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Horses and money – is it really either/or?

With the new financial year, and the recent bad weather, everyone involved in and working with horses is trying to make money go a bit further. Among other issues, the cost of medicines is rising every month (many drugs have seen their manufacturers put the price up 10 or 15% in the last few months), and feed bills are rising due to poor cereal harvests. As a result, I've put together a list of "top tips" for saving money in the coming year. Firstly, 5 things to do... 1) Make sure you worm smart - which doesn't necessarily mean often! Many owners still worm religiously every 6-8 weeks; however, recent studies have shown about that 80% of the worms are in 20% of the horses. If your horse doesn't have a high worm burden, it may be a waste of money pouring expensive wormers down him every other month. In addition, the more wormers we use, the higher the risk of worm resistance - there has been recognised round- or redworm resistance to every active ingredient available in the UK, so the less we use them, the longer they'll be effective. The way I like to recommend people go forward is to use Worm Egg Counts - your vet will be able to do these, or will have a lab they send them away to. The test simply takes a faeces sample and counts the worm eggs in it, giving you a good estimate of the number of worms in the horse. Remember, this test can only be done in the warmer months (the worms don't lay eggs in the winter!), and it only tests for nematodes (round and redworms). To test for tapeworms, your vet will need to take a blood sample, but this usually only needs doing once or at most twice a year. Depending on the test results, your vet will be able to advise you on the best worming strategy, and if you've got a low burden, it may not be necessary to worm at all, as long as your pasture management (poo-picking etc) is decent. I've seen horses wormed every month come back with such low counts that we stopped worming completely and, because they weren't mixing with lots of other horses, they were still worm free a year later. That said, I've also seen horses that really do need that regular dose, so it does depend on the yard, the herd and the individual horse. 2) Consider warming up with unaffiliated competitions - and beware direct debits! Skip past this one if you're not competing - but if you are, it may be possible to affiliate part way through the season, saving money by starting with cheaper unaffiliated events. How much you save depends on your sport, and your area (down here in Devon and Cornwall, unaffiliated events are are usually perhaps half to three quarters as much as an affiliated event), but at the very least you save the up-front cost of affiliation and membership. That said, you can't decide to cancel your affiliation if you've got a Direct Debit set up to automatcally renew it (as my brother found out this year, when he accidentally rejoined BE...!) 3) Buy medicines online. This is a fairly new area, and can be controversial. However, without any doubt you can save money on prescription drugs if you buy them from a reputable online pharmacy or dispensary. If your horse needs a prescription medicine, your vet is legally obliged to give you a written prescription if you ask for it (although they will normally charge an administration fee). In general, you can get the same medicines online for about half to two thirds the price. However, its important to make sure you deal with a reputable company: as a rule of thumb, if they don't ask for a prescription, or they're not based in the UK, don't touch them. In addition, you should check to see who is in charge of dispensing the medicines at that company - if they're legit, they'll be able to tell you the name and registration number of the pharmacist or vet who is responsible. Having worked in this sector, there are four companies I've dealt with who I would consider safe and reliable to buy from (AniMed Direct, MedicAnimal, MyVetMeds and VioVet), but that doesn't mean that there aren't other good ones out there. Bear in mind as well that a few companies change their prices through the day, and also make sure that the price includes VAT - if in doubt, phone them up and ask! Although it seems like a hassle, for long-term medication (like bute or Prascend) or really expensive drugs (like Gastrogard), you can make a massive saving buying online. 4) Shop around for insurance... It may be you can get a better deal from a different company! However, before you change, make sure that your level of cover won't be affected, and remember that you are legally obliged to disclose any relevant medical history. There are a couple of very bad insurers out there, and some fantastic ones, so do your research before changing - a company with a really cheap premium but who won't pay out when needed are a false economy. The other option is to cancel your insurance, and then set aside some money each month in a separate acount to cover vets bills. Do your sums first, but if you've got several horses it can save money to do it this way, and there's no worry about exclusions or wondering if they're going to pay out. 5) Does your horse NEED all those vaccines? Tetanus is a genuine life-saver. However, not every horse needs every other vaccine. If they're not competing, not mixing with other horses much and aren't on a big yard, its worth talking to your vet about flu vaccine, and if they're not breeding stock either, herpes vaccine probably isn't worth it. 6) If you have any health concerns about your horse - phone your vet! Most practice do not charge for a phonecall, and your vet will be able to advise you as to whether you need a visit, and if there's any treatment or first aid you can give. Beware of consulting "Dr Google" - its an easy way to scare yourself, because for some reason, Google always lists the most serious and rare diseases first. If you do want to check out your horse's symptoms online before calling your vet, I'd advise you to use the VetHelpDirect Symptom Checker - but talking to your vet is likely to be even more reliable! I once had a client call to arrange a visit for us to "sew up her mare after foaling". We thought that she meant the mare had torn a bit, but it turned out that she thought the foal was going to come bursting out of the mare's side like a alien parasite, and she was delighted when we were able to tell her that she didn't need to spend the £50 for an evening visit as long as the foaling went well... So, thats your things to do, now five things to watch out for: 1) DON'T skimp on Preventative Health. Tetanus vaccination is a genuine life-saver, and regular, routine dental care will save money in the long run. I once had to spend five hours basically repairing an 11 year old stallion's mouth because he'd never had any teeth rasped and the hooks had overgrown so much that one day he couldn't open his mouth enough to chew. For the previous six months the owners had been pouring expensive concentrates into this pony to try and get the weight back on, but it was due to his inability to chew properly. If they'd kept up to date with routine dental care, it would have saved them a lot of money, effort and time! 2) Be cautious with cheap paraprofessionals. There are a lot of horse dentists, chiropracters, massagers, physios and assorted back people out there. Many of them are very good, some aren't, and a few are downright dangerous. However, it isn't immediately obvious which is which... There are a couple of things to bear in mind when you're calling someone out. Firstly, it is a criminal offence for anyone who isn't a vet to diagnose a medical problem in a horse (with limited exceptions in the case of farriers dealing with a hoof problem, and BAEDT qualified dentists dealing with dental overgrowths). This means that your insurance policy will be invalidated if they make a diagnosis and act on it; it also means that in law you have no comeback if something goes wrong. In addition, if you allow anyone except a vet to prescribe or dispense a prescription only medicine to your horse (e.g. a dentist giving sedatives), you're both breaking the law. Remember too, even qualified physios technically need a referral from your vet before they're permitted to work on your horse. Secondly, it isn't necessarily a money saving technique to call in a paraprofessional. I remember seeing one client who had spent nearly a thousand pounds on physios, back people, chiropracters and alternative therapists, all of whom had given her a different diagnosis of her poorly performing pony. When my colleague was called out, she realised immediately that the horse was lame, and dug out an abscess from her nearside hind hoof. The horse was right as rain two days later - all for the princely sum of £48 plus a packet of animalintex. Thats not to say there isn't a place for paraprofessionals - BAEDT dentists, farriers, qualified physios and some other practtioners can be great to work with and bring a horse right again, but it needs to be a team exercise, as we all bring our different skills and expertise to the case. 3) DON'T buy ultra-cheap feed and fodder. Cheap, poor quality hay and haylage are never a good place to save money - if you're lucky, you're horse will need to eat more to maintain condition, and if you're unlucky, they'll suffer lung and sinus problems from spores, and possibly even listeria infection from bad haylage. 4) Be cautious about chopping and changing vets - many people use one vet for vaccines and another for out-of-hours and emergencies, or stud work. Sometimes this can save you money, but it can also lead to problems - a client of mine (who also used two other local vets) nearly lost one of her broodmares to a bad reaction to penicillin. It turned out that one of the vets had noted that the horse had reacted once before, but because they didn't know she was using the other practices, they didn't know to tell us. Fortunately in this case the mare survived, but it just goes to highlight the necessity for good communication. If you are going to use more than one practice, make sure that everyone knows who's involved and who's doing what, so that we can share notes if needed. Better still, make up your mind who you want to treat your horses, so they can provide continuity of care. Keeping horses is, by its very nature, expensive. However, with care and forethought, you can make the money stretch a bit further, even as the prices are going up.
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Looking after the Older Horse

When I was training as a vet, a 20 year old horse was considered really quite old. Now, however, I regularly find myself working with healthy horses in their late twenties and thirties - even a few that go on into their forties! That said, horses don't age uniformly - one may be sprightly and fit at 30, while her paddock mate is really feeling his age at 20, so there's a lot of variation. The challenge is maintaining them at the best quality of life for as long as possible. To do so, we need to consider three things: • Work and exercise • Preventative health (worming, dental care etc) • Disease management and medication I'll deal with these in sequence, although really they are of course all interconnected. Work and Exercise PerryI'd like to introduce Perry, a horse I've known for many, many years. Born in 1986, by 2002 Perry was a successful Eventer, competing on the Affiliated circuit, and usually well up in the places. However, by then he was starting to slow up a bit, and his then-owner decided it was time to reduce his workload. He was struggling in particular with the dressage and show jumping, so they sold him on to a friend of mine as a Pony Club horse for Tetrathlon. All he had to do was carry his (fairly novice) rider round a cross country course - the phase he enjoyed the most anyway. Relieved of the need to work in an outline, or in collection, he flourished at Tetrathlon, going on to compete at the National Championships. Of course, in time, his low-grade arthritis (which I'll talk about more later) meant that he was struggling with the cross country requirements, and he moved into a semi-retirement as a hack. He'd seen it all, done it all, and was as close to 100% in traffic, tractors and low flying aircraft as any horse could be. For most horses, as long as they can work, they want to - generally (and there are always exceptions!), it isn't in a horse's best interests to take him out of work one day and retire him to a field. A gradual wind-down over several years is kinder, and helps to keep him interested and alert. So, by changing career, Perry had an extra five years of competition, and then many more years of useful work - simply because his various owners were wise enough not to over face him, but to play to his strengths. Preventative Health I've talked before about the importance of regular dental work - in the older horse, it is doubly important. As the horse ages, his teeth undergo a number of changes. Although it appears that teeth grow constantly, that is in fact an illusion - the adult teeth are pretty much a fixed length, but most of the tooth is hidden away within the gums (the reserve crown). As the tooth is worn down by chewing, more of this reserve is extruded (which is, by the way, the basis of ageing horses by dentition). However, sooner or later, this reserve is expended, and the teeth "cup out", becoming small, loosely held, concave structures, of limited use for chewing. Good, regular dental care can help delay the onset, and can help the horse to manage as the teeth cup out. Remember, as long as there are a few pairs of teeth in occlusion (i.e. Facing each other), the horse can still chew, he'll just be very slow about it! In my experience, teeth generally start to cup out about 30-35 years of age, but it depends on their dental history - more use and wear and tear means the teeth are ground down faster. Worming is also inceasingly important in the older horse, simply because although they may have higher immunity to worms (this is still debated, but does seem likely), they also have less reserves to cope if they have a heavy infestation. The spring is a particularly risky time, as sometimes large numbers of small redworms can emerge all at once, causing massive gut wall damage. It is important to make sure that at some point over the winter, you use a wormer that is active against hibernating (hypobiotic) worm larvae - currently, the only wormers on the market that have this activity are a full 5 day course of Panacur, and (reportedly) Equest. Foot care is always important, as older horses can suffer some terrible hoof capsule problems if left untreated. I always recommend that people keep up vaccinating their horses, even if they're not competing or going out. Equine influenza probably isn't essential in a stay-at-home horse or pony (although they can still contract it if they're in contact with a younger friend who does go out and do), but Tetanus vaccination is essential. Just because a horse is old doesn't mean you can stop vaccinating, because tetanus kills horses of any age just as easily. It's also a really useful opportunity to have a general "MOT" and get your vet to check the horse over thoroughly, to detect and problems before they become too serious. Disease Management Although many horses lead a long and healthy life, the probability is that as they enter old age, they will suffer from one or more "chronic diseases". These are generally low-level conditions, and in the older horse are usually manageable rather than curable. Probably the most common are arthritis and Cushing's disease, but malabsorbtion diseases and some tumours aren't that uncommon either. The key factor is managing the disease in such a way that the horse doesn't suffer from the symptoms, and is able to keep up as much work as possible, for as long as possible. Arthritis is perhaps the commonest condition of older horses, and those that aren't so old. In most cases, it is due to simple wear and tear on the joint surfaces. The harder a horse has worked, the more rapid the onset of arthritic changes. It's often the case that, initially, a horse will have trouble working in an outline, and perhaps with show jumps, but hacking and cross country, with it's more open jumping style, is less of a problem. This of course was exactly the case with Perry. Managing arthritis is a lot more than just monitoring exercise, however - nowadays, we no longer need to just accept "a bit of stiffness" in the older horse. It's often best to use several different strategies. I generally recommend a combination of joint supplementation (feed supplements such as Cosequin and Newmarket Joint Supplement are the most popular, while injectables like Adequan are more expensive but possibly more effective) with analgesics (bute and/or Danilon, usually) as required. Although painkillers like bute don't address the underlying disease, they reduce the inflammation and associated pain. Although there can be side effects, it really isn't fair to put a horse through the pain and discomfort of arthritis without some pain relief; if side effects are a particular concern, Danilon has a much lower risk, although it seems to be a little less effective. Its usually best to start out using bute only as required, and then build up the dose as necessary. Perry, for example, started using bute about 10 years ago, but just a sachet or so immediately after a competition. As he's got older, he uses more, and at the moment he's on an average of 4-5 sachets a week - enough to keep him comfortable (and galloping round his paddock like a yearling!). Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism) is most common in older horses, and is caused by a micro-tumour in the pituitary gland. This results in an excess of circulating cortisol (a stress hormone), that causes the characteristic symptoms of abnormal fat pads (typically over the eyes and as saddle-packs), excessive drinking and urination, and increasing susceptibility to minor infections and laminitis. Ironically, the "classic" shaggy coat of the Cushingoid horse isn't entirely due to cortisol - the presence of a tumour in the pituitary causes a malfunction in the part of the brain that controls body temperature, causing retention of a winter coat for longer. Cushing's isn't curable in horses, but symptoms can be partially controlled by management (regular clipping, diet and exercise control and remedial shoeing), or largely eliminated with some medications - Cyproheptadine (Periactin) may be of some use; however, Pergolide (Prascend) is highly effective, and is licensed for the treatment of Cushing's. Gut problems of one sort or another are also more common in older horses - these may be malabsorbtion issues, caused by thickening of the gut wall, or an increased susceptibility to colic. This may be due to a diffuse Lymphoma (a cancer of the white blood cells) which is the commonest tumour of older horses. In these cases, the key is to feed a highly digestible, high feed value ration, possibly with a probiotic to enhance digestion. Tooth loss is also a problem in the older horse - as I discussed earlier, eventually the teeth "cup out", at which point there's little more that can be done, dentally. The next phase is that the tooth falls out, leaving naked gums. I remember once doing a regular tooth rasping on a 38 year old mare - I put a hand in to have a feel around, and four teeth fell out in my palm... (she actually did better once the teeth were out than she had in months!). An edentulous (toothless) horse needs a soft, ultra-high fibre diet; typically a mash made from fibre pellets or pencils. Horses can live healthily for quite some time on such a diet - however, once your horse has reached this stage, it is probably time to consider how long you can fairly keep him going. If you can stay on top of all these points, you have every chance of keeping your older horse going for a long, healthy life - as Perry has had, and indeed continues to have. If you are worried about any symptoms your horse or pony is showing, please talk to your vet or check how urgent the problem may be by using our Interactive Equine Symptom Guide written by expert equine vets.