VetScript Editor’s pick – February 2018

The rise of the lifestyle block and the decline of the racing industry are among

factors behind a transformation of the horse’s role. Once valued workers, they’re being kept increasingly as pets, and often by inexperienced first-time owners.

As Bette Flagler reports, this signals a big change for veterinarians as well.

Recently there was a Facebook post titled ‘I’m a Forever Horse, not an Until Horse’. The post was written from the point of view of the horse, declaring that it wasn’t an ‘until-you-get-bored, find-a-boyfriend, have-a-baby, need-to-move, have-no-time horse’. This horse was forever.

Clearly this is a big change from how horses might have previously described themselves. Or maybe not: maybe horses have always felt this way, and it’s only now that they have access to social
media to share their views about being sold and moved from one rider, trainer or owner to another.

In any case, the role of the horse has changed. People are adopting them as pets and keeping them longer. Many are never ridden, and far fewer than traditionally are in work or paying their way. With these shifts, the role of the veterinarian has also changed.

When Graham Carthew moved to Ōtaki in 1974, racing was a big thing. Hundreds of horses were at the track, providing a livelihood for trainers, riders, breeders and veterinarians.

Graham says that back then if a veterinarian was a bit short of work they could drop by the track at 6am and people would line up.

That’s not the case today. Graham retired last year, but for those still working at Vets on Riverbank, only a few of the equine clients are stud farms or professional trainers. Most are owners of pleasure horses – in large part, women who rode as teenagers and now have disposable incomes and a hectare or two.

Where Graham would have seen 60 mares a day during breeding season, now the numbers are fewer, and the breeding work is more likely to be artificial insemination and embryo transfer.

Among the clients today are those same women, keen to breed a Hanoverian or some other breed, rather than just take a retired Thoroughbred from the track.

Some new or rebound owners come with money and knowledge, but for others the level of expertise isn’t great. That means the veterinarian becomes an educator, which suits Leanne Whittaker just fine.

Leanne arrived from the UK in July 2017 and works in mixed practice at the Vetlife Culverden clinic. Keen on horses, she spotted a gap in the market (the nearest equine veterinarian is an hour away in Rangiora) and recently established an equine arm to the clinic.

Leanne thinks the role of the horse will continue to change as more people own lifestyle blocks. She’s considering hosting veterinary training days, just to cover the basics.

“In my trailer I have a first aid kit, and I’m surprised that others don’t. If a horse starts bleeding, what do you do? Who do you call? That’s the kind of thing I’m looking at – really quick decision-making for the owners.”

She also offers a dental workshop.

“A lot of people haven’t had their horses’ teeth looked at for two or three years. I go around and educate them on the importance of the horses’ teeth, how much they need them to maintain body condition and contact on the bit, and how dental problems can affect behaviour. There’s a lot of scope for education, and that’s primarily why I became a veterinarian: to educate people on the welfare of animals.”

Horses are absolutely becoming more like pets, she says. “It’s popular in this area to have horses in a paddock. If the kids feel like riding, they can; if they don’t, the horses just stay there eating grass.”

Yet those same animals can be prey to all sorts of health problems, so lifestyle veterinarians need to keep them on their radars.

Joe Mayhew, a professor of equine studies at Massey University, says colic and lameness remain the biggest animal welfare issues in our horses.

“Our problem in New Zealand is that we have such good grass, with up to 25% digestible carbohydrates. That’s a hot diet; that’s like eating sugar, drinking Cokes. Equine metabolic syndrome is the big thing, but it’s nothing new. It comes down to overfeeding and a lack of exercise. We’ve messed up their carbohydrate metabolism and these horses commonly get laminitis.”

Obesity is a real problem, particularly with the hairier ponies and minis, he says. “Owners think it’s all hair, but it’s not. Also, the horse or pony could lose a lot of weight, but the owners don’t realise. That’s about client education.”

Vetlife Wanaka veterinarian Beth Campbell says she doesn’t see many minis, but often ‘pet’ horses are fed a great number of different feeds and supplements.

“Mostly these are based on the latest fads cycling through the equine community and are constantly changing. People feed horses supplements to calm them down, to make them look shiny, to look after their joints or to help them digest their feed and so on. It can be hard keeping pace with all that’s on the market, especially with online shopping.”

She says that sometimes it’s a case of going back to the basics.

Petra Stagehuis, of Auckland Veterinary Centre in Takanini, agrees.

“We see a variety of horses, from super elite to adopted ponies and retired horses that are paddock mates.

“People feed a pinch of this and a pinch of that. Feed companies are making lots of money on things the horses may not need.”

“As veterinarians, we can struggle with these companion horses,” says Beth. “It can be tricky to match owner expectations because they are based on what they can do with their small animals, but those things are not always available to use on a horse, or they may not have access to a float to take the horse for treatment or diagnosis.”

Sometimes, says Beth, there aren’t great facilities, and the horses are not the best behaved. They may be rescue horses, or have been bought cheaply and come with issues.

“Sometimes the people looking after them don’t know how to hold them properly, because they’re a bit scared of them. They love them, but they’re scared of them.”

Even so, she says, “This kind of work can be incredibly rewarding”.

“There are some lovely horses out there, and people do love them to bits. It can be quite fun to hang out with the horses.”

Plus, there’s not the same stress as with performance and racing horses.

“We don’t always have to fix the problem. Sometimes we don’t even work out what the problem is, because there’s no money for a referral or the people don’t want to spend the money diagnosing because the horse is still walking around.

They’re a bit lame and they may get a bit of bute, but they can toodle around the paddock. Is that okay? Well, we have lots and lots of lame dogs and cats. If the horse isn’t being ridden, you may not stress about a mild lameness.”

Which doesn’t mean that old horses or paddock mates can just look after themselves. They do require attention, and veterinarians may need to remind clients that their feet and teeth need to be cared for. As Joe reminds, “Any horse outside all year in New Zealand that isn’t covered will end up with dermatophilosis; it’s as simple as that”.

Which brings us to end-of-life care.

All these veterinarians say they are seeing more geriatric horses.

“A lot of horses aren’t being ridden any more, but they stay on the property and become part of the family,” says Beth. “The decision to put them down becomes very emotional.”

She takes the same approach as she does with any companion animal. “It’s about life quality – particularly about horses being able to get up and down. Are they able to get down? Can they get back up again? How much pain do they have? Do they have rotten teeth? How much pain do they have that we can’t effectively see? A lot of these horses get really old and really arthritic. I talk to the owners a lot about life quality.”

Graham says that when he is called out to euthanise a horse, it may have been with a family for decades. “The whole family is there to say goodbye. That’s where we see the impact of how much a pony can be a loved member of the family. They may be a paddock mate, but they’re also a really good friend.”