Golden oldies - not such a rare breed?

2017, so far, seems to be the year of the ‘golden oldie’. Notable victories for horses such as the 17 year old Nereo in this year’s Badminton (where in second place was another 17 year old, the legendary La Biosthetique-Sam FBW), and similar successes in lower levels across the disciplines indicate the growing number of older horses still successfully competing at a more advanced age than was previously possible. What’s causing this? The Finer Horse decided to take a quick look.

A change in attitude

There have always been the horses still leading the hunting field at 25, but these were always the rare exceptions, with their longevity often down to good luck and good genes rather than anything more scientific. However, as equestrian sport becomes ever more competitive and commercial, the horses at the heart of the sport, whether it be showjumping, dressage, eventing or polo, are becoming increasingly valuable commodities and, as such, their owners and connections are keen to maximise the talent and longevity of these animals. There is an increasing expectation that the horse should be able to compete for longer than would have been possible 20 years ago, and, with such a high amount at stake for all concerned, owners and riders are willing to invest larger amounts of money and time to find out how best to keep the horse happy and healthy. Known as ‘chasing margins’, a technique most famously used by the British Olympic Cycling programme to great success, in equine terms this has come to mean investigating everything from rider fitness to bits, bridles and bedding, to try and find those competition-beating small improvements.

Feeding, nutrition and healthcare

One of the many positives of the increasing competitiveness of equestrian sport has been the amount of research done into the health and wellbeing of the horse. For example, research done into feeding for optimal performance of polo ponies has led to the discovery that, although the ponies are no different from other horses in their need for a high fibre diet, the nature of their sport means that alfalfa may be a better choice of feed rather than traditional chaff as it is more easily digested and therefore doesn’t stay in the gut for as long. Research into muscle recovery demonstrated that a feed rich in amino acids was important, thus confirming alfalfa (which has a higher amount of these proteins than other feeds) was a good choice for polo ponies.

Aside from the more traditional feeds such as alfalfa, and veteran-specific enriched feeds, there is also now a plethora of supplements available to help combat issues such as laminitis, arthritis, loss of condition, phosphorus and protein deficiencies, which are helping to improve quality of life, and therefore longevity, in horses ranging from Olympic-level athletes to the retired grass-muncher in his field. Improvements in available technology for equine vets and dentists have likewise led to diverse improvements such as better dental care, more efficient worming treatments, and more effective work timetables for horses all over the world. Equine athletes, and the effect of all the feeding, training and equipment on them, can now be monitored much more closely from the veterinary imaging and diagnostic equipment originally developed for humans.

Technology – equipment and surfaces

A top rider of 20 years ago walking into today’s serious competition tack room would be amazed at the advances in equipment technology. From the ergonomically designed bits and bridles to the ever increasing variety of stable and field rugs, ready for anything the weather can throw at their highly-valuable horse, it’s a world away from the more basic approach of yesteryear. Outside the tack room, they might see an equine hydrotherapy tank or water treadmill under cover, perhaps next to the solarium, on their way to the manege filled with the latest waxed sand surface. All these new technologies have their place in keeping a horse happy and healthy and able to work at that top level for longer.

Despite the swish facilities and clever bits of kit, the advances in surface technology have been the bigger contributors to keeping the horse injury free and able to perform better, according to some of the world's best riders. Research has proved the waxed sand surface to be one of the most supportive surface from which to work, and this same research has, indirectly, led to advances in groundkeeping in the eventing, racing and polo scenes, where the grass must be able to withstand thundering hooves and numerous horses taking off from the same patch (particularly in the case of cross country). No more are horses expected to canter or gallop across hard, dry grass in the middle of summer. Indeed, as horses/polo ponies only increase in value, we see regular withdrawals in cross country or refusal to play if the ground is too hard, such is the willingness to keep the animals sound and in a position to keep performing at the top level for longer.

So there you have it, a whistlestop tour of the factors that might begin to explain why we’re seeing increasing numbers of ‘golden oldies’ continuing to live active and competitive lives, and the benefits all our equine partners are now experiencing as a result. A win for equestrian sport as well as animal welfare.

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