Caring for a sick or injured horse for a long period of time is one of the biggest nightmares any horse lover can face, especially because chronic equine illnesses can sometimes stretch for month, years or even decades.

Although it takes a lot of consistency and commitment, caring for a horse with a long-term illness can be very rewarding with the right long-term care plan. It’s empowering to know that, with a little knowledge, planning and support, you can often drastically impact the progression of the illness and the quality of the horse’s life. Taking the right steps can also help you replace burn-out with a positive, constructive experience free from excess stress.

Here are some tips for how to be the best caregiver for your horse.

1. Develop A Plan

The first part of developing a long-term care plan is talking to your vet. If you suspect something is wrong – for example, if your horse is constantly lethargic or not shedding out like he should – a proper diagnosis will take away any guesswork. A diagnosis can be devastating, but it will give you a solid avenue down which to channel your recovery or maintenance efforts. Often, an early diagnosis can dramatically affect the outcome of the illness.

After a diagnosis, your vet can help you develop a daily and long-term care regimen and can also help you stick to this plan by keeping you on track with bloodwork and routine check-ups. You can consult with your vet about whether isolation or special biosecurity measures are necessary, how your horse should be exercised, what his feed plan should be like, if any additional care like extra bedding or clipping is required to make him comfortable, etc. For example, horses struggling with PPID can sometimes gain huge benefits not just from dietary changes, but also from simple exercise such as hand-walking for 15 to 20 minutes three to four times a week.

Not only your vet but your farrier, barn owner, nutritionist, massage therapist and even stable hands can be a part of your care “team.” Letting these people know about things like special dietary needs or behavioral quirks can help improve your horse’s overall comfort and quality of life.

2. Join A Support Community

Having a horse with a long-term illness or injury can be a very isolating experience that can leave you feeling like you have no one to talk to.

Luckily, many equine illnesses have thriving online communities. These social media communities serve as databases possessing a wealth of hacks and good advice that will save you time and stress and help with long-term management and treatment. As vital platforms for furthering discussion, these communities also help raise awareness of the prevalence of certain conditions for the general public and the scientific community. Most importantly, members are able to discuss their experiences with each other and find mutual support.

Some examples include support communities for PPID, like ECIR (Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance), where horse owners talk about things like signs of subclinical laminitis. There are also groups for the metabolic disease EPSM, where owners ask about safe ways to trailer, and what do to about behavioral changes. Horses With Lyme Disease provides an avenue for those interested in exploring non-traditional treatment options. Equine Asthma (Heaves/RAO/COPD) Support Network provides a support group for respiratory illnesses. Even diseases that are just now being widely recognized by the veterinary community have online communities, such as Equine TMJ Disease.

If you’re hesitant to join a support community, having a horsey or non-horsey friend you can talk to can also help you maintain balance.

3. Become a Mini-Expert

The more knowledge you have, the more your mind will be set at ease.

Some excellent, reliable resources include those published by universities, such as Equine Guelph, which offers online courses in gut health and respiratory health, and many diagnostic tools that can help you determine anomalies in your horse’s health and whether a veterinary diagnosis is necessary.

Other resources include YouTube videos by professionals or horse owners, and helpful free and paid webinars offered by research foundations and veterinary schools – many of which are interactive and encourage dialogue and questions with experts and professionals. There are also many online magazine articles available for free.

Keeping up-to-date with new science and developments also helps and gives a sense of hope and can offer you invaluable treatment and maintenance options.

4. Keep A Journal

Any research you do and all the tips you come across can be stored in the back of a journal devoted to documenting your horse’s long-term illness. The diary can be dated to correspond with pictures stored electronically or with paperwork like bloodwork or prescriptions. A journal can also be an excellent resource to use when speaking to the vet.

If you’re attempting to find out if something is wrong, keeping a journal of symptoms and behavioral patterns can be helpful with obtaining a diagnosis.

5. Remember that Your Horse Appreciates You

A long-term illness can sometimes be devastating, especially if the diagnosis is unexpected because the horse is young or otherwise seems healthy. But caring for a horse with a long-term illness creates a very special bond unlike any other. If you’re taking care of a chronically ill horse, give yourself some credit. You likely think all you’re doing is never enough – but it is enough, and your horse appreciates you for it.