Caring for the Older Performance Horse

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The Health Concerns of Aged Equine Athletes

by Liz Devine, DVM, MS, DACVS-LA


X’avier Don (“X”), owned by Stacy Wood of Everson, WA, is 24 years old and still a very competitive western games horse. Wood gives him a daily joint supplement.


Older equine athletes have given their owners many years of hard work and dedication. As their age catches up with them, there are certain health concerns to be mindful of so they can continue an athletic career. Several body systems can cause problems for horses as they age, including the musculoskeletal, respiratory and endocrine systems. The following issues are common:


One of the common problems seen in older athletes is arthritis. Repetitive trauma to joints over years of work can lead to cartilage damage and inflammation that can be quite painful. Your veterinarian can help localize specific areas of pain which is very helpful in the management of arthritis. These joints can be targeted with intra-articular medications which decrease the inflammation and pain and make your older horse more comfortable. Systemic medications, such as Adequan and Legend, have been used to help promote good joint health throughout the entire body. A combination of these therapies can help to allow older horses to remain athletic; consult with your veterinarian to see which therapies will be beneficial for your horse.


Another health concern in older horses is a condition called recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), more commonly known as heaves. While this disease process is prevalent in older horses, it can also be seen in younger horses. Inhalation of allergens such as dust and mold causes an allergic and inflammatory response in the lungs. This begins the process for mucous accumulation in the airway and eventual fibrosis (stiffening) of the lower airways. Severe cases develop a “heave line,” which is muscle hypertrophy due to the great effort that it takes upon expiration. In these situations, the damage in the lungs is typically too severe for the horse to be athletic again. However, the beginning stages of this condition are commonly seen in athletes exposed to molds/dust and inadequate ventilation. A mild cough during exercise is one of the first clinical signs; others include exercise intolerance, nostril flaring and, in some cases, nasal discharge. Your veterinarian can sample some of the fluid from the lower airways in order to examine the cell types and determine if your horse has RAO. A combination of management changes and medications can be used to help horses with early signs of RAO.

Endocrine Conditions

Some middle-aged to older horses develop conditions that affect the endocrine system, such as Cushing’s disease or equine metabolic syndrome. The endocrine system refers to glands that secrete hormones and other chemicals that travel through the bloodstream to affect other organs in the body. While these conditions are not seen specifically in athletic animals, they can affect performance if not properly controlled.

Cushing’s disease is the common name for pars pituitary intermedia dysfunction or PPID. This is a condition in which a benign tumor in the pituitary gland causes abnormalities in the stress hormones. Equine metabolic syndrome (EMS) is a disease that causes insulin resistance. It is interesting that even though these conditions have different causes, they can exhibit similar clinical signs. If you notice that your horse is overweight and has fat deposits along the crest of his neck and tail head, has difficulty losing his hair coat during the summer, and/or has lost muscle mass, contact your veterinarian to discuss these symptoms and to determine the testing that needs to be done in order to diagnose these conditions. Diet and exercise are an important part of the management of these diseases and medications may also be necessary.

Horses are naturally athletic and have the ability to perform into the later years of their lives. An important way to keep your horse healthy and physically fit is to have a good relationship with your veterinarian. His or her advice on the diagnosis and treatment of the above conditions and others, as well as routine care such as regular dental exams and wellness checks, will help to catch problems early and keep your horse healthy into the later years of his life.


Dr. Liz Devine was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago and learned to ride hunter/jumper horses at an early age. She received her bachelor’s degree in equine science from Colorado State University and attended Iowa State University for veterinary school. Upon graduation, she did an internship at Oakridge Equine Hospital where she had the opportunity to work on a variety of western performance and race horses. Following her internship, Dr. Devine went to Kansas State University, where she completed a surgical residency and her master of science. She passed her boards in February 2013 and is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Dr. Devine joined Pilchuck in March 2014. Outside her veterinary practice, she enjoys reading, riding her horse Pokey, skiing and hiking with her dogs Sydney and Addie. To schedule an appointment contact Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital ( at 360.568.3111.


Published in July 2015 Issue

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