This week, we posted a question surrounding common older horse behavior problems on TheHorse.com. In the answer, Sue McDonnell PhD, Cert. AAB, says that "the most common cases and questions involving senior horse behavior concerns the horse that is reluctant to lie down, or is not lying down, to rest."
While my 16-year-old mare Sadie has no trouble getting up and down, all older horses aren't so lucky.
Photo: Erica Larson
She continues to describe the problem further; if you haven't had a chance to check out her full response, I'd recommend you do so…it's really interesting. The question and answer got me thinking about the senior horses I've managed in the past, and I realized that one thing I haven't dealt with thus far is an older horse who's reluctant—or unable—to lie down.
On the other hand, my former colleagues and I once had to handle a horse with the opposite problem: he could get down, but he couldn't always get back up.
When John, a big 17-hand Thoroughbred gelding, started having some minor balance problems, we initially attributed them to his increasing age. We'd all known many an older horse who'd become slightly unstable on its feet as the years passed. But one snowy winter day, my coworkers and I found John lying down in a sternal position in the yard around the barn, where we kept him and several other horses that needed some extra feed in the winter months. We started to get concerned when he stayed sitting down for about an hour, so we made the decision to get him up to ensure he wasn't starting to colic.
And that's when we realized John was having a hard time rising. Initially, he tried a few times to get his feet underneath him. We tried to help him, but he could seem to get all four legs working together at the same time. Eventually, he grew tired and lay flat out on his side. We let him rest and discussed the situation.
Looking back, I think we were all in denial that John's problems were worsening and ignored some pretty clear signs something was wrong. But at the time, we agreed that he was likely just having trouble getting his footing in the slippery snow. We decided we'd try a few more times to help him up before calling the veterinarian. When John sat back up in a sternal position, we tried to help him up again. After a few stressful attempts, we finally helped the big horse to his feet. He shook off, looked around, and wandered off to eat some hay, seeming none the worse for wear. We agreed to monitor him since nothing seemed amiss once he was on his feet.
But it was soon very evident that his problems were more serious and definitely weren't related to the snow. Several days later on one of my days off, I got a phone call from one of my coworkers. John was down again, this time in the indoor arena with no snow or ice or any poor footing to blame. And again, he couldn't get up. And once more, they eventually got him to his feet, but not before he lost his balance and smashed his head through a plywood arena wall. The veterinarian was called immediately following this episode.
To make a long story short, the veterinarian diagnosed John with EPM and we began treatment shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, he showed little improvement. We made the very difficult decision to euthanize him when his neurologic signs continued to worsen. Even though we all hated to say good-bye, looking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do. And now, I see how many signs we overlooked. John taught me a lot about facing the situation at hand and not turning a blind eye to things you don't want to see.
Trying to get that 1,500 pound horse back to his feet is one of the most difficult things I've done. It was incredibly taxing—both mentally and physically—and surly placed myself and my colleagues in dangerous places. But I learned a lot. Do I want to deal with this scenario again? Not really. But am I prepared in case I have to? Absolutely.
Have you ever had a horse that either couldn't easily lie down or stand up? What worked, what didn't? Please share your experiences.