My horse won’t lie down!

Q: A friend of mine has leased an elderly (late 20s) pony for her daughter to learn to ride on. The pony seems happy enough in himself, but he NEVER lies down, either to roll or sleep. Apparently he is so arthritic he can’t get up again, and recently he slipped over in a muddy gateway and it took some time to get him up (luckily, the farrier was around to help). I know they can sleep standing up, but I thought that all horses and ponies needed also to lie down to sleep, at least some of the time. I would like to know what Vet Dave thinks.

Sandy, South Island

Vet Dave Van Zwanenberg replies:

If a horse is struggling to get up from lying down, there is probably some underlying pathology or pain. In older horses, this is most likely from arthritis. You are correct that horses can sleep standing up but that most will also spend a short period during the day lying down to sleep. Rolling is also normal behaviour.

If this horse is not showing signs of discomfort when ridden (either lameness, reluctance to go forward, avoidance behaviour towards the aids, or facial/body language suggesting discomfort) then low-level work is of benefit to keep him mobile.

However, given that you are suspicious of arthritic issues, there are couple of basic tests that I like to use to determine exactly how well a horse is feeling. This is not an exact science but can be helpful in deciding how to treat an individual. Firstly, I like all horses at some point in the day when free in the paddock to be comfortable at a gait faster than a walk, preferably at a canter. This is usually most evident when an owner walks to the gate with a feed at the appointed time. For a horse, this is one of the highlights of the day and most will leave what they are doing and canter across, making a lot of noise and fuss.

A horse who slowly meanders up the paddock at a snail’s pace – often weaving his way up a hill rather than taking the direct route – is probably sore and in need of treatment.

The second test is to perform a trial treatment with a painkiller. Typically, I will place the horse on anti-inflammatories for a fortnight as a trial period and get the owner to note down in general how this affects the horse. This should be compared to a second period of time, either before or after the treatment, to see how much of an effect it has had.

If there is a marked difference in the behaviour of the horse during treatment, it suggests that it has been in some pain.

The next step is reducing the level of anti-inflammatory to the lowest effective dose. I have no problem with older horses being on anti-inflammatories long-term and feel that it improves their quality of life. This is not to say that I don’t advocate using other products such as devil’s claw and MSM to try to reduce the dose required, but just that the risk from longer-term, lower level anti-inflammatory use is minimal and far less than the benefit of a pain-free and happier horse.

If you are concerned that this horse is living with chronic pain – even if it is seemingly happy on the outside – then I would suggest an examination by your equine vet and potentially a trial treatment of anti-inflammatories.

I have no problem with senior horses performing low-level work while on bute. Personally, if I was in my senior years and feeling a bit sore, I would much rather be out there enjoying life and work on pain relief than just sitting at home wishing I was.

For the senior horses under my care on bute, rather than dictating a set dose to owners I always dictate a maximum dose, advise them to use the lowest possible dose to keep their horse comfortable and to constantly re-assess the amount that they are using.

Typically, owners are better at picking up the subtler signs of discomfort and associated behaviour changes, as they see their horses day in day out rather than at a one-off examination.