Responsible Horse Ownership

 

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So the expression “long in the tooth” isn’t just an old farmer’s saying – it’s reference to one being “very old’’ comes from the fact that old horses do in fact have “longer” teeth. Like humans, horses are born with two sets of teeth – their “baby teeth” which fall out as their “adult teeth” erupt from the gum line. Unlike humans, however, horses are grazers meant to be chewing food 23 hours a day. That’s a lot of grinding of the teeth over a lifespan that can range up to 30 years or more! So horses are born with their “adult teeth” a considerable length, which continuously erupt from the gum line as a horse grinds down the surface of the teeth.  Of course to fit neatly into the horse’s skull, these adult teeth are curved, appearing to change shape as the horse wears down the chewing surface and more tooth is shown. The fact that younger horses teeth are more upright and show less above the gums, and as the horse gets older more of the longer curved tooth appears, gives us the expression “long in the tooth”.

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While we were told that Snowy was an old mare, we did in fact get confirmation at her first vet visit that she indeed was “long in the tooth”. Because horses’ teeth erupt in a set timeline you can use their teeth to estimate age.  When Dr. Bradford came to give Snowy her first veterinary exam (more on that in a later blog) she was able to estimate Snowy to be at least 25 years old, probably 26 or 27. She also was able to tell us that her teeth were in horrible condition, and as soon as she was stable she would need to be seen by a dentist (which in NC is a licensed veterinarian).

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Snowy’s teeth before being floated. You can see the sharp points and edges on each tooth, and that teeth are missing in between.

You see, very few horses have perfect chewing patterns, and as they wear their teeth down the majority of them do it unevenly. At the very least this can result in sharp points on the edges of individual teeth that can cause ulcers in the mouth and make chewing painful. Left unattended, horses can develop odd shapes to their chewing surfaces, including something called wave mouth, where the surface of the teeth actually resemble a wave with some teeth being longer and some shorter than others. This causes the opposite affect on the upper jaw, as “short” teeth on the lower jaw will have a corresponding “long” tooth on the upper, and vice versa. Why is this a problem? For one, the “bumpier” the chewing surface the harder it is for a horse to grind his food correctly. This results in partially chewed food traveling down the rest of the digestive tract from the mouth, causing choke if the pieces are large enough, and making it harder for food to be fully digested by the stomach. In addition, if left uncorrected the teeth will continue to wear down unevenly, and eventually the “short” teeth will be worn away completely and the “long” teeth will have no partner to grind against. All of this results in less digestible food making it to the stomach, making it harder and harder for horses to hold a healthy weight. And as a horse grinds it’s food by moving it’s jaw from side to side, irregular teeth can make chewing itself extremely painful.

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Snowy’s teeth after being floated, minus the sharp points.

So how do you correct this? Its quite simple – horses require regular dental checkups just like humans do. While they don’t have to worry much about cavities (although horses have been known to develop abscesses and rotted teeth), they do need to have their chewing surfaces checked annually and often filed down. Either a licensed vet or equine dentist will do what’s called “floating” the teeth, using a long handled file to remove hooks from individual teeth and keeping the overall chewing surface level.  At this time the vet will check for any loose teeth (common in older horses as the tooth gets worn down closer to the root) as well as any other issues including abscesses. How often should this be done? At least once a year for young horses, although certain breeds like Arabians often need to be floated more often due to the conformation of their heads (the classic “dish” causes a change in the chewing surface of their teeth as there is less room for all the teeth to fit). This can also be true of very small mini horses, as there is just only so much room to fit 36-40 teeth! Older horses usually need to be checked every 6 months at least, as the natural progression of the tooth will cause them to become loose and start falling out. When should a dentist first check your horse? Definitely before you put a bit in his mouth, or at least by age 3 to make sure he doesn’t have any baby caps that have become “stuck” as the adult teeth erupt.

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Example of a worn down molar from a 27 year old Arabian mare (not Snowy) that had to be pulled. This mare had proper dental care her whole life, however as horses approach thirty they start to run out of tooth, and with little real estate left in the gum they become loose and either fall out or must be pulled.

In poor Snowy’s case, her dental health had been neglected for quite a long time. Coupled with being fed hard to chew corn for 5 years, her teeth were a complete mess.  A mild “wave mouth” had turned into what resembles a jack-o-lantern smile, with the lower jaw made up of tall tooth –short tooth- tall tooth – no tooth and the vice versa for the top jaw. She literally squeaked when she chewed! In addition she had some very sharp points on her rear teeth which had caused a massive abscess on her cheek, and one or two teeth were loose and threatening to come out. With the rescue of any elderly horse there is always the risk that they have something systemically wrong causing them to be skinny. We were pretty sure in Snowy’s case it was just improper nutrition and dental care, and from what we discovered it seemed that was definitely the case.

Because Snowy was so underweight when Dr. Bradford first checked her upon arrival at Race2Ring, we decided to hold off on floating her teeth, as we didn’t want to stress her anymore than she already was from the move. Fortunately by the end of December Snowy had put on enough weight from proper nutrition that our other veterinarian, Dr. Lisa Baucom, was able to float her teeth when she was at the farm for another visit. We had hoped that Snowy could be floated with hand floats and not require sedation, but as typical for this tough little mare that was not the case! With mild sedation Dr. Baucom was able to use power tools to minimize the time it would take, and Snowy was able to have her first dental exam in over five years. Unfortunately she had so much damage that there was no way to give her a complete level chewing surface, as that would mean filing her tall teeth down so much to match her short teeth that she’d have very little chewing surface at all. So what Dr. Baucom had to do was focus on taking off the very sharp points, and leveling her teeth as much as she could to make chewing comfortable. We did find that the loose teeth were not loose enough to require pulling yet, but will have to be watched. Snowy will require fairly regular dental checkups from now on to make sure we remove any teeth that become dangerously loose, as well as to keep her mouth as comfortable as possible. At Race2Ring we always soak our horses feed, but with Snowy’s irregular teeth its all the more reason to soak her feed down, to make it as easy as possible for her to get her complete nutrition.

I’m happy to report that since Snowy’s arrival the first week in December, she has put on over 200lbs!  She still has a long way to go, but she’s come such a long way in a short time! For more information on Snowy’s rehab, or to make a donation towards her care, please visit our website www.race2ring.org. or contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Next month’s topic: Snowy’s First Doctor’s Visit

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It is human nature – especially in American culture – to want to feed skinny things. Horse, dog, human, it doesn’t matter. What’s the first thing most people say to a thin friend – “Dude, go get yourself a Big Mac, you’re too skinny!” Maybe it’s the nurturing side of human nature that causes us to do this, or maybe it’s just that we can’t stand to see a living creature “suffer”. So of course in Snowy’s case the very first thing any of us wanted to do was to feed her! However with any animal that has been in such a starvation state it is vitally important that refeeding be done slowly and correctly, and supervised by a qualified vet or equine nutritionist. Because horses are grazers they are meant to have food in their digestive tract 24/7. But in cases where food has been withheld completely, or in Snowy’s case the wrong type of feed was fed in too small an amount, the reintroduction of feed has to be done in small amounts. Not only can horses suffer from the typical digestive ailments of colic and laminitis, but they can also develop “Refeeding Syndrome”, whereby the imbalance of nutrients and electrolytes created by the reintroduction of feed can actually cause organ failure.  For more information on this subject please consult the UC Davis study at http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vetext/local-assets/pdfs/pdfs_animal_welfare/nutrition-hr03jul.pdf. While an older study its findings still hold true today.

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In Snowy’s case her owners were not cruel people refusing to feed their horse – they just didn’t have the knowledge of what is appropriate for an older horse to eat. She was being fed large amounts of whole corn, which with her poor dental health (more on that in a future blog) she was unable to chew and thereby digest. While a popular livestock feed up until the 1980’s, modern research tells us that whole corn, especially when fed as the only source of feed, does not provide the essential nutrients that a horse needs. In addition it is difficult to digest even when a horse is able to chew it – for Snowy’s first week at Race2Ring her manure was dark and dry, and you could actually see whole corn kernels in it, meaning that it had passed through her entire digestive tract completely undigested.

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Outside of clean fresh water, the most important item to a horse’s health is fiber. So under the supervision of Tammy Seifert, our equine nutrition expert from Shy Horse Stable & Supply, Snowy was started on a variety of high fiber feed items that would provide the needed amounts in her diet. First on that list was soaked alfalfa cubes. We started very small – only a handful of cubes at a time – fed four meals a day. Gradually over two weeks we were able to up the amounts and lessen the intervals, until by week three Snowy was eating three meals a day of ½ a 2qt scoop of cubes (measurement pre-soaking). Because of her lack of teeth we made sure the alfalfa was soaked at least 6 hours in warm water and fed “soupy” so that she would not have issues chewing or swallowing her meals (the added water was a definite bonus!). This meal soon became Snowy’s favorite, and she is quick to tell us if we are even a few minutes late with it!

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As having access to fiber 24 hours a day is very important, in addition to her meals Snowy was given free choice Chaffhaye (http://chaffhaye.com/). More than just chopped up forage you can purchase at your local farm supply store, Chaffhaye is a specially formulated feed source perfect for older horses or those prone to digestive upset. Loaded with yeast, pre-biotics, and probiotics, it is designed specifically to be easily digested in the hindgut of the horse, just as fresh grass is. It is safe to be fed free choice and horses love it. Because it is alfalfa and we were already giving Snowy alfalfa cubes, we started slow on the Chaffhaye as well so as not to shock her system, but over the course of a week she was getting it free choice, and it was her 2nd favorite (she loves her cubes!). At first Snowy was also provided access to a high quality, soft Orchard Grass hay. However her dental issues made it hard for her to chew, and with the other quality feed she wasn’t really touching it and we stopped feeding hay altogether.

Of course, the best and most natural way for a horse to gain weight is good old-fashioned grass pasture. But because Snowy had lived in a dry lot with no access to pasture, we had to be careful about reintroducing grass so as not to cause colic or laminitis. Although she came to us in December, a mild fall with plenty of rain had left our pastures in good shape, as well as the area surrounding our outdoor riding arena. We fashioned a fence on one end and a gate between the arena and round pen, and little by little Snowy was able to get turned out in her own private pasture, with buddies over the adjoining fence. At first she only was allowed to graze for an hour a day, gradually increasing in 30-60 minute increments until she was grazing all day and in her stall at night. Within a month Snowy received a wonderful holiday gift, in that she was able to start staying outside at night as well in another pasture with good grass and a turnout shed.

After making sure her fiber needs were being met, we next added a pellet to Snowy’s regimen. In addition to added calories for weight gain, the “grain-free” pellet would provide the needed trace minerals and protein for a balanced diet.  At Race2Ring we feed Progressive Nutrition (www.prognutrition.com), which we have found to be the best source of nutrition and digestible ingredients for our horses. Snowy was started on a very small amount – ¼ lb – of their Lo-Carb pellet. Why Lo-Carb and not a “senior” feed? Because PN’s Low Carb has the highest dietary fiber, and overall fiber is the most important ingredient for putting weight on an older horse. In addition,  PN Lo-Carb is much more nutrient dense than a Senior feed and is very low in non-structural carbohydrates.  (After being on corn for so long, starch and sugar are two ingredients Snowy does not need in her diet!).  While Snowy enjoyed her cubes, she started begging at meal times for something more, and that is when we added two meals a day of Lo-Carb – and it quickly became her favorite feed! Like with all our horses we feed it soaked, and in her case a little soupy, and not only was she licking the bucket she would scrape her teeth on the bottom wanting every little drop! Again we took it slow, and over the next six weeks gradually increased her amounts until she is now getting 2lbs of pellets twice a day. At her 6-week anniversary we were able to start introducing a fat supplement – PN’s Envision – which again was fed in very small amounts to allow for her system to acclimate.  Just a couple ounces a day to start and she is now up to ¼ lb twice a day, added to her pellet meals.

Snowy has been with us two months, and I’m happy to say she has gained over 100lbs! It has been a very slow process, however thanks to a proper refeeding schedule she has suffered no bouts of colic or laminitis, and continues to be full of energy.  Of course all this wonderful nutrition is great, but for Snowy to really be able to utilize the nutrients she has be to be able to chew it properly! So the subject of next month will be Snowy’s First Visit with the Dentist.

Snowy Feed Protocol Week 1 (12/5-12/15)

  • 8-10 alfalfa cubes, soaked: 4x a day
  • approximately 6 qts Chaffhaye: 2x a day
  • 1oz Soothing Pink supplement – for prevention of ulcers: 2x a day
  • 1 oz Aqua Aide electrolytes – for help with electrolyte balances: 1x a day
  • ¼ lb Low Carb pellets, soaked: 2x a day (starting mid-week)
  • 1 hour turnout on grass, gradually increasing by 30 minutes a day
  • 24 hour access to clean fresh water, salt block, and Himalayan salt block

Snowy’s Current Feed Protocol

  • ½ scoop (4 qt) alfalfa cubes, soaked: 3x day
  • free choice Chaffhaye
  • 2 lbs Low Carb pellets, soaked: 2x a day
  • ¼ lb Envisions fat supplement, fed with pellets: 2x a day
  • all day turnout on grass (when available) or in round pen with feed “buffet”
  • all night turnout on grass pasture
  • 24 hour access to clean fresh water, salt block, and Himalayan salt block

I had seen pictures of the skinny old mare, but they did not prepare me for what I saw snow-vet1-w500-h500when I walked down that driveway. A small group of people was huddled around a tiny, frail, grey Arabian mare – she was so skinny that you could see her entire skeleton despite the heavy blanket she wore.  “Diamond”, as she was called, had a bad hind leg and did not want to leave her buddy of the past 5+ years, and the horsemen who were helping us with the rescue were afraid to push her too much because of her condition. The first thing that struck me was in my entire life around horses – 35 years – and not even in my twenty years as a professional trainer – had I ever seen a horse that skinny in person.  The second thing that struck me was that she was one of the most beautiful Arabians I had ever seen! I had spent the past fifteen years primarily working with the breed, and I had grown to love not only their beauty but also their extreme intelligence and affinity towards humans. As a sport horse trainer we always criticize the halter breeders – “You can’t ride a pretty head” – but this mare was exquisite. And given her age and the rumor that she was registered and had been imported, this had been a high dollar horse at some point in her life.

snow-vet2-w500-h500I had first heard of “Diamond” when my assistant, Trisha R., asked if she could have an older blanket I was throwing out. It was no longer waterproof, and had been “much loved” by my three year old gelding. Trisha told me her neighbor had an older horse she was trying to help out with, and the blanket they had on her was way too big. The next day she sent me a photo of the mare, and I knew we had to do something quick. In conjunction with Tammy Seifert of Shy Horse Stable & Supply, as well as the executive board of Race2Ring, Trisha and I came up with a plan to try and help this horse out. We at first offered the owner help with feeding the mare correctly, but when she offered to donate her to us we jumped on the chance – and that was when Project Snow Angel was born!

Race2Ring is a 501c-3 non-profit, GFAS certified organization whose mission is to provide snow-arrival1-w500-h500professional rescue, rehabilitation, retraining, and placement for ex-performance horse athletes. However when the need arises we will step in with an outright rescue, which is what this poor Arabian mare needed. Shy Horse Stable and Supply graciously offered to provide all of the mare’s nutritional needs, with Race2Ring doing the initial rehabilitation and covering the rest of her expenses. We decided that “Diamond” needed a new name to go with her new life, and with her snow-white coat and it being so near Christmas, we decided on “Snow Angel”.

The original plan was for Tammy, her husband, and Trisha R. to pick Snowy up and deliver her to R2R in Conover, NC, but when the mare gave them some difficulty I met them at the farm in Maiden to help.  I am certainly no “horse whisperer”, but I know Arabs, and I walked right up to Snowy and whispered in her ear. Fighting back tears I told her we were there to help her, that I knew she didn’t want to leave her buddy (who by the way was young and obese!), but that we were taking her to a better place where she’d be fed properly and given the best care in her senior years. Then snowy-AR1-w500-h500Tammy took her rope, and her husband and I gave Snowy a gentle nudge to her hindquarters…and she stepped right onto the trailer!

Snowy arrived at R2R on Saturday, December 5th. At her first vet check that Tuesday, her age was estimated at between 25-27 years old. Her teeth were in horrid condition, she had an old injury to her right stifle, and some arthritis in both knees and right coffin joint. But her heart and lungs were in fabulous condition, and boy did she have attitude! Snowy measures 14.2 hands and according to the weight tape (taken both at her girth and belly at the 18th rib) she was only 600 lbs upon arrival. By comparison my 14.2 Arabian stallion tapes on average between 865-950 lbs when he is in show shape. In the one month that we have had her Snowy has gained close to 100lbs, which goes to show that being “old” is not asnow-arrival3-w500-h500n excuse for being skinny. It is my hope that through this blog I can share Snowy’s remarkable transformation, and hopefully educate horse owners on both proper care of a geriatric horse as well as the importance of careful rehabilitation of a severe neglect case. We did not know if Snowy would survive the winter, even with our intervention, but she’s showing us a “never say die” attitude that we can all learn a lot from.

Next month: Proper Nutrition – You are What You Eat!