On the Shores of Heaven: Caring for Older Equines

An Interview with Deborah Sensabaugh of Virginia Mountain Outfitters

About three years ago, I had the joy of meeting Deborah Sensabaugh of Lost Creek Farm in Buena Vista, Virginia. Lost Creek Farm is home to eighteen working equines ranging in age from eleven months to thirty-nine years young, with the majority in their mid-teens to late twenties.

The first time I met Deb my daughter and I used our spring break to volunteer to clear trails through Back Country Horsemen of Virginia with Deb and her mules in the Jefferson and George Washington National Forests. We’ve returned to ride at Lost Creek Farm and House Mountain several times since, but never enough.

Going out into the mountains with Deb is so much more than a trail ride; it’s an education in southern tree history, an introduction to the trustworthiness of mules, a spiritual restoration, and a primer in conservation. She is a woman who lives out her values. Deb loves her mountains and, as director of Virginia Mountain Outfitters, she cultivates forest appreciation by her every action. She is the current chair of the Back Country Horsemen of Virginia, a group that celebrates trails, equines, and God’s creation. She also coaches the Washington and Lee University Polo Club, hunts with the Middlebrook Hounds, and serves on the Virginia Horse Council Trails Committee. Deb is a Leave No Trace Master Educator with pack and saddle stock, and also is certified in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). The Virginia Horse Council recently honored her with its annual Equine Industry Service Award.

In this post, Deb shares some of her experience in caring for geriatric equines.

Gi: You are such an advocate for good, individualized geriatric care for equines. Tell me why this issue is so important to you, and why it should be for every horseperson.

Deborah: In many cultures, if you save a life, or “take on” a life, then that life is your responsibility, no matter how inconvenient, involved, or lengthy the care. In our EAP work, we see many families in which human life is not honored with love, care or attention– much less animal life. So it is an intrinsic part of our ethic here that all life is honored– if we can show our clients by example that even the animals deserve that respect, then through their relationship with those animals, they may allow themselves to find healing and a sense of self value.

Gi: You’ve had equines at Lost Creek Farm live to forty-one years. At what age do you start to consider a horse or mule geriatric? Does that vary according to breed?
Deborah: It varies according to the individual condition of the horse or mule. Those who have been high performance (endurance, jumpers, cutting, reining, barrels, polo) might reach “geriatric” designation a lot earlier due to job stress on joints and tendons. Most horses show arthritic effect and joint wear and tear between fifteen and twenty. As with any equine ownership, the key is to know your horses better than you know yourself.

Your equine will tell you when it is time to slow down. I was whipping hounds off one of my retired endurance horses. When attempting to mount up again after opening a gate or freeing a caught hound, this horse uncharacteristically moved around, shifted his weight, etc. He was uncooperative, and that signaled to me that something was going on with him physically. I had to get myself out of the way and take a good hard look at what I was asking him to do — and then retired him from hunting/jumping when his back and hocks proved arthritic.

Working critters at Lost Creek Farm hunt, trail ride, teach polo, and EAP

Working critters at Lost Creek Farm hunt, trail ride, teach polo, and EAP

He then began beginner polo on the flat and is also one of our best psychotherapy horses — but more about jobs for old guys later.

Gi: The last time I was with you in Buena Vista we talked a good little bit about the special needs of older equines. You’ve studied this area and applied some feed and pasture management strategies to create a more natural, supportive lifestyle for your old ones. How do you feed older horses or mules differently?
Deborah: The two watchwords are:

  • teeth (if they have any— take care of what is left)
  • and nutrition, or over-nutrition, if you will.
  • Because of decreased gut mobility and absorption of nutrients in older horses, I tend to supply more vitamins, micronutrients, richer feed choices than for the younger guys. My eldest critters are thirty-eight and thirty-nine— nothing much left but incisors— so they eat soaked hay stretcher and Triple Crown Senior (or other chopped grain products). They aren’t real happy with that, so I turn them out every night to gum up some grass. I have got to watch their weight– they are too plump at times!

    Gi: What I love most about Lost Creek Farm is the way your fields are cut, giving a beautiful blend of open pasture and woods. Your paddocks look natural and interesting to me. What about that works for your horses and mules? Is this blended landscape intentional for their quality of life or simply working with the acreage you’ve got?

    Deborah: The majority of my work is in two areas– guided trail rides for our local tourist industry and equine-assisted psychotherapy.

    Working a mountain trail

    Working a mountain trail


    The confusing nature of the trail rides (mostly inexperienced riders) necessitates lots of relaxing and very natural [off-duty] “down time” for my horses and mules. They can roam and play at being “wild horses” as much as they want, and actually be a functioning herd with a herd leader and their own choices. Every time I catch them up (generally daily), they come to the barn as a herd and we re-establish our relationship as they come in and I tie them up (submission to capture) and feed them (I am the overall herd leader), we re-enact the human-equine bond, which is nearly as old as our species.

    In our EAP, we want our horses to interact with the human clients out of this bond. They have got to be able to be themselves in order to relate to humans who are often uncomfortable being themselves. So our more natural approach works very well for what we do.

    Back Country Horsemen clear trails and practice Leave No Trace

    Back Country Horsemen maintain trails and practice Leave No Trace

    We also hunt, teach riding and equine relationship, play polo, and teach packing and Leave No Trace. Different horses like to do different things, and we try to go with that as much as possible. Keep them naturally happy and they live long and productive lives!

    Gi: Tell me about pasture management best practices for the geriatric equine? What are the considerations for turn out, grazing, topography?
    Deb: Some shelter from cold rain and wind (although my old guys do better in the elements than some of my fine-coated guys); no special topography limitations as the exercise they get while grazing hillsides and rougher terrain keeps them physically fit. I would watch too much rich pasture– founder is still something to watch for. My horses basically live outdoors year-around, with weather considerations in cold rain, sleet, etc. When I do put them in, they roll, eat and get dry, and then let me know that they would prefer to be outside. Once again, the watchword is: get myself out of the way and look at life realistically from their point of view.

    Gi: One of my horses, Albert, is somewhere in his twenties. I think of him as an old man, even though he may live a good ten years or more. He’s mostly blind, he has arthritis, and his teeth are coming loose. I work closely with my vet and barn staff to make sure Albert has a nutritious and easy-to-chew feed, and we watch the social dynamic in the field. Everyone pays attention to changes in his right eye, looking out for tumors. What are some of the more common, chronic conditions you’ve observed in geriatric equines?
    Deb: Arthritis, hoof changes (often how your horse’s hoof grows, changes you observe in the shape and growth patterns will indicate arthritic changes in joints up the leg and into the larger joints such as shoulder, hip, etc.). Very old horses have little hoof growth and if soil is rocky, they may need shoes to protect their feet. I watch for digestive issues– the manure will tell you so much about how the digestive process is working (or not); watch urine stream for force, color, etc. Exterior tumors are a concern — don’t just turn the old guys out and ignore them, but give them a brushing and a good look-over frequently; watch eye color, pupil cloudiness, etc. You also watch for Pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID), also known as Equine Cushing’s Disease – the dreaded pituitary imbalance (too thin and can’t get weight on him, or long sometimes curly, hair that does not shed out easily).

    Remain a part of their lives, and you will notice when they present a different pattern that could signal a physical issue.

    Gigi: Given some of the issues that we figure will present in our aging horse or mule, what roles do wellness and prevention play in maintaining quality of life?
    Deb: If you have the privilege of having that animal its entire life, you can assess its physical downward trend and take measures to prolong its overall usefulness. My endurance/whip horse’s mother lived to forty-one; he is going on twenty-five. So a couple years ago, I began backing off on my physical demands for him, in order to preserve his mobility while at the same time coming up with useful jobs for him. Plus, he is my natural herd leader, so without him the herd loses a lot of direction. It is imperative that he remain as sound and healthy as possible for years to come. On the other hand, I’ve got rescue animals whose nutrition and overall health care was compromised for years. They may not age so well. We try to make up for that gap and do what we can.

    Gi: If Albert was my grandmother, I would also be thinking about his independence and self-esteem. Do you know what I mean? Living independently, contributing to the family, and feeling good about your role are keys to quality of life at every age. We know about this in people. In later life, sometimes people become isolated or feel useless, and when they do, they deteriorate. I sense that Albert needs to feel valued and needed, too. I don’t think self-esteem is uniquely human. Does maintaining a high self-esteem figure into equine geriatrics or am I totally projecting…what do you call it …anthropomorphism?
    Deb: Never minimize the psychological needs of equines. They are intuitive thinkers, and just because they can not talk about their needs or wants, and are generally willing to go along with most cock-eyed human schemes, they do have needs of their own. The idea of having a job to do, no matter how small, gives them the impetus to survive well beyond their expected life span, like humans. Our very wise veterinarian has always reminded me to keep an old horse moving, and give him a job to maintain his health and well-being. And he is right. It is working!

    Gi: So we’ve talked about feeding, pastures, independence, and prevention. I think we’re just scratching the surface probably. What am I missing? Oh, I know what I’m missing. How do you judge when it’s time to let go of an old horse? Is chronic and unmanageable pain the best indicator?
    Deb: This is one of the most difficult issues right now, especially in these economic times with more than 100,000 unwanted horses in the US today. Here [at Lost Creek Farm], chronic pain is the main indicator we use, along with prognosis and quality of life. There are no redemptive qualities in the suffering of an animal.

    Last year, we lost two horses– one forty-one years old and no longer able to digest even the best and finest ground food properly; the other was plagued by flesh-eating bacteria in a club-foot on which he could no longer walk well — even the opposing leg and hip were becoming arthritic. He was in his mid-twenties and could still get around, but the infection was systemic and cancer was a distinct possibility. His personality was changing as a result of the increased lack of mobility and pain. There was no mistaking it, so with much regret we had to let him go as well — with respect and dignity. I still miss them both every day.

    There is a therapeutic riding center I know of that routinely euthanizes horses in their late twenties because they simply can’t afford to feed them and don’t set that need as uppermost in their goals and ethics. So I guess it is different for all owners and caretakers, depending on individual ethics. I was always taught to care for your horse as you would like to be cared for—even if it means you have to do without to provide that care. So here expense is never the issue— but prognosis and quality of life is.

    Here, when it is time to go, the horse knows it and so do I, although it is a decision that haunts me even when there is no other alternative. I keep telling myself that when I step on the shores of Heaven, the horses who have chosen to partner with me in life will be there to greet me. I guess I will know how successful my theories are by how many of them choose to affirm me at the gates!

    Gi: Thank you so much. I always learn from you and enjoy your company (even via e-mail)!

    To read more about caring for older horses, check out these fact sheets.

    From Rutgers University Equine Science Center:
    http://www.esc.rutgers.edu/publications/general/FS715.htm.

    From University of Minnesota Extension Program:
    http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/livestocksystems/DI8461.pdf

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    2 thoughts on “On the Shores of Heaven: Caring for Older Equines

    1. Hi Susan, thanks for taking the time to read the post with Deb. She’s a pretty awesome woman. I haven’t been out that way in a while, but some of my fondest riding memories are with her [and Firecracker!]. Happy Trails!

    2. I was delighted to find your interview with Deb. I also had the privilege of riding with her last month and can’t wait to return. It’s fabulous to meet someone who has such strong values. Susan

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