A look at three equine athletes that are excelling in their golden years, along with how their owners and veterinarians keep them feeling young
There are exceptional equine athletes in every discipline—those stars who stand out from the pack and win awards and titles time and again. We typically expect these athletes to be at that magic age where horses peak for a specific breed or discipline. However, some exceptional horses are defying logic, competing well into their senior years. Retirement doesn’t seem to be in the cards anytime soon for some of them. We talked to the owners and riders of three senior horses who still have plenty of “get up and go” and continue to excel in their disciplines.
Meet Your Elders
Currently the United States Eventing Association’s highest scoring eventer of all time, Ballynoe Castle RM is a Belgian Warmblood/Irish Thoroughbred cross owned by Cassandra and Carl Segal and ridden by Bruce (Buck) Davidson Jr., of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania. The 15-year-old bay gelding’s lifetime accomplishments include helping the U.S. eventing team to a fourth-place finish at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) and competing at the 2014 WEG. He ran fourth at the 2013 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and third in 2014. In 2015 “Reggie” was still winning a slew of top level events. In 2016, he retired from upper-level competition and is competing at the lower levels with his long-time groom, Kathleen Murray.
Hadji Halef Omar is a purebred Arabian endurance horse who has logged 8,575 lifetime miles over 170 American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) rides with owner and endurance veteran Stephanie Palmer-DuRoss. In 2014 the gray gelding completed the Tevis Cup, and in 2015, at 23, he placed in the Top 10 in 11 out of 19 rides. Palmer-DuRoss, of Queen Creek, Arizona, calls Hadji irreplaceable.
Smart Snap, a Quarter Horse owned by Nadine Galbraith, DVM, has earned National Reining Horse Association and American Quarter Horse Congress championships with three members of the Galbraith family, who own Morning Star Performance Horses, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The now-17-year-old bay stallion, nicknamed “Snap,” has competed in France, Italy, Germany, and Canada and won 150 events.
Bumps Along the Way
Although these veteran equine athletes are still in tiptop shape, the road hasn’t always been smooth and straight. Each owner knows his or her horse well and has always put the animal’s needs first when health problems have cropped up. “The horse has to come before any competition goals,” says Davidson. “I think if you do that, you’re going to be more successful more times than not.”
Reggie’s biggest health problems have been related to laryngeal hemiplegia, a condition involving partial or total paralysis of the nerves controlling the arytenoid cartilage, which opens the larynx for breathing and closes it as the horse swallows (to keep food out of the trachea). Laryngeal hemiplegia—known as roaring—can severely impede breathing, and Reggie first started experiencing problems with this during exercise early in his career. He underwent a vocal cordectomy (surgical removal of the vocal cord) in 2008, but started having problems again while in training for the 2012 Olympic Games. So Eric Parente, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, did an arytenoidectomy to remove the arytenoid cartilage. In the fall of 2015, Parente performed Reggie’s third surgery, a tie-forward, due to dorsal displacement of the soft palate, to further help Reggie’s breathing and prevent food aspiration.
Reggie now travels in his own box stall trailer with room to lower his head and cough out inhaled irritants, and he receives regular massage and acupuncture. He has also battled pneumonia. In fact, in the lead-up to the 2014 WEG, Reggie underwent several hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments to effectively help treat an infection and to enhance the effects of antibiotics. “He has a heart of gold, and the Segals do everything known to man to make sure that Reggie has whatever Reggie needs,” says Davidson.
Palmer-DuRoss has managed a wider range of health concerns with Hadji over the years. Hadji has a slight club foot, which Palmer-DuRoss believes causes him to interfere (hit himself during movement) when shod and bang up his legs. She now rides him barefoot or in hoof boots on the trail. “I think that was ultimately the thing that made him be able to have the long career that he has now, or I would have been retiring him from injury if he was still in shoes,” says Palmer-DuRoss.
Hadji also dealt with cancer early in his career, a sarcoid within his sheath that was removed surgically and treated with chemotherapy. Then he bowed a tendon in 2006, but after only a 10-month layoff he returned to do a 50-mile ride. Another year he foundered, but Palmer-DuRoss caught it early when it was mild, and she and her veterinarian and farrier were able to mostly correct it with trimming. To keep him fit during recovery without stressing his feet, she put him in a swimming program.
Because she’s an equine veterinarian, Galbraith treats her own horses. Smart Snap hasn’t had any major health issues other than soreness in his right front hoof. She says she gives him coffin joint injections once or twice a year as needed, as well as intra-articular polysulfated glycosaminoglycan (trade name Adequan) to stay sound and comfortable.
Training and Conditioning the Older Horse
All three owners believe in building their horses’ fitness slowly and giving them plenty of rest. With age, they don’t need the drilling and schooling they did when they were younger.
“I build (Hadji) up with long, slow miles,” says Palmer-DuRoss. “I usually take him out once a week in 15- to 20-mile rides, and that’s all he needs to maintain (his fitness).”
Similarly, Davidson no longer schools Reggie in dressage. “I ride him the day before an event out on the flat,” he says. “Otherwise, he goes out trotting or hacking or does his gallops or jumps a little bit. My job is to have him fit and ready for every competition, but I almost think it’s a bit insulting for him to have to go practice another half pass or another flying change. He knows what he’s doing, and we don’t need to challenge him and make him sore.”
The Galbraiths have maintained Snap on the same training regimen over the years, with their main focus his mental soundness. “There are only 11 reining patterns with virtually the same seven maneuvers done in different sequences, so it gets pretty mundane to train and train and train the same maneuvers,” she says. “It’s important to keep things fresh, like trail ride, go to fun shows, and try a trail or ranch pleasure class.”
Dietary Omissions and Additions
Palmer-DuRoss says managing Hadji’s health has centered around determining his individual needs, specifically his nutritional requirements. “I keep everything with him more simplified, because sometimes if you give them all these weird things and these different grains and all this different feed, sometimes you end up causing more problems than if you just leave them alone and let them be basic.”
She feeds Hadji a simple diet designed to keep weight on while reducing sugar intake, due to his history of founder: Bermuda grass hay in the morning, alfalfa at night, and a mixture of alfalfa oat pellets, rice bran, performance horse feed, and senior feed. He can’t have carrots due to their sugar content, and Palmer-DuRoss says she doesn’t give him any supplements, although she is considering glucosamine for his mild joint stiffness.
Reggie is always fed and watered on the ground in light of his breathing issues, and his hay is steamed to reduce mold and dust. He also gets two pelleted feeds designed for sport horses and a gastric health and multipurpose supplement.
Snap is on an alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mix, and Galbraith makes sure he does not gain too much weight. “A lot of people like their horses too obese, and there are dangers in doing that,” she says. “As an equine vet, I can’t tell you how many times a case of laminitis could be prevented. I remember when I was really showing him hard, I had to have Snap on (an ultra-high-fat) product to keep his weight up, but I prefer to add fat versus sugary grains to increase their energy.”
In addition to joint injections, Galbraith believes joint supplements containing avocado and soybean unsaponifiables or glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate have helped Snap and the rest of her barn full of show horses remain active.
Advice for Promoting Longevity
Palmer-DuRoss believes that owners shouldn’t feel the need to retire their sport horses at a set age, if they’re still healthy. “One of Hadji’s best years was when he was 17,” she says. “If they’re really good at their job, and they’re happy, and they want to do it, they should continue to do it.”
In fact, Nicholson believes the endurance sport itself is good for his patients’ longevity. “It’s just like older people,” he says. “If they continue to exercise through life, eat right, and take care of themselves, they can keep going for a long time,” adding that he does think Arabians have more staying power than some other breeds.
Davidson believes less is more when it comes to promoting longevity in eventers, cautioning those with brilliant horses that advance through the ranks quickly at younger ages to be careful. “Just because they’re so talented doesn’t mean they’re physically strong enough and ready to do it,” he explains. “I didn’t always run (Reggie) fast or hard, because the goal with every single horse that comes into my barn is to have them fit and sound at 14, 15, 16.”
She also suggests that owners watch their senior horses’ teeth. “They start to have dental problems (from tooth wear) … and that will affect their feed intake, and you’ll see a lot of horses really drop weight,” says Galbraith. “And watch for Cushing’s disease (pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction), because that’s very common in older horses and can lead to laminitis and other debilitating scenarios.”
Palmer-DuRoss says that if she retired Hadji now, he would likely all of a sudden show his age. “As long as he’s having fun and enjoys his job and wants to go down the trail, and he’s sound and happy, I don’t have a retirement date for him yet,” she says. “I would love to get him over 10,000 miles, and I actually think it would be cool to have him be a double-decade team,” which involves a horse-and-rider combination completing at least one 50-mile ride every year for 20 years. “That would put him at 28, so I’m not sure, but he’s surprising me at 23.”
Similarly, Davidson says that as long as Reggie is healthy and happy he will continue to compete, and he feels that Reggie will tell him when he’s ready to retire. “It’s what he loves to do,” Davidson says. “He gets mad when he’s not getting put on the trailer to go to the horse show. He’s a competitor.”
This year Galbraith felt that Smart Snap needed a break, and because she is interested in ranch pleasure classes and Western dressage, she might transition him. “I think he’s probably at the max that I would ask him to perform,” she adds. “I really don’t want to subject him to that level of training another year. I probably could, but I think 17 is enough.”
Each senior horse is unique and his or her owner/rider are best equipped to make decisions for care, training, and retirement with the involvement of the trainer, veterinarian, and farrier. These three athletes are superb examples of senior sport horses’ staying power in the competitive arena with that kind of careful management and attention. Regardless of how long these athletes continue competing, their owners and caretakers have the animals’ best interests in mind and will wait for them to indicate when they’re ready to ease into retirement.