The Difference(s) Between Performance Horses and Other Horses


Robinson and Nanny

Robinson and Nanny

Robinson and Nanny

I get that some horses cost more to buy than others.  In fact, I wrote about it – CLICK HERE to read “On the Value of Horses.”

Over my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to see and to take care of some pretty great horses.  I have a picture that I took of Secretariat in my family room, taken when I worked at Claiborne Farms for a couple of days as a senior veterinary student.  I’m still taking care of Richard Spooner’s great horse, Robinson (and his best friend Nanny II, the goat).  Cristallo, the number one jumping horse in the world in 2012, retired last year.  And I’ve also taken care of too-many-horses-to-mention that you have never heard of, but that meant the world to their owners.

Still, my experience is that if one is lucky enough to own or care for a very valuable horse (value, based on how much it would cost to buy the horse), it tends to make people go a bit crazy.  That’s OK in a sense – it’s important to take care of things that are valuable.  But some people who have or keep valuable horses seem to think that also means that they have do do all sorts of special things for these horses.  And I think that’s too bad, because it sets those people up to be taken advantage of. So, based on my experiences, as well as a whole bunch of acquired knowledge and information, I’m here to let you in on the differences between the needs of high level performance horses and all of the other horses.


1.  Just about anything you can think of.  Horses are horses, even if people are willing to pay more for one horse than another.  What they do usually doesn’t change what they need.  For example, requirements for vitamins and minerals don’t go up in performance horses (or with any form of exercise).  I suppose that heavily working horses may need to drink more than your average back yard pleasure horse – particularly if they sweat a lot – but since exactly no one should ever withhold water from their horses, this is rarely a problem.  Healthy performance horses need good foot care, occasional vaccination against some important diseases, the occasional dewormer (check the feces first), and their teeth should get looked at from time-to-time – and really, that’s about it.

Runs on gas - needs oil. Fuzzy dice optional

Runs on gas – needs oil. Fuzzy dice optional

In a way, you can think of performance horses like performance automotive vehicles.  Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and the like, all run on gas, have engine coolants, and lubricating oil.  Sure, performance cars have bigger engines, but all cars run on the same stuff.

But owners of high performance vehicles – like owners of performance horses – don’t just stop at what the car needs.  Fancy car owners like to make sure that the cars are waxed, and that they have GPS systems, and leather interiors, and tinted windows and maybe some fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror.  Maybe some engine cleaner additive, or special oil additive, too.  However, all of that stuff means as much to the car as most of the “necessary” stuff that people spend money on does to performance horses.  And none of it means anything if the cars don’t get what they really need.


1. Calories.  This may seem a bit obvious, but if a horse works really hard, he’s going to need more calories than a horse that doesn’t work really hard.  Exercise takes calories; more calories means more food.  How do you know if a performance horse needs more food?  Simple – he’ll be skinny.  Ideal body condition for a horse means that you can feel his ribs, but you can’t see them.  If your performance horse’s sides look like a washboard, he needs more food.

By the way, not all performance horses need extra calories.  Some show horses that are deemed performance horses really don’t work that hard at all.  Many of these horses are fat – you couldn’t feel their ribs if you got a running start.  Like I said, they may need more calories – some folks really overdo it.  Fat individuals tend not to perform well – ever see a hefty competitive high jumper in a track and field competition?

Even famous people pet their horses

Even famous people pet their horses


2. Petting and brushing – It just kills me to see folks that don’t give their performance horses time and attention.  To me, the biggest part of the enjoyment of horses is just hanging out with them.  It makes me sad to see folks so caught up in the performance part of horse owning that they forget to give their horses some attention (NOTE:  there are plenty of exceptions). It may be convenient to have boots polished, saddles oiled, and a horse that’s ready to mount on arrival, and handed off on dismount, but that’s really missing out on most of the fun that owning a horse can be.  A bit more horse bonding might be good for both performance horse and rider.



1.  Riding – Horses have amazing memories.  You can train them to be ridden, turn them out in a field for a year, and then come back and jump right on.  They won’t have forgotten a thing.

Another rigorous training session

Another rigorous training session

People, on the other hand, seem to benefit from endless repetition.  Thus, many horses get jumped/spun/run/slid/piaffed/etc. incessantly in the course of their training.  It might be good for the rider – it’s probably bad for the horse.  All of this riding stresses their limbs in the same way:  over and over.  Limbs which are repetitively stressed and not given the time to recover respond in the same way that paper clips do if you keep bending it back and forth; they break.

In my opinion, performance horses would hold up a lot better if people would keep their riding and training sessions shorter, and train the horses less often, especially when it comes to movements that stress their legs.  For example, in racing horses, injuries largely result from an inability of the biological repair process to keep up with the rate of damage accumulation.  The amount of damage accumulation is directly related to the amount of high speed exercise (the number of times that the horse has worked and raced).  I think a lot of performance horses are like that.

People used to ask me the secret to keeping Robinson sound.  They would ask me how many injections I did, what secret formulas I used:  that sort of thing.  I had to confess that it wasn’t me.  I shared his secret, though:  “He doesn’t get ridden that much, and then it’s mostly on trails.”  Robinson’s 31 now, and, as far as I know, he doesn’t have an arthritic joint in his body.

2.  Injections – I don’t think that there is any other athletic species that gets stuff injected into them as often as do performance horses.  And it’s not just injections;  dentistry, surgery, deworming, supplements, etc. are way Specialists overdone, too.  There’s sure no evidence that all of this stuff is good for the horse (CLICK HERE to read about the waste of time and money that is often described as “maintenance” of normal joints).  Plus, there is certainly the potential for harm; many of the drugs that get injected into horse joints have the potential to hurt the joint in the long run.

In general,  a lot of the things that are done to horses in the name of performance share a few things:  1) They aren’t proven to be of benefit, 2) They cost the owner a good bit of money, and 3) They increase someone’s bottom line. I saw the records from a performance horse the other day that, in one month’s time, had had his coffin joints, his fetlocks, his hocks, his stifles, and his sacroiliac joints injected, all with no diagnosis of any problem.  I’ve seen entire barns get their “hocks done.”  Can you imagine lining up a team of high school basketball players to get all of their knees injected?  In the horse world, this sort of thing happens.

3.  “Specialists” – This gets back to the story that I told at the onset.  Horses are horses, and veterinarians are trained to take care of them.  Sure, there are veterinarians who specialize in things like surgery, but that’s different.  There’s generally no need for self-proclaimed “specialists” (even if they do come with some sort of obscure “certification”).  In fact, in my experience, one big problem with specialists is that they have to try to do things to justify their designation.  So, for example, if you enlist the help of a “specialist” who is known for treating horse joints (or backs, or jaws, or whatever), chances are that your horse is going to need his joints treated.  Just sayin’ – if the only tool that you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail (CLICK HERE to read my article about that).

4.  Fretting over – There’s a ranch that I’ve worked at for a long time that boards, and also takes layups and retirees.  The horses live in pretty good sized corrals, and they get to see and hang out with their neighbors.  Periodically, a really nice performance horse will get to rest there for a few months, and the owners are genuinely amazed at what happens to their horse(s).

Don'tWorryBaby “He’s like a different horse,” they’ll say.

And I’ll say, “That’s because everyone’s not making him nuts.”

To myself, of course.

Performance horses are horses.  They love getting fed, they tolerate getting brushed, and most seem to really like human interaction.  But I think that it’s very important that they get to be horses.  Sure, performance horses are valuable, but so is the 26 year-old school horse who safely carries a 4 year old.  At the end of the day, there’s really not much difference, and even though one may cost more than another, it’s hard to say which one is more valuable.  And they pretty much all need the same things, plus a good, healthy dose of TLC.



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