I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of performance horses over the years. Many of them have been English sport horses – show hunters, show jumpers, and dressage horses – but barrel racing horses and American Saddlebred horses and Cutting horses and endurance horses, too. And it seems sometimes that a good bit of my career has been devoted to trying to keep the horses going back into the show ring, you know, figuring out what the problem is, treating it, and sending the horse back off to try to win prizes.
In a way, it’s been sort of like doing triage. Remember M*A*S*H*, the great book, movie, and subsequent TV comedy series about US Army surgeons blowing off steam between frantic hours of combat surgery? Performance horse practice can sometimes feel kind of like that. Horse goes to show after show, wins ribbons, eventually comes up lame, and you try to patch him up as best you can and send him back. And while in my experience, it usually works out OK for many performance horses, I really do think that there’s a better way.
Given the investment in time, money, and emotion that people have in their performance horses, I guess it’s pretty understandable that people want to do everything that they can to keep them sound and healthy. As such, there’s a thriving industry that’s developed for people that assure that they can help horse owners do just that. To be sure, there are some important considerations for every horse: good shoeing and trimming, good nutrition, good training, etc., But horses with no apparent problems whatsoever get routinely adjusted or needled or massaged or supplemented or injected (this could be quite a list) just so as to try to prevent them from having problems that will render them unable to show: trying to prevent problems that they may never have, or even problems that nobody can show that they really do have. I get it.
But I also think that many people are missing the boat when it comes to a few, perhaps somewhat less exotic, things that are really important for injury prevention.. I’m assuming that everyone has heard the, “Ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” adage (if you haven’t, you probably can’t read this article anyway). A lecture by noted British lameness expert Sue Dyson at the recent AAEP Focus Meeting on Soft Tissue Lameness reinforced my belief that horse owners sometimes forget about doing a few important things. So, I’d like to give you some specific recommendations to help keep your performance horse sound: things that aren’t hard to do, but may pay off with some big rewards in the long run, in terms of soundness, willingness to work, and overall health for your horse.
1. Ride him in different types of footing. You are, undoubtedly, going to be riding your horse in the same area (ring, field, corral, etc.) most of the time. But if you’ve got a performance time, you’re going to be moving to different terrain. So why not take the time to ride your horse in as many different kinds of footing as you can? Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should be jumping your horse in an asphalt jungle; you should always be careful when riding your horse on irregular surfaces. But you can certainly ride on hard ground or soft ground; turf or dirt; nice level surfaces or uneven footing. Getting out on different surfaces helps his body get used to different footing sensations, and helps prepare him for where you’re going to be taking him: and even you can’t be sure of that!
2. Don’t overtrain him. Veterinarians have recognizing that horses get injured because of repetitive stress for a long time. Sure, accidents can happen, but most of the time when your horse gets hurt, it’s because something that’s been under stress for some time finally gives. It’s like breaking a paper clip – it’ll take a few bends, but if you keep stressing it the same way, over and over, it’s going to snap. Tendons and ligaments and probably even joint surfaces are like that, too. And doing the same thing day after day wears a horse out mentally, as well. Your horse doesn’t have to be jumped all of the time to know how to jump. He doesn’t have to passage every day to be able to passage well. He won’t forget to turn at a barrel if he misses a day turning at a barrel. Horses have good memories, and they learn and repeat their tasks quickly. He needs to be reminded of the job that’s he’s supposed to do, but he also needs to be fit, both mentally and physically. Don’t overdo it.
3. Cross train. Instead of doing the same thing over and over, how about you go for a trail ride? Jump your horse over something (small, if you’re not used to jumping). If you don’t ride barrels, try it. Take your horse for a swim (I used to do that with my endurance horse, to cool off, and to see how many boats we could stop). Variety will keep your horse from getting bored, it will help keep him fit, and it will help prevent injuries caused by repetitive stress. Plus, it’s the spice of life. Try it!
4. Do things that help with your horse’s core strength. For horses to move easily and properly, they need have have the muscles of their back and abdomen in condition, too. Good performance is not just about “legging up” a horse. The big muscles of the back are extremely important for efficient, athletic movement. And there are all sorts of things that you can (and should) do to help him build his core.
- Ride him up and down hills
- Ride him across hills, so that he’s got to balance, and compensate for unlevel footing
- Feed him on the ground, so that he has to stretch down to get his food and exercise his neck muscles (it will help him get rid of secretions from his respiratory tract, too)
- Work him on the ground, possibly with the assistance of training aids to help build the core
- Consider doing some stretches and other core building exercises, I’m not saying that these are the key to blue ribbons, but they’re certainly more productive than are most of the supplements out there.
5. Don’t let him get fat. Hey, it’s Olympics time! Lots of athletes gathering from all over the world. And, you know what, most of them are pretty lean, and pretty muscular. Why? Because that’s how athletes perform at their best. You won’t find any hefty high jumpers. No corpulent cyclists. An obese oarsmen? Not a one. A bulging beach volleyball player? Nope. You get my point. So why is it that so many performance horses are kept too fat? Fat isn’t good for performance horses. It gives them more weight to carry around (and up and over). It serves as a layer of insulation that helps make it harder for them to cool down. Lean and healthy is the way to be.
6. Make sure you’re in shape, too. Lean and healthy is the way to be for your horse AND for you. Look, I’m not in perfect shape, but I’m trying, and I’m certainly not trying to point fingers. But my point is that if you’re in an athletic competition, and you’re part of a team (you and your horse) you owe it to both of you to be in the best shape that you can be, too. Nobody’s saying that you need to be ready to run a marathon if you want to go off on a trail ride. But if it’s performance that you’re interested in, well, it takes two to tango. You’re not being fair if you expect your horse to always work at the peak of performance, but you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.
Keeping your horse sound and in peak condition for performance shouldn’t rely on a syringe, a bucket, or a bottle. At best, they might provide a short term fix. As Dr. Dyson noted, soundness and good health is about proper training and conditioning prior to competition. And proper training does not mean doing the same thing over and over (and over and over). In fact, sometimes it means not training, and just going out and having a good time. After all, at the end of the day, this horse performance thing is supposed to be fun, right?