Willie: A Case Study in Managing An Aging Equine

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Courtesy Valerie Difede

The following story was sent to me by my good friend and AAEP President Ann Dwyer, DVM, and was written by one of her clients, Valerie Difede. This is a great case study in the care of a geriatric horse, and the partnership between horse, owner and veterinarian.

We met when he was 5½ and I was 15. The lady I was taking horseback riding lessons from had friends who were looking to lease their horses out for a year. Like any 15-year-old bitten by the horse bug, I started begging my parents to at least go take a look at them. The plan would be to lease one for just a year. That was the plan. That was 30 years ago.

We went to Warsaw, New York, to take a look at the horses. They were in an open field with a simple fence around it and a trailer with shade. The first horse they showed me was a cute bay, with one eye. They said the horse lost it in a “clipper accident.” I was reluctant on taking a horse with a disability. I didn’t know what would be involved. I was a new horse person myself, so I decided against that one. Another horse came up, and they introduced him as Willie. A cute Arab/Quarter Horse cross. I saw him and thought, “There you are.” We hit it off immediately and he wouldn’t leave us alone. I think he knew as well. Honestly today, I don’t know who picked whom.

During the year we leased Willie my parents won a lottery through a local drug store. Part of that money enabled my parents to buy him for me for my 16th birthday. Now, I am not one that believes in coincidences, but one thing I knew for sure was that we were meant to be in each others lives for a very long time.

The early years Willie and I spent most of our time enjoying each other and racking up the hours riding and finding trails that led us off the beaten path. Our path wasn’t always smooth, we have had turbulence over the years, and it was about to get bumpy. The place we boarded at had a pasture that was divided in half. Three geldings on one side and two horses on the other side.

In 1993 Willie was exposed to leptospirosis. He was part of the gelding group on one side of the pasture and all three geldings tested positive for the bacteria. Two of the three ended up losing their vision in one eye. Leptospirosis is a spirochete bacteria that can be carried in deer urine; that’s where we think it came from. he problem with exposure is that the bacteria has antigens that resemble structures in the eye. The body mounts an antibody attack and unfortunately the eye is the target leading to uveitis attacks.

The first time he had an attack it looked like someone bashed him in the eye with a baseball bat. The uveitis episodes were excruciatingly painful, and we went through years of this. I always felt that if I stayed two steps ahead of the disease I would be able to spare him the pain of a flair-up. I checked his eyes every other day even if I was riding or not during that time. I was a bit obsessive. I got a pattern down and could predict down to the week when things were going to change.

Then one summer day in 1996 I went to check on him and I noticed his eye was different than the two days before. It was dull, almost like a dark room where someone turned off the light. I tested his vision by pretending to swat him the eye, looking for a response. He didn’t flinch. At that point I knew the disease won, and it broke my heart for him. I think he handled his situation better than I did. Other than occasionally forgetting he has a left side to his face (his blind side), he has managed things remarkably well. It is kind of ironic that in the end, I still ended up with a one-eyed horse.

When Willie was about 30 he became prone to the common winter foe--impaction. We went through multiple years where he stopped eating, his drinking slowed and so did his manure production. That led to many vet visits where they would put a nasal tube into his belly to introduce fluids and electrolytes to hopefully get things moving again. Last year was particularly scary when he stopped eating his grain and we had trouble getting his appetite back. I thought this was going to be the last act. People were preparing me for the end, which I understand. Mother Nature always wins.

My gauge in these episodes has always been Willie. I looked into his sighted eye and it still had that amazing glow. He was telling me that even though he didn’t feel well, he still wanted to be here. That’s all I needed, so we trudged through and survived another curve ball. Willie was becoming known as the horse with many lives.

In the fall of 2012 my husband and I built a horse barn. I was finally able to have Willie with me! It couldn’t have come at a better time, and I couldn’t be happier. Willie just celebrated his 35th birthday. My husband never really spent much time with the horses when they were boarded out, just here and there. Ever since he has spent pretty much every day with them. He has become enamored with them and would comment on how special Willie is. He affectionately gave him the nickname ‘willy booger’ after a fly fishing lure named Wooly Bugger. I wasn’t surprised he took to Willie, I knew that was the horse’s magic.

Now that Willie was with me and as I guide him through his golden years, I approached his care like I would a geriatric person. I keep sight of the core issues; weight, water, manure and exercise. I have never believed in the thinking that all old horses are going to end up skin and bones. I realize that there are some you can offer endless food that will never gain weight, but then I have seen many geriatric people that are heavy.

Working closely with my vet and friend, Ann Dwyer, DVM, we got Willie on a good feeding schedule. Willie does not have any teeth anymore, so I need to make sure he gets the most out of his grain. I will wet down his food as well to make it easier and more comfortable for him to consume. My vet performs a yearly dental exam to optimize and maximize what dentition he has left. I can’t stress enough about working closely with your vet and doing preventative care. We do it for our cars. You are a team working for the benefit of your equine extended family. Right now Willie maintains an 875-pound frame.

Courtesy Valerie Difede

With Willie’s history of impaction the importance of hydration cannot be understated. Over the winter I would offer him buckets of warm water throughout the day, he was averaging 8-9 gallons a day keeping his manure production soft and passable. Anything he drank on his own was a bonus. To help me monitor his water intake and manure count per day I journal them on a calendar. That way I can see where we are for the day to help him hit his target. Then I am able to tell if his water or manure production drops off so I can take corrective action.

My vet has a great saying, ‘If you rest, you rust’. Willie’s stablemate is very active (who, by the way, is 27) and keeps him moving and active. The exercise helps alleviate his arthritis and keeps his GI tract moving.

I don’t think the care of an elderly horse should be difficult or intimidating. Just follow common sense rules and pay attention to details. I think horses show us when things start to go wrong; look for their signs before it becomes a symptom.

My horses are an extension of my family. To know me is to know Willie and what he means to me. He has been with me for almost every decade of my life. I has many memories and emotions associated with his presence. The little things I do for him ensure he is happy and healthy in his twilight years. My vet told me once that now, every day with him is a gift. I cherish those gifts he continues to give me knowing that they are not endless.