Realizations regarding those I love sometimes hit me in unexpected ways. I think a little denial is normal in certain situations, and I realized recently I have been unconsciously indulging regarding my oldest horse, Cheyenne.
Chey will be 23 this year. She does light work in my lesson program, and it seems to benefit her by keeping her fit and occupying her mind. She still has the floating, fluid movement that made her a star in the show ring many moons ago, and she has all the grit and drive of a horse half her age. She rules my little herd with an iron hoof, always arriving first at the fence at mealtime and shoving much younger and larger horses bossily out of her way. If a horse can possess wry wit, Chey does, and she brings a lot of laughter into my life.
My longtime vet, Dr. Tom Wilson, was at my farm on a recent afternoon to float teeth. For non-horse owners who may not know, this is the filing process that takes place yearly for most equines as their teeth grow most of their lives. Tooth growth grinds (yes — pun intended) to a halt when most horses reach advanced age. The fact that equine teeth change so much makes them a good barometer in several instances, such as determining age when a birthdate is unknown. And it’s an accepted fact among horse owners that when teeth begin aging and falling out, the rest of the body can begin to reflect the decline as the horse depends on its teeth to begin the process of nutrient absorption.
Dr. Wilson’s Rome-based Countryside Equine Veterinary Services is synonymous with the finest quality horse health care in Northwest Georgia. Needless to say, I greatly value his opinion, so when he casually mentioned Chey’s teeth were showing wear (as teeth tend to do), my antenna went up.
What I heard him say, as he fitted my sedated mare with the metal gag that holds horses’ mouths open for dental exams, was, “I’m going to be very careful with these old teeth.” His words were probably more tempered, but as he described the filing method he was going to use as he gently worked around aging molars, all I heard was an echoing “OLD, Old, old, old.”
I felt a shockwave rush over me. “Chey is now old,” my mind told itself. “When did this happen, and how did you miss it??”
I first met Chey when she was 14 and in her prime. She is one of two heart horses (for non-horse owners, that’s an equine soulmate) that I have owned. This is the first time I’ve had a horse this advanced in age, and I know what to expect as she gets older, but to actually watch it happen to a beloved animal is disconcerting in some ways.
Dr. Wilson, unaware of my sudden panic as he filed away, using a headlamp to peer into the depths of Chey’s mouth, continued to deliver his findings. Chey was missing a few teeth. He thought she might have cracked one of them and he might have to remove it. This could be the last time we floated her due to her age. He asked if she was eating a moistened feed to ease the chewing process and if she was having any problems with choking at mealtime.
Meanwhile, I was reeling from the echoes still going off in my head, and I felt like I might need to sit down. I know Chey’s age — I have her registration papers on file — so why was this discussion hitting me so hard?
The first time I saw Dr. Wilson glance up, I popped around Chey’s shoulder where I had been holding the lead line and began quizzing him: “I’m feeding a dry pellet. Should I be feeding a mash or soup? Are the missing teeth a problem? Is the cracked one going to come out? Does the wear look normal?”
Dr. Wilson gave no indication that he was ruffled by this sudden barrage of questions from a seasoned horse owner who probably should have taken this information in stride. He gave his trademark steady, textbook answers that I’ve come to depend on, and they sounded something like this: “If she’s consuming dry feed slowly and without difficulty, let her continue on it. Missing teeth are par for the course in senior horses. We can leave the cracked one where it is. This amount of wear is normal. Watch for signs of tooth decay or difficulty chewing, and keep me in the loop.”
He did not provide an answer for the underlying unspoken query: “How do I stop time???”
Dr. Wilson packed up his tools, and we moved on from the “Chey is aging” topic, but my unsettled feeling lingered. I’ve watched other owners shepherd their horses through the aging process, and I realize I may have five years or 15. She may be rideable for years to come or she may not. Dr. Wilson did recommend that I continue allowing her to work in my program, and I intend to do that for as long as she’s able. In an effort to calm myself regarding the unknowns in this situation, I decided to poll other horse owners, and I got some neat stories that I thought might interest my readers. Stay tuned, and I’ll share them with you next week.