Such is the mood today. Excitement mixed with apprehension. Tomorrow (Saturday, May 23, 2009) TREES will welcome an elderly gelding to be called “Forrest.” Forrest has been losing weight for some time and has been assigned a Body Condition Score of 1. (According to the Henneke Body condition Scoring System, 1 is emaciated, 4-5 is “normal”, while 9 is obese.) A recent veterinary exam revealed no obvious health problems other than anemia, which could be a result of the emaciation itself.
So, how does TREES prepare for the arrival of a horse like Forrest?
The first step was to visit the horse in his current home. We learned that Forrest has no functioning teeth to speak of, but was being fed a “sweet feed.” In general sweet feeds do not work well for dentally challenged horses because these horses cannot chew the whole grains that make up a large proportion of sweet feed formulas. Unchewed grains are passed out in the manure, obviously not being digested or providing any nutrition to the horse.
The owner talked with an equine nutritionist and changed to a pelleted senior ration. The pellets were soaked to further reduce the need for chewing. Forrest was separated at meal times so he would not be harassed by other horses while eating. Even with these changes, after two weeks showing little progress, arrangements were made to bring Forrest to the sanctuary.
Today, we prepared one of our large rehabilitation/convalescence stalls. We have two such stalls, one 10’X 20', the other 12’X 24'. Forrest will live in the larger of the two rehab stalls, with access to a small private paddock. Until he begins to gain weight we want to limit his exercise, but at the same time, want him to be able to move around enough to avoid “stocking up.”
Preparing the stall involves first laying down 5-6 inches of pine sawdust for extra urine absorption, topped with 5-6 inches of fluffier pine shavings for cushioning. Often, thin horses do not lay down to rest. Having little or no flesh over their bones makes laying on even a moderately hard surface, like the ground, very uncomfortable. Some may even develop sores on pressure points such as hips, hocks, shoulders or fetlocks. Extra thick bedding invites a thin horse to rest in comfort.
Very thin horses are also often dehydrated. Monitoring water consumption is important. Some emaciated horses do not drink much for the first few days. It seems as if the body’s system that triggers “thirst” doesn’t function properly. To help increase water intake, meals are soaked even if the horse is not dentally challenged. Some horses, we’ve found, don’t like to drink from buckets hung in the stall, but will drink from buckets on the ground in the paddock. Both are provided so the horse may choose the water source most comfortable for him.
Keeping the environment as stress-free as possible is also important. Each new arrival is first introduced to a private paddock. A routine is established and strictly adhered to for the first couple of weeks. Small frequent meals are served at the same times each day. (Please note that suddenly feeding emaciated horses large amounts of food can cause a fatal condition called “Refeeding Syndrome.”) Hay is placed in the same location each day. The number of handlers and visitors is limited until the horse becomes comfortable with his new surroundings and the farm staff learns his habits and quirks.
A veterinary exam will be scheduled as soon after arrival as possible. Naturally, any urgent needs will be addressed immediately. If not urgent situations, things like vaccinations, hoof trims and dental floats will be delayed until the horse gains weight and strength and is able to better tolerate whatever procedure awaits.
Once our new resident is settled, our work is only beginning. As the horse becomes comfortable and gains strength, his true personality will begin to emerge. As basic survival requirements become less of an issue, subtle symptoms of chronic ailments may become more obvious.
What is this horse’s temperament? Which group of horses will work best as his permanent “band?” Are there any behavior issues to be addressed? What diet will best suit his needs? Was starvation masking chronic conditions like Cushings disease or insulin Resistance? How often will he need dental attention? Which volunteers are best suited to working around this horse?
The questions are many, but each answer leads again to excitement. Each answer brings us one step closer to offering this horse happy Golden Years. Marye’s AeroMask. Wade’s mosquito mesh. Sonny’s fly boots. Val’s tooth fragment removal. Fitz’ heart infection diagnosis and treatment. Each mystery solved adds one more idea to the arsenal of options we can offer the next new arrival. Even though some horses do not stay with us long, we try to make sure each one spends his last weeks, months or years as happy and comfortable as we can make him. Beginning with Day One. Forrest’s arrival preparations began three days ago. We hope he enjoys many years in the company of TREES’ Elders.