Equine elders

Fire as a yearling. Supplied photo.

Every year, veterinarians at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre (VMC) examine and treat hundreds of horses from across Western Canada. While some equine patients may recover and never need to return to the teaching hospital, others may become “regulars” with the WCVM clinical team. 

“Blue” and “Fire” were two patients that fit the latter category. These two local horses — owned by different families — became longtime patients at the VMC. During the span of one week in August 2017, both Blue and Fire had to be humanely euthanized by the WCVM clinicians who had cared for them throughout the years. Born in 1982, both horses were 36 years old when they died. Here are their stories.

Jackie and Gary Chad purchased Blue, a part-bred Arabian mare, when she was 14 years old. Blue served for many years as Jackie’s all-purpose western riding horse. For a brief time, she also performed as a steady and dependable lesson horse at Sandhills Stables before the Chads purchased an acreage.

Although she was happy to be around her people, Blue sometimes provided her own entertainment. The mare had a consistent routine whenever Jackie came out to the pasture – she would only consent to being haltered on the third try. And she loved getting out of her pen to run around.

“She was the most agreeable and happy horse,” says Jackie. “She was also kind of complicated in her manner – but probably one of the best horses I ever had.”

Amazingly, Blue was still up for light riding duties at 30 years of age. “In the last four years we decided not to ride her as she’d lost some weight,” explains Gary. But Jackie ensured that Blue still had lots of attention and adequate exercise.

“I always included her when we brought the other horses in to the arena. She exercised as part of the group; she’d walk around the arena while we rode.”

“As [Blue] got older, we relied on the vet college for advice on how to take care of her properly,” says Gary. “She lost a lot of her teeth and went from eating hay to eating cubes. They advised us as to how much she should get. She also started getting eye infections in winter; the vets helped us with medication.”

Unfortunately, a weakened immune response is a common problem in older animals. To help Blue fight her eye infections, WCVM veterinarian Dr. Michelle Husulak suggested Jackie try an antibiotic spray containing serum from Blue’s own blood. Since the cornea lacks its own blood supply, the serum’s proteins helped promote healing.

“She [Blue] was always just sassy, and we liked her,” says Jackie. “She was robust right up to the very end – I think she just got tired.”

Gary and Jackie Chad with their children Lauren (astride Bud) and Justin (beside Blue).

Blue had few vet visits besides her yearly checkup and teeth cleaning. In contrast, Fire seemed to have nine lives – and needed all of them.

Peter Cosh first set eyes on Fire Diamond (Fire) when the chestnut gelding was only a few months old, at Arab breeder Ross Cannon’s farm in 1982. Cosh showed the young colt in Arabian halter classes, started him under saddle himself and enjoyed a lot of riding along the riverfront near Beaver Creek just south of Saskatoon, Sask.

Anyone who has owned horses long enough knows that some get into more than their fair share of mischief, and for Cosh, that horse was Fire. When he was younger, Fire caught one of his legs in barbed wire. He was rushed to the WCVM for treatment and spent two weeks recovering in the hospital. Although his hoof grew back with a permanent split, he regained 100 per cent of his soundness.

“The vets commented numerous times that he was a real fighter,” says Cosh.

In 2010, the 28-year-old Fire was admitted to the VMC with severe colic symptoms. While veterinarians determined that he was septic, they couldn’t find the root cause of his colic. Due to his advanced age, surgery was not an option. Cosh asked if the clinical team would perform an X-ray ­– a procedure that isn’t normally employed for colic. They performed one at Cosh’s request, however, and discovered that a nail had perforated Fire’s intestines. There was not much that could be done besides supporting the gelding with antibiotics and fluids, but he pulled through. Fire’s case is still cited to WCVM students as an example of why it’s important to explore all avenues of diagnosis – and a follow-up X-ray one year later showed no signs of the nail.

Fire was susceptible to recurrent airway obstruction (RAO or heaves), and he eventually required medication for pituitary pars intermedia disease (PPID, previously known as equine Cushing’s disease). In August 2017, Cosh made the very tough decision to humanely euthanize Fire when pain from an abscessed hoof became unmanageable.

Cosh describes Fire as a real people horse. “He didn’t mix that well with other horses – he was always bottom of the [herd] – but he’d come running to see me from wherever he was.”

Fire was an extra special support to Cosh because of an incident that happened in 1974 when Cosh was in the military.

“I didn’t know it until this year, but I suffered from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] all this time. Back then they didn’t even know what PTSD was, but he was kind of my counsellor. So when he passed, it was really tough on me. He was my best friend for a long time.”

Genetics probably played a part in Blue and Fire’s advanced years: Arabians have a reputation for longevity. But no horse reaches such an advanced age without special care from their owners. Most senior horses struggle with dental problems and subsequent diet challenges, and advice from a trusted veterinarian can be crucial to maintaining their weight, health and well-being.

“I don’t think [Blue] would have lived as long if we hadn’t had good advice from the vet college,” says Jackie. “I think you can keep a horse around for a long time if they have good care and attention.”

Although Fire was extra special, Peter still has two quarter horses over 30 and three other horses in their mid-20s.

“We depend on the WCVM’s Field Service and Large Animal Clinic to keep our group healthy. It truly is a team effort, and we really appreciate their help.”

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