Emergency Services at Steeplechase and Cross-Country Events (AAEP 2008)

At the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif., Reynolds Cowles, DVM, of Blue Ridge Equine Clinic in Free Union, Va., reviewed the logistics of various cross-country jumping events that involve the need for veterinary care.

Cross-country hunt meets typically have 70-75 mature (6- to 9-year-old) horses competing. He explained that licensed hunt meets run under racing rules, yet the horses encounter hurdles, brush, timber, or run on the flat. "National fences" are constructed of metal frames and plastic brush up to 4'6" with a padded foam roll covering the frame. A point-to-point race has fewer regulations and functions according to fox hunting club rules, rarely with post-race testing. Hunter pace horses encounter timber, brush, and ditches, and those events are loosely organized with local rules.


Horses that fall might incur head trauma, concussion, or fracture.

Falls sometimes occur in hurdle or timber races, but they don't happen often in hunter paces. Horses that fall might incur head trauma, concussion, or fractures. Most falls occur when the horse is most exhausted: usually at the last three fences. Jump racing incurs 3.4 fatalities per 1,000 starts as compared to only one fatality per 1,000 starts in flat racing. It appears that hard surfaces are associated with higher injury rates, simply due to increased speeds; irrigated, well-maintained courses have lower injury rates. Meadows of 6-10" tall grass are desirable courses because they slow horse speed.

The vet should meet with course clerks in advance and coordinate with stewards and officials. They must ensure the ability to have good communications, especially with the steward in the stand, who is a main communicator. The veterinarian should be prepared with proper equipment and a number of ambulances. Due to the nature of the course terrain, it is best to have a four-wheel drive horse ambulance (and backup) with a long ramp for efficient loading. Cooling fans are desirable, and the ambulance should have curtains to form a screen around an injured horse and an adequate number of competent staff members on board. It is helpful to have radiographic, ultrasound, and endoscopic equipment, and a generator might be necessary. Bandaging materials, splints, intravenous fluids, pharmaceuticals, and euthanasia solution are included in the necessary supplies.

Overreach and interference injuries, as well as lacerations, are common, as are support injuries such as bowed tendons or catastrophic breakdowns. If the horse's injuries necessitate euthanasia the veterinarian must have the owner's or trainer's permission.

Crowd control is important so a veterinarian has access and a safe working space to attend a horse. If a horse is down, remove the girth to allow the horse to breathe deeply. A fractured limb, shoulder, or forearm might be present on the down side and not evident until the horse attempts to stand. A horse with head trauma can experience concussion, cervical fractures, and/or seizures. It is important to protect the jockey (and other personnel) from further injury while a horse struggles to rise-experienced manpower is invaluable. Usually an exhausted horse recovers in a few minutes, but a struggling horse might require sedation. If a limb needs splinting, sedation is appropriate so the horse doesn't inadvertently use the splinted leg as a weapon. A horse with heat exhaustion should not be loaded on the trailer until he is stabilized and cooled. Any horse that has been injured or has fallen should not be asked to walk off the course.

About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her recent book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care (available at Shop.TheHorse.com or by calling 800/582-5604). She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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