Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Caring for the Elderly Horse(man)

Here's a little shout out to all of my fellow aging horse peeps:

You ain't dead yet!  

Believe me, I'll be the first to let you know when you are.  But for now, if you can feel a breeze on your skin, I pretty much guarantee it's not coming from flapping angel wings.

What brought this subject up this week was an article in one of the horse mags about keeping equine athletes healthy through their senior years.  The key, the author said, is to keep them doing what they've been doing.  If they've been jumping, let them jump.   You  may want to lower the height as time goes by, but if they were fit enough to do it before, and they haven't suffered a career-ending injury, then let them have at it.   If they've been competitive trail horses, ride on trails, just aim for the shorter distances when you notice a decline in energy or endurance. They'll feel better, stay fitter, and generally be happier campers than if they are relegated to the back pasture while you ride your new horse past them.  I've seen horses have total meltdowns out of what is something akin to jealousy under those circumstances.  One quit eating entirely.  And you'll feel better knowing you're giving your equine buddy something to look forward to.  Yeah, they do like standing around eating, but those who have been working and liked it will miss it when it's gone.

In a more recent article ("Fitness: Good for the Gut", p74, Practical Horseman June 2014), the point is made and well worth taking that exercise makes the gut work better.  This was the upshot of a French research study of a group of eight untrained Standardbreds whose digestive efficiency was tested before training and after a five-week training period.  The tests involved the usual cool horse stuff like inspecting manure and checking hindgut VFA (volatile fatty acid) production.  They were better after the five weeks of training than before.

Yes, I am the one who was ranting about studies with a very limited N(umber of subjects), but in this case the results nearly duplicated those of an earlier study of Arabian horses training for endurance competition over a two-year period.  Replication of results is how we test for the validity of what we found.  This is valid stuff.

So now we have in our arsenal the knowledge that exercise is important no matter the age of the horse.  But you didn't come to this post to learn that.  I lured you here with the idea that I'd be sharing how older-than-dirt riders need to be coddled and talked to loudly but gently.  Are you surprised to learn the advice is the same?

If you've reached your dotage without breaking a sweat, you may find it very difficult to get into shape for the first time, let alone take on an extreme sport like riding horses.  It can be done, and I highly recommend that you start right now, today, by finding a "gentle yoga" class or something similar so you don't shock your system with perspiration or your family with a new Schwarzenegger-esque physique tomorrow.

On the other hand, if you've been a rider or athlete of any kind for the better part of your life (and it really was the better part, happy hour notwithstanding), there is no reason for you to shy away from trying to keep the old juices flowing a bit longer.  A personal trainer may be needed if you, like I, are a little low on the enthusiasm part.  You don't just fall out of shape.  It takes time and effort for those muscles to lose their tone.  And you don't just fall back into it.

If there's one thing that will make you feel younger than you have in months, it's finding out that you can still sit a horse, ride a trail, jump, spin some dirt around barrels, or just play Dime Store Cowboy around the hay field on your trusty old horse.
Leo after his semi-weekly ride including pole bending, barrel racing,
and a little dressage is looking good at 29.  He looks good primarily
because he still has a top line thanks to carrying a saddle and my
chunky monkey butt without much time off for the past 15 years.

The first time I was laid up to the point of actual decline was 2001.  Detached retina.  No riding for almost 9 months and walking around looking at people's shoes in that awful head-positioning regimen does nothing for the morale or the body, but I was considerably younger than dirt at that point.  My first ride was a little overly-cautious, and I found that I couldn't find my legs.  I mean, they were there dangling from my hips, but I couldn't find them on the horse.  I kept trying, and eventually they turned up.

Time passed, and the next long layup was 2006.  Another 9 months of languishment passed, an older me doing the languishing, and a much longer time recovering, though that time I was able to do some minor exercising with hand weights while I waited to get back in the saddle.  It took about six months to find my legs that time.

This year it wasn't so much a layup as a whiteout.  I always thought shoveling snow and shivering like a leaf in the sub-zero winds would be a positive body-building experience.  And being pretty tired after mucking, shoveling, and bullying the busted snow thrower through 48 inches of ice, hopping on the treadmill or grabbing the grips on the recoil machine....well, not quite my idea of relaxation.  We started this winter back in October with the freeze that cost me my birdbath,  half my garlic harvest and most of my motivation.  Come January, I was shocked when I stepped onto my electronic balance board (trust me, you need this) and fell off.  I'm really good at balance.  It's kind of my thing.  A month earlier I could not only stand on the board through its random gyrations, but even touch my toes, pick up  my phone from the floor, and do a series of exercises with hand weights aboard the machine while it ran through its random routine under me.  Falling off did not make me happy.

But getting back on and forcing myself to use it daily for a while helped.  I still lost muscle tone, however, so I'd looked into a local personal trainer's business and then got started getting in good enough shape to even go to his gym without having to be carried out.  Now, I can say with confidence, I'm in better shape than I have been in a couple of years.  And I'm old.  Older than dirt.  And I have arthritis and other crappiness within my loosely-draped skin.

If I can do it, then anyone who has been active before can, within reason and barring severe handicaps, continue to be active. I happily report that my doctors have consistently been impressed by my quick healing, and to a man, they attribute the success to my body condition.

So go ride that old horse, pick up a couple of weights (even soda cans--full ones, no cheating) and get started today.  You might need to diet a smidge, and so might your horse if he's been standing around chewing for a living.  This article is very important for his health, so I suggest you read it and heed it.  But don't give up.  You'll quickly regain the confidence you thought you'd seen the last of.

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