In 2011, I had the great pleasure of responding to some questions posed by an excellent young rider, Zazou Hoffman, whose family has been clients of mine for some time. I found the questions to be very insightful! As it turns out, that excellent young rider is now an excellent adult rider (Zazou’s now 26, I think), seasoned and competing in top level events. I think the article’s interesting in hindsight. And, I take absolutely ZERO credit for any of Zazou’s success – and I hope there’s nothing but success for her in the future. It’s a bit long, but here you go.
Zazou Hoffman was a sixteen-year-old junior rider from California, who, in 2005 won the Ronnie Mutch Working Student Scholarship, which led to an association with respected East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. In January 2007 Zazou was one of seven elite riders chosen to work with Olympic Chef d’Equipe George Morris in Wellington, Florida. Zazou has known Dr. Ramey for most of her life, as he is her family’s vet. He helped advise her mother on the birth of Zazou’s homebred hunter Andy Warhol. His advice was very succinct “Think how many horses have been born over the centuries in the wild. Ninety nine percent of the births are problem free.” (By the way, I’m not sure that was advice. More reassurance to a worried mother, no?)
1) Hi Dr. Ramey, I think it’s funny that you are interested in art and collect it and you ended up helping us with “Andy Warhol”. My Dad, who is an art historian, told me that you wrote and published a book of eighteenth century equestrian engravings from England.
It is funny – it seems to me you’ve had a couple other artsy horses, too, no? The book was a reprint of the first book on horse anatomy ever printed in English – from the 17th century. It does have some beautiful engravings in the original book (even though some of them were pirated from a 16th century Italian work). But it was a fascinating look at what the “experts” of the day thought was true about the horse, and it was fun to compare it to what we know today. (CLICK HERE to see the book, “The Anatomy of An Horse.)
2) But back to the topic at hand; since I spent some time with Richard Spooner and Chris Pratt [both top trainers in southern California; Richard is one of the top US jumper riders] at Thermal and I know you are Richard’s vet, what preventative measures should owners and rider’s take when it comes to grand prix horses?
That’s a hard question, actually, and it sort of depends on what you want to prevent. I mean, you can prevent a horse from being too skinny by making sure he has enough feed! However, when most people think about preventing, they’re usually thinking about preventing injuries. And, in that regard, the most important thing that you can do is not jump your horse too much. I mean, Grand Prix horses know how to jump – if you jump them over fences for day after day, dropping those big bodies down on little legs from five feet in the air, or more, pretty soon, they’re going to injure themselves.
That may seem sort of obvious (kind of like finding out that the washing machine doesn’t work because it isn’t plugged in), but the fact of the matter is that no supplement or treatment of any kind is going to prevent injury due to overuse. Even so, lots of horses get routine treatments (for example, they may get their joints injected, even though there aren’t any problems with them), even though there’s absolutely no evidence at all that such treatments are beneficial. I think that’s one area where I may seem controversial – I don’t recommend treatments to prevent problems that may not even exist!
So, to sum, to prevent problems, work your horse regularly, and sensibly, and make sure that he has good food and fresh water. Don’t let him get fat, and take care of regular needs such as occasional vaccination and deworming. If that’s all you ever do, your horse will probably do pretty well.
3) What trends do you see that you don’t approve of?
That’s quite a question – how long do I get? Seriously, how ‘bout a couple of big ones?
The first trend that I see and don’t approve of is the rise of marketing over substance. I really don’t approve of the fact that horse owners are bombarded with all sorts of products and services, all of which are supported by glitzy advertisements and testimonials, but almost none of them by science. I think that a lot of horse people have the idea that in order to keep a horse healthy, they have to invest in all sorts of gadgets, products, supplements, and services, when, in fact, most of them are useless. There seems to be very little concern about what actually works. But it’s very difficult for people to know what to believe, especially when EVERYONE is marketing, including some veterinarians. It must sometimes seem like everyone in the horse world is trying to get their hands into horse owners’ pockets.
Another trend that I don’t approve of is what seems to be a tendency to ignore science – or even truth – when it comes to evaluating and recommending products or services. I mean, most everyone seems to be in general agreement that science is pretty useful, and that telling the truth is a good thing, it’s just that when science doesn’t support one’s pet product or belief, or the truth gets in the way of a good story, people tend to ignore both. To me, that’s silly, because science has been responsible for essentially all of the great medical advances, and, well, everyone should tell the truth, right? So, when I hear about people wanting to try “ancient” treatments (such as acupuncture, which isn’t old at all), or “natural” treatments (as opposed to ones that are supported by good science and sound medicine), I think it’s very unfortunate. Besides, we already know what happens when people rely on the old and natural stuff – they live neither long nor healthy!
4) Is the NGB (National Governing Body) taking the best approach to banned substances and what do you think of the stringent FEI rules?
That’s certainly a controversial topic! I try to keep the horse at the forefront of such thoughts – the humans involved tend to let concerns such as winning get in the way of the best interests of the horse. I think that, in general, it’s not a good thing to be giving lots of substances to horses that compete. I mean, how would people react if we treated young human athletes like horses? How would people react if, without their knowledge, teenage baseball players were being given steroids, or tranquilizers, or stimulants, etc? I really don’t see that much difference between that hypothetical situation and what goes on in the horse world. So, in my opinion, it’s in the best interest of the horse’s health to minimize the things that they’re getting, and the best interests of the horse should be the bottom line. In an ideal world, good riders and good horses should just go out and compete in good faith. But the desire to win changes most everything.
5) What do you look for in a Grand Prix prospect and what is the most important trait the horse should possess for determining future soundness?
Well, honestly, I think that that it’s up to my clients to find what they think is the best prospect – they’re the ones who have to live with them! I’ve seen top horses that have come from many different backgrounds. Still, I think that quality often (but not always!) pays.
I’m always wary of terms like “future soundness,” because I haven’t figured out a way to predict the future. Still, if it’s one important trait that you’re concerned with, I’d say, “Look for a horse with a good foot,” both in terms of good hoof conformation, that is, adequate heel, good size, etc., and in terms of hoof quality, that is, a nice, firm foot that isn’t shelly, or cracked. No matter what level of performance in desired, the old “No hoof, no horse” adage is very true.
6) Are there any trends in US or foreign breeding that interest you?
Not so much. I mean, I’m not involved in much breeding, because in Los Angeles, there’s not much room to have brood mares. So, mostly, the horses that I look at are older, and somebody else has had to deal with the breeding headaches! Still, it’s amazing to see what technology has brought the horse industry, with embryo transfer, frozen semen, etc. But from a pragmatic standpoint, although breeding is fun, most people would save lots of time and money going out and buying a nice horse, plus, they can pick their preferred color!
7) How is technology impacting your practice?
Not so much, actually. Technology has changed some diagnostic and treatment options, but not necessarily for every horse, mostly because of the economics. For example, while digital X-rays may be the rage, the machines are very expensive, and they don’t necessarily improve the quality of the diagnostic images, (even though you can see the pictures immediately). The “Gee whiz” value may be considerable, but it comes at a high cost, thus, so far, I’ve decided not to invest (and I do mean invest) in the equipment. Or, MRI, for example, offers some great diagnostic information, but the cost means that many people are more than happy to save the money and wait the problems out – and waiting is often the only real useful treatment available anyway!
I’ve never really worried about being the first “kid” on the block to own new equipment – I’d rather sit back and see how it all plays out. The exception to that was ultrasound – I jumped on that when it first became available, because the diagnostic advantages were so obvious. But every piece of equipment comes with a cost, and when you have to pay for something, there’s pressure to use it (and get it paid for). That may sometimes mean that horses get things done that they don’t need – extra X-rays, taken to pay off a new digital machine, for example, or applying a “shock wave” to as many horses as possible. I don’t want my practice to be impacted in that way.
8) You wrote a very poignant article on Barbaro can you tell us about it?
I was asked to give my thoughts about Barbaro, who, as you know, galvanized the public, both horse-owning and non-horse owning. I found it interesting that there was so much emotion pouring out over the horse, both from people with a genuine love of horses, as well as from those who didn’t seem moved at all (including a prominent Los Angeles Times’ sports columnist). So, I sort of looked at Barbaro from the perspective of human behavior, and concluded that mostly, the efforts to save the horse was a good thing. I wrote, “And, even though racing is a tough business, and even though the odds were stacked against him, Barbaro did have the good fortune to live at a time when it was possible to dream of an attempt to save him. And, personally, I think that such dreams are part of the best of what it is to be human.” It made my wife tear up, and my young sons thought it was really nice, and, frankly, the piece came out better than I might have imagined. I’m really proud of it. (CLICK HERE to read the article.)
9) Should show jumping and racing be working together on preventing injuries in their respective sports and advancing medical treatment?
Oh, sure. I mean, anything that can be done to help the horse is a good thing. Unfortunately, so many of the things that are done to the horses are inherently bad for them – it’s hard to keep horses from getting injured when people are constantly putting them into positions where injuries are likely, such as running fast for long distances, or jumping over high fences. But if people are going to keep putting horses at risk for injury – and they surely are, because equestrian competition is really great – then the least that people can do is try to help treat and take care of them when they do get injured.
10) How closely do you work with the farrier to maximize the potential of the top grand prix jumpers?
I love working with farriers – I think that the horse benefits when everyone looking after him is working together. Unfortunately, veterinarian-farrier relationships can be a bit rocky sometimes – it’s sort of a turf protection thing, and people sometimes let their egos get in the way – so it’s not always possible to engage as fully as I’d like. But in my best show barns, such as Richard Spooner’s, I can confidently say that by working closely together with his farrier, we’ve been able to help many top horses reach and sustain their full potential.
11) What advice do you have for Junior riders who want to learn more about caring for their horses? Is there one book you can recommend?
Can I recommend any of mine? There’s so much information and misinformation out there that it can be pretty hard to sort through. In that regard, my personal favorite was my first book, “Horsefeathers: Facts vs. Myths about Your Horse’s Health,” which took on a lot of the lore that pervades the horse world. You can still find copies (CLICK HERE).
Another bit of information that I can offer is, “Don’t believe everything that you read or hear.” Much of the information that’s out there is driven by the desire to sell products or services – just look at any horse magazine! In fact, it can be pretty hard to find unbiased information. The old line, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” is really true.
12) We, as humans can read the New England Journal of Medicine. What is the horse world equivalent and can we as non-professionals subscribe to it or find it online?
Of course, the NEJM is written for doctors, so the problem for most people is not really subscribing, it’s understanding the information! The equine equivalent is probably the Equine Veterinary Journal, which is published every other month, out of the UK. Its sister publication, Equine Veterinary Education, is published monthly. Those are probably the best two magazines devoted strictly to horses and their health. You can look for information at http://www.evj.co.uk/index.htm.
13) I keep reading and hearing about different theories on icing the legs of high performance horses. What do you think?
I wasn’t aware that there were different theories! Ice is a time-honored, and medically proven, way to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation in an injured limb. When you get into icing limbs to allow injured horses to perform, frankly, I think that can be dangerous, both for horse and rider, but the benefits of icing are pretty well-established when it comes to treating acute injuries.
14) What is the most rewarding part of your job and what do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
The most rewarding part of my job is helping people. It’s funny in a way, because when I first started in veterinary medicine I thought that it would be all about the horses. I thought that I would take care of the horses, and that would be that. But it’s not; the horses are owned by people, and there’s as much taking care of the horse owner as there is taking care of the horse. Frankly, as time passes, and I understand the medicine better and better, the challenges of the job itself have lessened. However, I’ve come to really appreciate the opportunity that I have to help people understand and deal with the problems of an animal in which they have a huge investment in time, money, and emotion.
As far as accomplishments, honestly, I’ve achieved far more than I ever thought was possible, both in terms of professional success, as well as in lectures, travel, and notoriety! And, I never really looked for any of it; I just thought that there were some things that needed to be said (still do). But in terms of what I hope to accomplish, (and I assume you’re talking professionally), I’d like to get people thinking more in terms of what’s really necessary for their horses, and less in terms of racing to follow the latest trend. So, I hope to keep writing and lecturing, even if it does seem that I regularly go against the tide!
15) While I’m on that subject may I prevail upon you to find a cure for scratches which plague the horses at WEF and for the dreadful skin allergy to gnats, which drives our horses crazy in Sullivan Canyon and other parts of Southern California? Both problems seem to be epidemic in scale, as well as costly in terms of competition days lost. Why isn’t there a vaccine?
The cure is easy – you just have to be willing to move! Seriously, there’s not a vaccine because the problem is an allergic reaction (as I recall, it’s to some coastal mite). And trust me, if I could find a cure for allergies, I’d sure do it, because then I’d be writing you from my private island in the south Pacific!
16) Something that disturbs me is a parent that lies to their children when a pony or horse dies. What advice do you have for clients who have a horse or pony that has a fatal illness or suffers from a catastrophic injury?
I think that parents underestimate the emotional capacity of their children. My advice to parents is to be honest with your children, to share your own feelings with them, and to talk to them. In my opinion, the biggest part of growing up is learning to understand and deal with your emotions. If parents can work with their kids to help them understand the emotions that come along with end-of-life situations, I think it helps them immensely. My own boys have had the opportunity to watch me deal with many terminal situations, and we’ve talked about them, and I think that they’re very sensitive and mature as a result of them. I get a bit misty thinking about some particular situations, actually – emotionally laden episodes are opportunities to become very close to children.
17) How should young riders be prepared for the emotional devastation of losing an equine partner?
Honestly, I don’t think that you can prepare, and I’m not sure that young riders need to be prepared. In fact, many young riders never have to face the problem. But when that devastation does come along, the feelings need to be shared and discussed, especially with caring adults (ideally, parents).