Every farrier has one client they dread visiting. For some, it may be a jumpy filly. For others, it could be a demanding owner.

But for others, it is that older horse that requires more specialized care than the rest of your clients’ horses put together. But whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, chances are you’ll be seeing more and more senior horses in the years ahead.

Robert Holland, DVM, Ph.D., of Lexingon, Ky., and author of the book, Understanding The Older Horse, explains.

“We are seeing a continual increase in improved and consistent feeding programs, more concern for their welfare and a better commitment to a wellness management program,” he says.

“But the biggest factor is aggressive deworming programs. They’re adding years to horses’ lives.”

Conformation Concerns

Chances are, if there was ever a problem associated with older horses and methods to rectify them, the four top-notch individuals interviewed for this article have seen them.

“I see a lot of sore hocks and soreness in the back legs,” says Jerry Mathews of Harrisonville, Mo. Working mainly with hunters and jumpers in two barns with large schooling programs, this farrier sees many senior horses. Since older horses are generally calmer and gentler than their younger counterparts, they make ideal horses for training beginner riders.

“School horses are fairly old, since they’re more forgiving and better trained,” he says. “But there’s usually arthritic problems.”

“They lose elasticity in their joints,” adds Lim Couch. Shoeing in Hernando, Miss., Couch is employed by the Elvis Presley Estates, still shoeing a few of Elvis’ original horses.

“Living at Graceland, some of these horses are 40 years old,” he says. “The feet usually grow a little slower.”

“They also tend to crush in the heel,” says Tab Pigg of Azle, Texas. “A lot of them have arthritis or other joint problems like ringbone, depending on their conformation or knee problems. But arthritis is over-diagnosed. Chances are, they’re stiff in their joints, tendons or ligaments, making them sore.”

“A lot of older horses can’t bend their legs as much, they don’t have as much range of motion,” explains Holland. “They can be stiff in the back end. A simple stretching exercise will help the muscles stretch and also give the farrier an idea of where the tender spots are.”

Shoeing, Handling Tips

The way a farrier approaches elderly horses can be as diverse as the horses themselves. But one thing’s for certain: the owners of these horses are looking for more than a good shoeing job, they’re looking for someone to provide a little “tender loving care.”

There’s definitely a reason why they’re still being so carefully cared for as many owners don’t look at these horses as horses, they look at them as part of the family. In other words, farriers have the responsibility of knowing the correct ways of shoeing these horses, adding length to an already long life, keeping them comfortable and keeping owners happy.

Here’s four approaches to shoeing the mature horse:

1 “For economic and safety reasons, we don’t always shoe the hind feet,” says Mathews. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with treatment.

“I do keep the foot really low to the ground. I might have someone hold the foot for me, sometimes 6 inches off the ground. I’ll step on the other side of the horse and trim it clear down to the ground so they don’t have to lift their hocks so high. I let the horse tell me how high he wants to go and both the horse and owner appreciate it.”

2 “You just have to take a little more time with them,” says Couch. “You don’t do a lot of corrective trimming and straightening them out.

“At this point, you’re doing maintenance. I might try to level the hoof, but I don’t try to do a lot of cosmetic work because they can come up lame on you.

“I have used egg bar shoes for tendon problems. On one horse, I used a wedge egg bar to support the heels and the tendon. I use lots of rocker toes.

“Not all the horses are shod. Two or three of the horses I do have navicular or tendon problems, so I try to keep them shod to keep pressure off the navicular area. “Sometimes you have to stand on your head to get them comfortable. But it’s all part of the job.”

3 “You keep them balanced the best you can,” says Pigg. “Their feet really don’t maintain weight very well after a certain age. I try to leave as much sole as I can since it doesn’t seem to regenerate as fast as a younger horse. The hoof growth slows down, as if their body’s using the materials someplace else. They are prone to thyroid problems, so you’ve got to keep them under close eye for changes in their body, not just their feet, so you can let the horse owner know what’s going on.

“I keep them as comfortable as possible in the shoeing process. Don’t rush them and keep them pretty low. You may have to put the foot down  and walk away, letting them relax and move around to get adjusted again. Then you can go back and work.

“It’s like going to an old folks home and trying to run a foot race with them. You can’t do it. You can’t just jerk the foot up. You schedule these horses near the end of the day.

“If you’re talking to the horse owner, don’t bring up how old the horse is. It’s just another horse. You don’t need to say, ‘This horse is older than dirt and needs to be put down.’ Just be diplomatic. If the horse doesn’t want to lift a particular foot, go to another one. The owner will see you taking your time.

“The first few times you see the horse, you should find out what it was used for and what they use it for now. A halter horse is going to have a whole different set of problems than a barrel horse.”

4 “Farriers should take their time and watch them in the field for a minute before they start,” adds Holland. “There’s a reason why an older horse lives long. They have a will like none other. Overcoming injuries should be a slow process to recovery. It takes two to three times longer to get over an injury. A problem that takes a younger horse 3 months to overcome might take an older horse 6 to 9 months. Quick fixes with older horses cause trouble.

“For long over-grown toes, going down to the white line could be a problem. It changes the composition in the way the horse is standing and makes him sore. Doing it slowly, every 2 to 4 weeks with gradual trims works out much better.

“You have to use a team approach. The vet, farrier and owner all need to get together and give their input. A good working relationship with a farrier is important to my practice. It’s constant communication. It comes from working with people who are professionals and have good success. I learned early to listen to the farrier. I’ve also learned a lot of horsemanship from them.”

The Inevitable

Even with constant quality foot care, a carefully prescribed nutrition program and a thorough exercise schedule, ultimately there comes a day when the farrier may need to recommend what most horse owners dread: the horse is deteriorating fast and needs to be put down.

Unfortunately, some owners are so attached to these animals, they can’t bear the thought.

“I was working on a horse that had just about as many problems as you could name,” says Mathews. “It was born with badly contracted flexor-tendons, but had foundered which made the problem worse. Only about one-third of the foot was functional, the rest was basically trash. It had an abscess and couldn’t bear any weight.

“I had made two bar shoes and used two nails way back at the heels. The horse was so arthritic, he wouldn’t let me put any frog pressure on him. The owner wouldn’t listen to me about putting the horse down, so it went on and on. I even told her to talk to the vets, although I didn’t get much support.

“Finally, I talked to a vet in Iowa and he suggested I charge her so much money she would put him down for financial reasons. But I couldn’t do that. Eventually, I told her I couldn’t stand watching the horse suffer. In my opinion, it’s horse abuse.

“I’ve had horses who had to be led to me because it took them 20 minutes to walk over to the shoeing area. I don’t go around and kill everything that limps, but a horse is a creature of motion. When you take that motion away, there’s not much left.”

While these cases are difficult to stomach, the good news is other owners realize it’s the most humane option, even though it may be the most difficult one to deal with.

“I’m real straight forward with owners who need to put down horses,” Pigg says. “I tell them the horse is x-years old. There’s nothing more the vet or I can do. You’ve got to make the decision. I’m not going to tell you to do it, but here’s what I suggest.

“There was one girl that had a horse for 3 years. Burney Chapman and Dan Bradley both worked on him. He was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease. It was a chronic problem. As soon as you got the foot in decent shape, it would come up laminitic. The foot had rotated to the point where I could almost put my finger on the coffin bone. The vet even talked to the owner.

“She came to me and we sat down and had a long heart-toheart talk. Her husband came by one day and told me they had put Rusty down. They appreciated that I had worked on him for 3 years. They sent me cards and bought me movie and dinner tickets. I was honest with her and they appreciated it.

“You’d be surprised how understanding owners can be. Sure, some will be upset and take it the wrong way, but the real thinkers will say, ‘The horse has lived his life and we’ve done everything we can. There’s no sense making him suffer.’”

Pigg says that while some farriers may refer clients with suffering horses to other farriers, it’s against his ethical code to put another farrier in a potentially bad situation.

“I try to leave other shoers out of the picture,” he says.

If you’re unsure which kind of recommendation to make, Holland says there’s four reasons to consider putting the senior horse down:

1 Constant pain or chronic lameness that can’t be resolved.

2 Severe weight loss that can’t or won’t be gained back.

3 Fatal illness or injury.

4 If the animal’s quality of life is suffering.

To make the guidelines even more clear, Dr. Scott L. King, veterinarian and researcher for Purina Mills offers some helpful hints.

“The decision to euthanize a horse is one that has to be made solely by the owner,” he says. “As professionals, farrier and veterinarians need to work together to try to solve the problems of the older horses. Many of these problems reduce the quality of life for the horse. But many problems can be resolved. If the owner is able to take care of the horse properly and make the financial investment required, then the farrier and veterinarian should make a valiant effort to maintain the geriatric horse.

“If the effort has been made by all parties involved and the horse is still suffering from chronic pain or other severe disabilities, then farriers and veterinarians should educate the owner so they can make the right decision.

“The older horse has a tendency to become inconvenient for their owners. Farriers and veterinarians should work as a team to solve the problems of the geriatric horse. This will also make life easier for the owner. The increased population of geriatric horses has opened up a lucrative new market for both farriers and veterinarians. We should embrace these clients before they become debilitated and maintain their quality of life.”

Good News!

Despite all the difficulties involved in encountering problems, dealing with attached owners and adjusting your shoeing style, believe it or not, there are benefits to working on senior horses. 

Try New Theories

The common opinion among farriers interviewed for this article is that senior horses are great candidates to try out new theories which you can’t risk trying on high performance horses. Since some horses get to the point where orthodox shoeing methods aren’t working, they can provide the perfect opportunity to try a new approach.

“These horses can be a good chance to try out new methods within reason since they’re not in big-time competition,” says Pigg. “Go ahead and try new products and methods, but make sure it’s within reason. These horses aren’t being used. They’re pasture ornaments.”

“One of the benefits of shoeing school horses it that all the animals have something wrong with them,” Mathews continues. “You can experiment with them in this ‘lab.’ If it works, you’re a hero, if it doesn’t, then next time you’ll know.”

A word of caution: Holland advises farriers to first get consent from the owner before trying new things.

“Farriers should be cautioned to use a consent form,” he says. “While we are definitely learning new things, no one wants to be in a lawsuit, either.”

Money Opportunity

Another bonus about working on and around senior horses is that since more work is required, more money can be collected per job.

“I don’t charge that much more for older horses,” Pigg says. “Depending on the circumstances, you’re talking about an extra 15 or 20 minutes for a normal shoeing job. But most of these horses need more than basic stuff,” he says.

“However, you might be wasting your time and their money doing fancy stuff on these horses. Sometimes the fancy stuff can get you in trouble.”

Mathews has a different approach. “If I’m experimenting, I’ll charge them my normal rate,” he says. “But if I find something and it’s working and it’s more work, I’ll charge them more.” And for shoers like Couch, the sky’s the limit.

“If one of Elvis’ horses has a problem, they don’t hesitate to spend what it takes to keep them healthy and alive,” he says. “They had a horse that kicked a pony and broke his leg. They hired a vet and transported the pony down to Mississippi State University where they put a steel bar in his leg.

“I’m on call 24 hours a day for Elvis. They’re not real quick to put one down. They pay me $50 for a trim and $150 to shoe. They had a lame horse from a puncture wound and the vet called us out after hours to put a shoe and pad on. For this service they paid us $200. But because of the age and the problems, it takes more time, so we do get a premium price.”

There you have it. Older horses, while fragile, full of medical problems and heavy attachments from their owners, can also be full of opportunity. But more often than not, it’s the owner who will realize how much extra time and care you put into the job of shoeing the extended member of the family.

Whether it be extra cash or word of mouth advertising, you’ll get your reward and the satisfaction that these horses, after putting in a lifetime of hard work and supplying enjoyment to humans, are now in retirement and being cared for by very capable hands.