have a filled lower limb. It causes panic, and you think the worst. But calm yourself, and work through a process of elimination to decide whether the filled leg is purely an accumulation of lymph fluid or something more serious. Then you can decide on a course of action and potentially how to prevent it reoccurring.

If one leg is filled and the others not it suggests a knock or injury to that leg which causes a reactive inflammation, but if both hinds or both fores are filled it suggests an accumulation of lymph fluid for physiological reasons. Running through this check list on the lone filled leg will allow you to establish if there’s a more serious cause to the filling or if it’s just a curved ball that horse’s like to throw and get us worried.

  • Firstly, are they weight bearing? A non weight bearing mysterious swollen leg is much more serious than a weight bearing one.
  • Are they sound? Again, a swelling with lameness is more serious than one without lameness. If the horse is not weight bearing and lame then it’s a matter to discuss with the vet.
  • Is there any heat in the leg? Sometimes a knock to the leg, either in the stable or a kick from another horse, doesn’t leave a mark but will leave an area of heat on the leg even if the whole leg is filled with fluid.
  • Are they sensitive on the area? If they’re in pain then there could be a more serious cause to the filled leg.
  • Is the swelling soft or hard? Hard swelling indicates an injury to connective tissue or a localised infection at a wound. Soft swelling suggests lymph fluid.
  • Is there a specific area of swelling or just the whole limb? A specific area means it could be a tendon, ligament, or infection site. A general swelling, particularly without heat, suggests a build up of lymph fluid – for reasons yet unknown. Does the limb resemble a tree trunk, or just have slight filling? A large amount of filling needs to be taken seriously as it suggests infection.
  • Is there a wound? Sometimes you have to look very closely for a small wound which could cause infection to enter and the leg to get swollen in response to the infection. This time of year there could be a small cut or graze which causes mud fever bacteria to enter the limb. Sometimes there can be a tiny wound, such as a thorn, which causes a mild reactive swelling but can’t be identified easily.
  • Are there any clues on the rest of the horse’s body? Mud marks which suggest a kick or a slip in the field, a disturbed bed which suggests they got cast in the night, or a bramble in their tail which hints at a possible thorn in (or was in) the leg causing a reactive inflammation.

With the physical examination done you should feel more confident the level of seriousness of the filled leg. If they’re weight bearing and sound, with general swelling and no heat, pain, or obvious wound or injury then it’s likely to just be a build up of lymph fluid or a mild response to a foreign body, so the best thing is to monitor it for a couple of days and if it doesn’t get any better then call the vet.

Next of course, you need to try and find the possible reason behind the swollen leg or legs, to see if it’s a management issue, or if there is a way to avoid the problem reoccurring.

  • If it’s a swollen hind leg then poor circulation is a potential cause. The lymphatic system has no pump, unlike the circulatory system, so relies on movement to circulate lymph fluid. Combined with the fact the heart is so far away from the hind legs then a lack of movement can cause lymph fluid to build up there.
  • If a horse has suddenly been kept in: on box rest or due to bad weather, then their legs may fill. Turnout and gentle exercise – going on the walker for example – will help reduce swelling.
  • If you link filled legs to more time spent in the stable then you can manage the situation by using magnetic boots, to improve circulation, or stable bandages.
  • Sometimes one leg will fill more when a horse is stabled due to an old injury or previous damage to the lymph system in that limb. If a horse is lame they may load their good limb, which can also cause swelling.
  • High protein diets have also been linked to filled legs, so if your horse suddenly starts having filled limbs, perhaps at the beginning of winter when hard feed is introduced or the rations have changed, then it may be worth checking the levels of protein in their diet and finding alternative food. Young horses, veterans, or those on conditioning feeds require more protein in their diets, so it may be worth speaking to a nutritionist for advice if you think protein levels are the cause of filled legs.
  • If your horse suffers from filled legs on a regular basis, and in more than one leg then they might be suffering from lymphangitis, which is a bacterial infection and needs treatment from the vet, as well as immediate treatment of any cuts by cleaning and applying barrier cream to prevent the entry of infection. If a horse gets lymphangitis then there is a high risk of complications, and they are always susceptible to flare ups so you need to monitor the horse’s legs closely at all times and act quickly if there’s any sign of infection.
  • Check the general health of your horse because an illness that affects the circulatory system can cause the legs to fill as a side effect. But it should be quite clear to you that your horse is under the weather and then you can call the vet.

My client’s horse was a little depressed last week and off his hay for a couple of days, but his bed was disturbed on the days that his leg was filled, suggesting he’d knocked himself, but it went down on turnout each day, and when his appetite picked up again his leg seemed to return to normal. Frustrating as it is because there was no obvious cause, but as it was mild swelling with no pain and it went down quickly we tried not to worry too much. I think the horse was off his hay so fidgeted more in his stable because of boredom and knocked his leg. Perhaps causing a contusion which filled overnight and then went down during the day.

Another horse I know came in from the field with a slightly filled hindlimb earlier this week. Again, not lame or in pain, but we couldn’t find a wound or injury. However, I found a bramble in her tail so I think she was investigating the brambles and got a thorn in that leg, triggering the swelling. The leg just needed monitoring over the following days to see if the swelling reduces and to ensure the thorn comes out, if it already hasn’t.


Matt’s Update

Today is a significant day for Matt Black. It was six months ago today that he fractured his stifle.

The good news, is that the vet says the bone will now be as strong as it was before he was injured, so within reason he can resume normal work. Obviously his fitness and muscle tone need adjust so there will still be a rehab period under saddle.

Last time I updated you on him, he had just started being turned out in the arena – Which you can read about here. After a couple of weeks of going in the arena, Mum started long reining him (a new thing for her) to encourage a bit more gentle exercise. I think it took a moment for him to remember, but then they’ve both enjoyed meandering over poles, around jumps and perfecting their circles.

After a month of going in the outdoor arena for an hour a day, they braved it and turned him back out into the big field. The rest of the herd were starting to get into their winter routine of living in, and being turned out every morning. So a handful of quieter ponies, including Matt’s girlfriend, were turned out and once they had settled to graze, Matt was led to the gate. Initially I don’t think he really knew what was going on, but once released he did his best medium trot through the mud, across the stream and then up to the open field. He neighed loudly, making sure everyone knew he was back! They all had a canter round, watched by the other horses in neighbouring fields, and Mum looked on through her fingers. But then he settled to graze, and after an hour or so was ready to come back in.

Since then, Matt has returned to his normal winter routine of being turned out all day and coming in at night, which I think has provided Mum with some light relief.

That was at the beginning of December, and the daily exercise as well as the terrain in the field has helped Matt rebuild some of his muscle. Mum was starting to get organised to ride him again. Well, to plonk a gutsy teenager on who won’t mind if he gives a buck or two. Which I don’t think he’ll do.

But then ten days ago, Matt developed an eye ulcer. Which has involved a couple of courses of eye ointments and eye drops, Bute, as well as several vet visits. On Wednesday he had his eye scraped, which was what triggered it to start healing when he had an eye ulcer three years ago. Hopefully his eye is now on the way to being back to normal and hopefully after Christmas he can be ridden again.

Mum actually brought out the saddle last week, with the prolite pad, to check it’s fit and Matt’s face was a picture – his holiday is coming to an end!

Impaction Colic

There’s been a lot of talk recently by vets about the dangers of impaction colic at this time of year.

Impaction colic is caused by a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract, usually caused by a build up of solid material (often food or partially formed faeces) which prevents normal passage through the gut.

The risk of impaction colic increases in winter when horses move from a diet of grass, which is 75% water, to hay, which can be up to 20% water, because there is a higher percentage of dry matter in their intestines to move.

Horses on box rest, with limited movement, or like last week when the horses stayed in due to the snow and ice, are more at risk of impaction colic because reduced movement reduces peristalsis so food matter travels more slowly through the gut and is more likely to get stuck.

Horses who are dehydrated, due to heavy exercise, a drier diet, insufficient fresh water, or cold weather making their water sources icy cold, are at risk of impaction colic because less water in their system means that there is less fluid to soften the food as it travels through the digestive tract so it is prone to building into a bigger bolus and getting stuck.

Horses, well ponies really, who binge eat are at risk of impaction colic because of the sheer volume of food entering their body in a short space of time. Also, unsoaked sugar beet that is eaten will expand in the digestive tract, so potentially forming a blockage.

There are numerous other causes of impaction colic – roundworm infestation (I saw a particularly gory video doing the rounds on Facebook first thing this morning), poor dentition, sandy soil, repeated sedation, eating straw – but the main reasons I spoke about are particularly important when considering your winter management of horses.

Ensuring that they have enough access to fresh water, which isn’t icy cold is paramount. It’s very easy to overlook water supplies when the ground is so muddy or there’s snow lying around, but horses won’t drink water that is too cold, which can then lead to it not being refreshed and going stale. On cold nights you can insulate water buckets in stables by surrounding them with straw which will help keep the chill away.

Making the transition from grass to hay slowly, and using soaked hay will help reduce the risk of impaction colic. Horses who are known to be fussy drinkers would benefit from dampened or soaked hay, or haylage throughout the winter. You can also increase their water intake by feeding soaked feeds – sugar beet, or the Allen and Page soaked range for example.

Whilst horses have evolved to be trickle eaters, when placed in the stable environment we give them fixed meal times. Which can lead to them scoffing down their haynets and then standing with an empty stomach for hours. Some owners give a bigger quantity so it takes longer for them to eat. Perhaps a better option is to work out a routine so that hay is given frequently throughout the day. For example, if your horse comes in at 4pm, could he have a small haynet then. When you arrive after work, say 6ish and ride, or pamper, he could have his hard feed and another smallish haynet then a friend who is there later than you could give your horse his night net, which is much bigger. Then in the morning, an early riser could give either breakfast or a small haynet which will keep your horse going until turn out. Then a small ration in the field will fuel him through the day. I can remember at college we’d bring the horses in and put them to bed with hard feeds and small haynets at 5pm, and then at 9pm they were given their night nets, which spread their food intake as much as possible. I’m waiting for someone to invent hay dispensers, which give horses a ration of forage at a set time in the middle of the night.

Alternative ways of slowing down eating is to double net, or use small holed haynets, or to soak the hay so that it requires more chewing to break it up to form a bolus to swallow.

I think one thing that people often overlook in winter, because of the reduced light, reduced turnout, and reduced saddle time, is exercise. A horse who is stabled and only turned out for a few hours a day is likely to have reduced gut activity because peristalsis is increased with movement which makes them more prone to stodgy droppings and food taking longer to pass through the system. I know one horse like this: she’d quite happily scoff hay for twenty hours a day, with only a little walk round her field to break it up, and when she’s ridden she tends to be really backward thinking and lethargic until she’s produced this elephant sized dropping, whereby she immediately picks up the pace and becomes more comfortable. I think there’s a combination of her being greedy, and a lack of general exercise because she’s too busy stuffing her face, means that her gut is slow and lazy. If she were mine I’d probably soak hay, use small holes nets, reduce the quantity so that she has to venture out and scavenge on the grass, and have different feeding stations around the field, to force her to move about more and to increase the water going into her. She would have a small soaked feed, not that she really needs it, but it gets water into her system. In terms of exercise, she’d probably benefit from going on the walker or a short, gentle hack before being schooled so that she has chance to empty herself which should make her more comfortable.

The horse above would be one that I would be very conscious of if she was ever on box rest or restricted turnout as I think she’d be a likely candidate for impaction colic.

Talking of which, make sure you can identify the symptoms of colic, or signs of the onset of colic, which are listed below:

  • Passing fewer droppings
  • Droppings which are drier, smaller, and more firm.
  • Horse seems quiet, or depressed.
  • Refusing feed.
  • Showing signs of being uncomfortable.
  • Pawing the ground.
  • Looking at their stomach.
  • Kicking their belly.
  • Sweating.
  • Rapid, shallow breathing.
  • Increases heart rate.
  • Lying down.
  • Rolling.

If you suspect colic, then ring the vet immediately, and whilst you’re waiting for them, walk your horse round. If it’s impaction colic then gentle movement may help to initiate peristalsis and push the blockage through their digestive tract. With impaction colic the vet will administer water and laxatives via a nasal tube, and may use liquid paraffin to soften and lubricate the faeces. Painkillers are usually injected intravenously. I’ve seen vets do a rectal examination immediately and pull out most of the offending blockage, before using the other treatment to help flush the system and make the horse comfortable. That does however, depend on the location of the blockage as the vet’s arm is only a finite length and there is a lot of colon wrapped up inside a horse!

After treatment, horses are starved and monitored to see when they pass droppings and to see if the colic signs ease. Again, gentle movement helps keep the digestive tract moving so helps shift the blockage. When the vet deems that the horse’s gut is free from blockage then wet food, such as grass and sloppy hard feeds can be introduced, gradually transitioning to their usual diet over a few days. Severe blockages often require hospitalisation as they can take days to clear. Thankfully though, impaction colic which is caught early and acted upon has a high success rate of treatment.

Money Saving Expert

After a weekend of tidying up finances – car insurances, phone bills etc – I got thinking of how you can save money, or at least make your money go further, with horses. Who we all know think that we have orchards of money trees.

Here’s a few things that I’ve come up with.

  • Buy in bulk. Last year I bought a pallet of wood pellets in September, at a cheaper price, and kept them in my garage. I took up a few bags to store at the yard every couple of weeks. If I’d ordered a couple of pallets I’d have gotten a better deal. So it’s definitely worth buying bedding and feed in bulk, perhaps share an order with a friend or two in order to qualify for any discounts.
  • Share jobs with friends. Instead of paying livery services, get a rota with friends that you turn each other’s horses out, or dish out breakfasts, which means that as well as saving some money and time, you also save petrol and time in traveling to the yard.
  • Pick the correct livery deal for your lifestyle. If you need more help than favours you can ask, it may be better to be on a part livery yard rather than a DIY yard and paying for individual services. Also, it’s worth weighing up the distance between the yard and your house. If you’re on a part livery deal and only need to travel to the yard once a day then commuting an extra mile or two, to a yard that has a lower monthly charge, may be more cost effective than staying at a yard closer to home yet more expensive.
  • Don’t get too materialistic. It’s really easy to see a new rug, or saddle cloth, and think “oh he’d look nice in that”, or “that will match his boots” … how many saddle cloths do you really need? On a day to day basis, two per saddle is sufficient that you can wash one, or let it dry, and still have one to ride with. Of course, a competition saddle cloth is needed if you compete. In terms of rugs, it’s most cost effective to go with one make of rug and have a turnout rug, with a detachable neck, and liners to increase the thickness of the rug. Two turnouts is probably sensible in case one gets ripped, or it rains heavily. But if the liners are interchangeable between the rugs then you can easily make rugs as warm as necessary without having a huge wardrobe, thus keeping costs down.
  • Plan your purchases so that you know what you need and then you can buy off season, or take advantage of any sales. Like any sales, you do need to check that you are getting a deal.
  • Join forces with friends, and book dentist, physio, saddler appointments to get any discounts, or to save on call out fees.
  • Whilst talking of call out fees, think about when you are going to call the vet. Many vets have zone days, where you can have vaccinations and routine checkups with no call out fee. Apart from the obvious emergencies, sometimes you can end up in a predicament, “do I call the vet?” Or “does this wound need antibiotics?”. At this point, it’s worth speaking to other liveries, or ringing the vet. For example, if you’ve started treating a wound, but it doesn’t seem to be healing as quickly as you’d like, then ask if anyone else is having the vet that day or the following day and if so, it’s worth speaking to the vet to see if you can combine visits. Sometimes it isn’t, because of the welfare of the horse. Likewise if you need a follow up vet visit, a week after treatment for example, then tie in with someone who’s having the vet out in six or eight days time to just save the call out fees.
  • Don’t be afraid of looking for second hand equipment. Often people purchase bits and pieces, yet they don’t fit their horse or don’t suit them. Which means you can pick up quality items at reasonable costs.
  • Work out what jobs you can do yourself, and what jobs need doing professionally. For example, can you wash your saddle cloths and boots yourself by hand and save precious pennies. Some lightweight rugs, like fly rugs or coolers, can go in your washing machine (just pick a day that the other half isn’t around!)
  • Don’t go for the cheapest farrier, or scrimp of saddler visits because it’s far cheaper to prevent a problem than to correct one. Instead, look for the perks like a good manner with your horse or a quick call out time to replace a lost shoe.
  • Shop around for insurances, just as you’d check out the tack sales to make sure you’re getting value for money.
  • Lessons can be expensive, but necessary (of course I’m going to say that!) but riding club clinics are usually good value for money, and if you have a friend who has similar riding aims to you then semi private lessons can reduce your outgoings. Buying lessons in bulk sometimes gives you a discount. Either you get a free lesson, or each lesson is slightly discounted.

So whilst horses are an expensive hobby, there are definitely ways of making your money go further whilst still providing your horse with all their needs.

A Matt Update

Matt has had an exciting week, so I thought I’d update you all.

Last time I told you about him he had progressed to walking 30-60 steps a day in hand. Which was all very exciting!

He’s done six weeks of this walking, some days doing it twice and lately I think the walls had gotten longer. So Mum had the vet out again to assess him.

Mum walked him along the yard for the vet to see, then when she went to turn him around Matt did his “stop, stare, ignore everyone” pose so Mum performed the heinous crime of turning him towards her. Which is incidentally so that his injured hind was on the inside of the circle.

Anyway, the vet was really pleased that there was no swelling in the stifle, and the stride was smooth and fluid, suggesting the bones were gliding over each other easily.

She announced with some trepidation that it was time to introduce some turn out – how exciting! After all, Matt’s been on box rest for eighteen weeks. The following morning, fairly early, Mum gave Matt a little bit of Sedalin to take the edge off him. He hadn’t had breakfast in the hope that being a bit hungry would encourage him to eat.

Her yard owner led Matt to the outdoor arena – the smallest area to turn out (remember, this is a traditional yard with huge fields up the side of the mountain and most of the horses run together). Matt did start to get excited when he got past the 60 step mark, but when they released him he just stood there.

After a few minutes of Matt wandering round, having a sniff of droppings and nibble of tufts of grass, two of his friends came down the field to see him. And then he was off!

Several minutes of some beautiful, sound as a pound, trot and canter, a good roll on both sides, Matt settled and did some more wandering round and grazing for half an hour before returning to his stable.

The next day Matt couldn’t go out because there were lessons in the arena all day, but he looked a bit stiff when he was walked out so perhaps that was a good thing.

He went out again Monday morning without sedation, and had a shorter cavort around. Incidentally, Monday was our one year anniversary since we qualified for the riding club championships with 78%. How much has changed in twelve months!

A Matt Update

I thought you were well overdue a Matt update. Particularly as I went to see him a fortnight ago. Don’t worry, Otis fans, there will be an update on him at the weekend.

Last time I updated you, in August, he had just had his second x-ray. The X-ray showed that his stifle was healing well, but the fracture was worse than initially thought so poor Matt’s box rest was extended by four weeks.

After a total of twelve weeks box rest, at the beginning of September, he had a third X-ray, which thankfully showed that the fracture has healed. Which means it’s onto phase two.

The X-ray showed that the bones were smooth, with no callouses from the healing process, but because the stifle is a very complicated joint, where numerous bones need to glide over each other, plus the fact that the new bone on the fracture site is less dense and strong than the rest of his skeleton, means that exercise needs to be introduced very slowly.

The vet instructed that Matt needs to be led out for 30-60 strides every day. He can be grazed in hand, and can be walked out twice a day so long as he remains sound.

Now there are two problems here. One, how far is 60 strides? The answer is not very far! It’s the distance from Matt’s stable to the yard gate and back again. Which means that there is very little grass for him to nibble at en route.

Secondly, leading Matt out is like leading a ticking bomb. I don’t know how suicide bombers stand the suspense. He walks quietly enough, but then jumps a mile at absolutely nothing. Or suddenly stands bolt upright. Or bucks. Which means that his walks need to be done when the yard is quiet.

Armed with his lunging bridle and stallion chain, Mum’s yard owner led him out the first time. Predictably, he wasn’t interested in grazing the meagre grass by the fence, and was more interested in the horses up the field. He did a bit of jumping around in anticipation, but the walk was over and done without a hitch.

The next day, Matt seemed a bit sore and stiff when he walked out. But whether that’s to do with the exercise and his body not being used to it, or the cavorting around, he was definitely a bit subdued.

When I was visiting Matt I was given the responsibility of walking him out, but he still didn’t seem very interested in grazing, so it was a short reprieve from his box rest. I did suggest to Mum, that to help break up his routine that she placed a bucket of dried grass (which he loves) or a lickit at the end of his walk so that he is more inclined to relax outside of his stable, and hopefully he’ll get used to the idea of spending time grazing. Then when the distance of his walk increases he’ll be quicker to settle to graze on the nicer grass.

Matt’s walks will get longer over the next couple of months, and then I guess it will be time to introduce limited turn out, once the stifle joint is functioning efficiently and the bone has matured.

In the meantime, it’s back to the stable, with his variety of treat balls, willow branches, jolly ball, and stretches using clicker training.

Holiday Preparations

We’re going on holiday this weekend, so the blog will probably be a bit quiet next week, but it’s amazing how much preparation and how long you spend getting the pets and animals ready for their carers. Probably more time than you spend packing!

With the cats, it’s making sure there’s enough cat food and litter. Is it all stored in the same place and easy to find, or will the food fall out the cupboard as the door is opened. Has the cat sitter been round to see where everything is? Have you made a note of feed rations, with contact numbers in case of emergency. Is the cat basket out the loft for such an emergency? Has anything in the house been left so it can be knocked over, or should that clean shirt be left there in case it becomes their bed for the week? It’s fairly straightforward, really, well except when they try to pack themselves!

But the to-do list with horses is far longer. So I thought I’d compile a list for anyone else planning a holiday.

  • Who’s in charge? Have they been briefed and introduced to your horse?
  • Is everything written down clearly for them?
  • Emergency contacts – vet, farrier, you, a back up number for you. Just in case.
  • Do they know where your first aid box is and any usual treatments you follow: e.g. He often gets a runny eye so a used, cooled tea bag is put over to reduce the swelling.
  • Hard feeds: depending on how long you’re away for, or how complicated the bucket feed is, you may choose to make up each feed into a plastic bag. In which case, you need to set time aside to do it, have somewhere dry to store them, and possibly do an extra feed or two in case you get delayed.
  • Haynets. Again, you may want to fill a few days worth, to ease your horse-sitter’s workload, so time and storage need to be allocated. Otherwise you need to ensure there’s enough hay: either bought in or in your allocated area.
  • Stable. This depends totally on the time of year, but I like to have the stable ready in case of an emergency even if my horse is living out at that time. In the winter, it’s considerate to do a very thorough muck out the day before you leave, putting in sufficient fresh bedding, and making sure there is plenty available for the horse-sitter.
  • Rugs. This is always a nightmare! During the summer and winter the weather is usually stabilised, so you can leave the horse with their usual rug, and leave an alternative in case the weather changes drastically. However, autumn and spring are harder to forecast. The weather changes on an hourly basis, and whatever rug you put on will be wrong by someone – be it the weather gods sending blazing sunshine instead of the forecast heavy rain, or the over ruggers telling you you need a thicker rug, or the under ruggers telling you your horse will be too hot. Try to pick a horse sitter who knows how you rug, and understands if your horse tends to run warm or if his arthritic hocks need a bit of warmth to prevent him seizing up.
  • Tidy up. This sounds silly, but I like to put all my things away tidily before going away, so nothing goes walkabouts, and it’s much preferable arriving home to an organised grooming kit, tack or feed room. It’s a bit anal, but that’s why I was outside tidying up the garden tonight and will clean the house tomorrow!

So yes, there always seems to be so much to organise for horses when you go away, and then you also have the inevitable unknown factor that horses are famous for. For Mum, it was Matt fracturing his stifle three days before she went on holiday. For another friend who’s going travelling in a months time, her mare has decided to do a tendon. Even the best laid plans have to be rapidly rethought in these sorts of situations, and it’s when you appreciate the network of support around you. Once you manage to get away, you can sit back and relax … well, after your daily equine update of course!

Non-Athletic Careers

Most of us have horses for the purpose of riding; be it hacking, jumping, eventing, dressage, racing, playing polo or mounted games. Driving is another area we use them for. It’s a very athletic lifestyle, but unfortunately there are a large number of horses who aren’t able to have athletic careers. Maybe they’ve been neglected so are too weak to take a rider, or their conformation means they are limited, or they’ve picked up an injury during their lives. Or perhaps they just don’t have a particularly trainable brain.

This led me to wondering what non-athletic jobs a horse could have. After all, there must be something!

The first non-athletic reason that springs to mind is of course, companionship. Many older horses, or outgrown ponies are kept on by their owners to provide company for their younger/bigger/faster replacements. These horses often live a very happy, contended lifestyle, living out most of the time but being stabled during the worst of the weather, supplied with hay and rugged when necessary, visited by the dentist, farrier and vet as and when needed. Another aspect of this companionship is when competition horses suffer from separation anxiety and need their companion (often a Shetland) to accompany them to competitions. Obviously this is a far more exciting life than just staying in the field, but often these companions make all the difference to the competition horse’s performance.

There’s been a big move recently, and a lot of research done, into the positive effects of autistic children being around animals. The Riding For the Disabled charity has been around for years and hundreds of people have seen and felt the psychological and physical benefits of being with horses. One recent piece of research found an improvement in the social behaviour of autistic children who rode or handled horses on a weekly basis.

Obviously Riding for the Disabled involves riding, but there’s been a recent move towards Therapy Centres. These are for disabled people, or those suffering from depression, loss, or other psychological problems. Sessions involve grooming, and bonding with a horse or pony, leading them around, or being around the horses in their stable and field. After all, how many of us feel better after a tough day just by going and having a cuddle with your horse?

So a kind, gentle natured horse who cannot be ridden for whatever reason, could have a very fulfilling life at a Therapy Centre, letting troubled people spend time with them and heal. I had a quick look online and there are a few small businesses who have herds of horses and specialise in unridden sessions to help clients overcome their problems and rebuild their confidence.

I then got a bit stumped for other ideas, but I heard of a lady’s horse who had various ailments and after lengthy investigation and treatment needed to be retired, so she gifted him to an equine hospital as a blood donor. When you think about it, it’s logical really, for hospitals to have small herds of horses, usually geldings, on site so that in an emergency they can be caught (one criteria is that the horses are easy to catch) and blood taken from them and given directly to the patient. I guess this would appeal to many owners in that difficult situation of having a healthy, unrideable horse. The donor herds live out except for very bad weather, and are under the close eye of a team of vets, so are going to be well looked after.

That’s a very useful non-athletic job for geldings. But what about mares? Well a lot of people say “oh I can always breed from her”. Well, not really because the UK doesn’t need to increase the equine population and if a mare has an untrainable character then it’s unwise to breed from her anyway. Some injuries/illnesses or conformational faults can be inherited or make carrying a foal hazardous to the mare. For example, if a mare has chronic forelimb lameness (perhaps only two tenths lame so doesn’t prevent her from being retired) then this will be exacerbated when she is carrying a foal and heavier, therefore it’s not very ethical to put her through that. Some maternal mares could be used as “nannies” and could help orphaned foals, or they could help keep herds of weanlings or youngsters in check until they are taken to be backed. After all, recent studies have shown that it is very much the dominant mare which leads a wild herd to water, grazing, shelter.

Horses who can’t be ridden definitely become limited in the purpose that they can be kept for: which can make it difficult for some people to justify keeping them, but if they’re happy living out in a herd, and comfortable in whatever ails them, then there are huge numbers of retirement establishments around the UK, but it’s equally interesting to see what other options are available for them, be it helping improve the quality of life of troubled humans such as therapy horses, or assisting in the care of other equines, such as being a blood donor.

A Long Overdue Update on Matt

Matt’s story has all been very quiet since he fractured his stifle and had a trip to hospital, but last week he had his second lot of X-rays so I thought you might like to hear how he’s getting on.

I think I said in my original post – Which you can read here – that Matt was never very good at being stabled, particularly if his neighbours have been turned out and it’s a nice day. Middle of winter with all his mates in and he’s perfectly content.

Mum got organised whilst Matt was in hospital and ordered a calming feed, which seemed to have every calming herb under the sun in it. Matt’s been on this since he arrived home, and after a couple of days did start to settle down. Now he either got used to his new routine or the feed for into his system – who knows! Anyway, we’re sticking with the feed because it’s not worth taking the risk of him becoming stressed again.

Like I said, it took him a couple of days to settle into the routine, but he was still quite fragile, and easily upset when he saw other horses. He’s been in his usual stable, which is at the end of a barn, so he can’t see a huge amount. Textbook guidelines for box resting horses say that horses will be happiest in a quiet corner of the yard where they have activity to observe. However I think this is a case of knowing the horse, and doing what’s best for them. Matt doesn’t like seeing horses leaving him, so putting him out on the yard where he sees them coming in and out from the field will only cause him to box walk frantically, so I think the right decision was made to stop him seeing too much.

Obviously without visual stimulation to occupy him, there’s a higher risk of stable vices developing but Mum and her friends have been quite ingenuous in providing in-stable entertainment for Matt. Thankfully he’s never been prone to getting overweight, so he can have ad lib hay to graze through the day. Carrots have been hidden in his hay to encourage him to forage and eat. Matt also seems to like hazel twigs hung up, and soon strips them of all their leaves.

Between his long grooming sessions, clicker training, hanging likits and treat balls, his days are surprisingly busy. He also has a constant companion now because another horse is on box rest, which is also helping to settle both geldings.

Six weeks after his injury, Matt had more X-rays. This was to check the healing progress, and to see if he can start being walked out in week eight.

There was good news and bad news. Firstly, the fracture is healing well. Unfortunately, the fracture was worse than the original X-rays showed. Due to the large haematoma over the fracture site initially, the X-ray showed some faint lines spreading from the fracture. The vet wasn’t sure if they were diffractions from the haematoma, but on last week’s X-rays it’s clear that they were hairline fractures. This means that Matt’s box rest has been extended by a month, and he will have more X-rays in four weeks time, to see if he can start being walked in hand at twelve weeks. It’s a shame, but it could be worse and now the box rest routine is established it’s straightforward to extend it.

The first X-ray is from the time of the injury, and was taken at the surgery with the large X-ray plate on the outside of his leg, and the second image was taken six weeks post injury, but with the plate held between his legs as the portable X-ray machine was used at the yard. Hopefully you can see the fracture site clearly.

Matt has also had his shoes carefully removed because the fracture is stable enough that his leg can be flexed enough for the farrier to remove his shoes but he will stay barefoot now until he is ready to go out.