Keeping Your Equine Athlete at the Top of His Game

Fitness, hoof care, saddle fit, and more are key to keeping healthy equine athletes at the top of their game.

Photo: Dirk Caremans/FEI

Nine ways to keep your sport horse performing his best

You know you’ve made it to the big time when your toiletry bag stays packed, your show clothes are either filthy or still at the dry cleaner, and your calendar looks like a chessboard, with every weekend blocked off for shows. If you’re here, you’ve worked hard. Now it’s all about maintaining and improving your skills—and your horse’s.

It’s your job to stay on top of your own game as a rider, but when it comes to your performance horse’s health, the veterinarian can be your greatest asset. We talked to several practitioners who maintain the health of high-performance sport horses. Here are their top nine tips for the healthiest show season yet.

Overall Fitness: Cross-training  is key.

First things first. The very best strategy for optimizing your horse’s health is an appropriate fitness routine. Start there, and the rest will follow. Or as Christy Cullen, DVM, of Massachusetts Equine Clinic, in Uxbridge, says, “There’s nothing you can buy in a bottle that replaces good fitness. It’s absolutely key to maintaining a sound, healthy horse.”

While that’s a no-brainer for most owners of mid- to high-level performance horses, don’t underestimate the value of cross-training for improved overall fitness. “We see a lot of repetitive-motion injuries that could have been avoided with a more varied training schedule,” Cullen says. In other words: Don’t forget how much fun it is to get out of the ring and onto the trails. Your horse will thank you for it, too.

Hooves: You’re going too long between trims.

The “no hoof, no horse” rule proclaims hoof care as principal to maintaining a healthy horse—yet many veterinarians say owners still try to stretch the time between trims too far.

“Eight weeks is too long,” Cullen says. “Most performance horses are more comfortable going five or six weeks. More than that, and you’re asking for trouble,” stressing the mechanics and quality of the hoof with a long toe.

And as Barb Crabbe, DVM, of Pacific Crest Sporthorse, in Oregon City, Oregon, notes, “Never choose your farrier based on cost. I’ll pay double for quality hoof care. And when your farrier recommends the ideal length of time between trims, listen to them!”

Joints, Ligaments, and Tendons: Don’t forget to stretch.

At Florida Equine Veterinary Services, in Clermont, owner Erin Denney-Jones, DVM, likes to start each new show season with a wellness exam. The checkup starts with the basics—evaluating temperature, pulse, and cardiopulmonary health, plus weight and body condition—but it also encompasses joint and tendon health.

“Getting your hands on the horse is paramount so you can feel down their legs for swelling, palpate tendons and ligaments, and (then also) watch the horse walk and trot,” Denney-Jones says. “After we get a baseline, we’ll move to flexion tests to pinpoint any lameness” related to the joints or soft tissue.

If you’re lucky enough to have a trainer or team veterinarian that travels with you to shows, you’ll benefit from having the same person evaluating your horse throughout the season. But either way, have your veterinarian perform regular veterinary checks.

As far as what you can be doing when the veterinarian isn’t there, all horses can benefit from daily “carrot stretches,” Denney-Jones says. “Just don’t forget the hind end. Pick up the hind foot and bring it forward to touch the elbow or forelimb for a long, low stretch. You’ll also need to cross over to the opposite side for a lateral stretch.”

Nerves, Muscles, and Saddle Fit: Test your balance as a rider.

Some muscle- and nerve-related therapies, such as mesotherapy (a series of steroid injections into the mesoderm, or middle layer of skin, of the horse’s back to help relax the muscles, aiding healing) need to stay in the off-season. But an appropriate chiropractic or physical therapy program can really help as part of a mid-season (or season-long) tune-up, notes Denney-Jones.

“We don’t have to go straight to injections,” she says. “There are plenty of different options we can offer prior to injecting a joint or pursuing a more invasive treatment.”

But if you start a conversation with a veterinarian about massage therapy, don’t be surprised if it leads to questions about saddle fit—and ends with your vet asking you to tack up and hop aboard. Expect to be the subject of close scrutiny while your veterinarian checks to see if you’re part of the problem. But don’t worry; often it’s not you, it’s your saddle. “That can be a real eye-opener,” says Denney-Jones. “Often owners will expect that I can give a horse with a sore back some kind of golden shot or silver bullet, but often it just comes down to poor saddle fit or a saddle that simply needs to be reflocked.”

Teeth: The rules are changing—and that’s a good thing.

Most horse owners of a certain age could immediately identify the characteristic rasping sound of an equine dentist’s file on a horse’s teeth. While traditional methods might be fine for many horses, new methods and more advanced tools mean equine dental treatment options are more expansive than ever before.

“Better dental care is one of the reasons horses are living to 40 these days,” Crabbe says. “In the ‘old days’ (20-25 years ago), we typically floated teeth with a hand file, primarily just removing sharp edges to make the horse more comfortable. ‘Dental balancing’ became a thing in the late ’90s, and early on (especially with the advent of power tools), there was a lot of overcorrection going on, with subsequent damage to the teeth.”

The pendulum has since swung the other way, Crabbe says. “Now we see a somewhat less-aggressive approach, with a focus on proper balancing without causing damage.”

And, not every horse needs to be on an annual or biannual schedule for dental work. “Horses that eat more forage tend to need less dental care, and horses that eat more grain and are kept in an indoor setting tend to need more,” Cullen says. “We’ll check all horses twice a year, but horses masticate (chew) differently and so will need a different level of care.”

Nutrition: Feed forage first.

“Honestly, I see of ton of fat horses,” Cullen admits. “People tend to overfeed grain and to overestimate the caloric needs of their horses. Once you start euthanizing horses that have foundered, you get sensitive to it. If you feed your horse adequately for what he realistically does, you can avoid a lot of problems.”

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Crabbe says many people still think every horse in the barn should get a scoop of oats each night, regardless of their various nutritional needs. “You need to consult with your vet about what’s available and minimize your horse’s intake of cereal grains and carbs,” she says. “The nutritionists who work for feed companies know a lot more than we do and are going to formulate something that’s far more nutritionally balanced than what you just made up in your tack room sink.”

Crabbe recommends a forage-first diet for most performance horses, administered in close consult with an equine nutritionist or veterinarian. “And get your hay analyzed,” she says. “It might look beautiful, but if your analysis comes back at only 5% protein, that’s not adequate for a performance horse.”

Conversations about nutrition often go hand-in-hand with questions about supplements. Many horse owners swear by hoof, joint, or digestive supplements—and many can work wonders—but it’s imperative to do your own research on each individual horse.

“I’m a firm believer that if you’re following a high-quality hay and feed program, you won’t need much by way of supplementation,” Cullen says. “People will spend hundreds of dollars on supplements, yet what’s often lacking is a solid fitness program. If the supplements aren’t actually working, you end up feeding the birds—literally.”

Digestive Health and Ulcers: If you suspect them, scope for them.

“The gastroscope has changed the way we treat gastric ulcers,” Cullen says. “A gastroscope (exam) is easy to do, and you don’t know until you scope a horse what level of ulcer you might be dealing with. Once you know, you can formulate a plan. There’s nothing more frustrating than chasing ulcers.”

A gastroscope allows the veterinarian to identify or rule out painful performance-limiting gastric ulcers.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Because gastric ulcers have been linked to excess stomach acid, which can damage the stomach lining when there’s no food within to buffer those acids, many veterinarians have started recommending a series of small meals spread throughout the day or, better yet, free-choice hay.

“Hay and other forage helps keep stomach acids under control,” Cullen says. “The more concentrate you feed, the more likely that the horse’s stomach pH will be out of balance.”

The horses Crabbe sees typically enjoy more turnout time than the average horse does, reducing the incidence of gastric ulcers related to feeding. Yet, she still advocates for scoping, rather than giving omeprazole “just in case.”

“And when a gastroscope doesn’t reveal gastric ulcers, it can be an indication that you’re dealing with a different problem, such as colonic ulcers, which can’t be seen with a scope” Crabbe says. “Gastric and colonic ulcers often go hand-in-hand, but if you rule out gastric ulcers … a different treatment might be recommended.”

Biosecurity: Know your risks and be as prepared as possible.

“If you’re going to show up to a horse show where there are thousands of horses running around, you have to be able to accept the risk of (disease) exposure,” Crabbe says.

New rules requiring proof of vaccination before showgrounds entrance—for all horses, not just those competing—are a step in the right direction, says Cullen. “Yet we still have to remind people to isolate horses with unknown backgrounds for four weeks before introducing them to a new barn,” she says. “For that reason, we still have to quarantine at least two or three barns per year due to strangles. It’s completely preventable.”

While vaccinations help reduce risk of exposure, Denney-Jones is quick to remind owners to schedule vaccines during a horse’s downtime and to keep passports current for travel. “As an FEI vet, we’re taught that we can’t give any leeway if a passport isn’t up-to-date,” she says. “As an owner, it’s your responsibility to get it done, not your vet’s. Get it scheduled!”

Overall Wellness: Know what’s going on with your horse.

There’s also no excuse for not knowing your horse’s full medical report after a veterinary visit. “A successful season is made when you find a good trainer, a good farrier, and a good vet and use your resources to act as a team,” Cullen says. “Don’t ever consult Dr. Google about a problem in your horse.”

And, as Crabbe notes, be realistic about the demands on your horse’s body and psyche, and react accordingly. “We’re asking a lot of our horses, so most performance horses will have stuff wrong with them,” she says. “As an owner, you have to educate yourself about your horse and its management. Know what’s happening. Talk to your trainer. Talk to your vet directly. Be involved in the decision-making process. The best thing an owner can do to help protect their horses and keep them in the ring is to know what’s going on.”

About the Author

Lindsay J. Westley

Lindsay J. Westley is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vt. She grew up riding hunters, worked as a wrangler in Montana, and spent two years as a professional polo groom. She rides between deadlines when she can find a horse.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More