Life as a Layup

If you think that "layup farm" is a summer basketball camp run by Rick Pitino, think again. Some lucky horse owners among us might never have to know what a layup farm is, nor need one for their horses.

A layup farm is a rehabilitation facility for horses, primarily those recovering from lameness or some sort of surgery that requires professional care. It's a notch down from the intensive medical care available in-house at a veterinary hospital, and a few steps up from the level of care that most horses could expect to receive at the average boarding stable.

Layup farm

Bringing a horse home from a veterinary teaching hospital is a happy day for the owner, but many owners soon find themselves overwhelmed by the care that recovering horses need.

Luxury at a layup farm can start with spa-like facilities like swimming pools, veterinarians in residence, and an arsenal of high-tech lasers, magnetic devices, and herbal rubs. At the other end of the scale, it can be the backyard of a farrier's home, where foundered horses hobble around in small pens, but have their feet checked daily and fine-tuning done to special shoes. Then again, a layup center could be in your own backyard, if you are up to the task of intensive rehabilitation nursing.

Why would your horse ever need to be at a layup farm? The most common layup customers are racehorses. Since most of them are the property of absentee owners, they are the charges of their trainers, who get a certain number of stalls at a track during a given meet. Each one of those stalls needs to be filled with a "raceable" horse. If a horse is injured during training or racing, its stall will be needed for another horse. With luck, the injured horse will be back in training in a few months and find its way back to that trainer and that shedrow.

When a racehorse is injured or needs surgery, it usually is trucked to a veterinary hospital or the clinic of a nearby veterinary college. The horse is treated, then held in a stall at the clinic, where it easily can be radiographed, medicated, and treated by the staff. The per-day charge for this care is high, but it usually is necessary for the horse to be "in-house."

When the horse is ready to leave the clinic, where does it go? Not back to the track, where the demands of rehab care would be too much for the staff. Most owners do not have a farm, and if they do, it is set up for breeding, not bandaging. Training centers are geared toward starting young horses, or working with horses ready to return to racing.

Across America, particularly within driving distance of most racetracks, is a special breed of farm called "layup facilities." These farms vary widely, but all offer an important service to the racing industry by bridging the gap between hospitalization and the track.

In the last few years, the tucked-up racehorses have been sharing their layup paddocks with more and more show horses and pleasure horses. It's not unusual for a group of Standardbreds or Thoroughbreds to be side-by-side with a few show hunters and even a 30-year-old pet recovering from laminitis.

Layup centers are one of the most vivid indicators we have of the changing face of the horse industry in America. Fewer and fewer horses are housed on the premises of the owner. More and more "pleasure" horses are actually more like professional athletes--whether reiners, cutters, jumpers, or gaited horses--who are in the hands of itinerant trainers who make their livings on the road. Traveling show trainers have the same inability to deal with a lame horse that the racehorse trainer has.

Someone has to fill this need, and the new breed of horse care specialists who run layup farms doesn't even have a name yet. The temptation is to call them "layup artists," or "equine rehabilitators," or maybe "comeback kids." No two are alike, and probably no two would agree on what is the best program of recovery for your horse. Nor would they agree on how long it will take. But many can take credit for the remarkable recoveries of horses which otherwise would be retired from performance or racing altogether.

The Show Horse Scenario

How could your horse end up in a layup center? Consider this scenario. You live in New Jersey. You own an amateur jumper which has moved up a notch and is being campaigned by a professional rider. You agree to send the horse to Florida for the winter. While being shown at the HITS show in Ocala, your horse is in a mishap and comes up three-legged lame. The horse is shipped to the University of Florida's veterinary hospital, not far away in Gainesville. You are in touch with the veterinarians over the phone. They have determined that your horse has a fractured navicular bone.

After your horse has spent two weeks at the college hospital, the staff keeps mentioning that he will soon be able to leave. But where will the horse go? Can you take the risk of shipping a lame horse all the way from Florida back to a stall at a boarding stable in New Jersey? If you did haul the horse home, who would take care of it once it got there?

The staff at the veterinary school comes to your rescue by sending you a list of layup farms in the Central Florida area. You check with a few trainers, find a farm that has experience with hunter/jumper type horses, and dial a phone number.

A few days later, you find out that your horse was picked up at the veterinary hospital in a special trailer and transported to the layup farm you selected. The staff there does nothing but work on lame horses all day long. They fax you a contract and the phone numbers of their consulting veterinarian and farrier.

Once the contract is signed, you receive another fax: a rehabilitation plan with several options, depending on your budget. You see a roster of staff and read about some of their success stories. You watch a video about the farm. You feel confident that after three weeks at the farm, the horse can be moved north. That might just mean another layup farm, but your own veterinarian will be able to assess the horse and give you a more personal evaluation.

The Foundered Horse Scenario

You've done everything you can. A bad bout of laminitis deteriorated into founder. Your once-in-a-lifetime companion was moved to your local veterinary clinic, where surgery was performed. Special shoes were applied. Meanwhile, abscesses are draining from his feet, and on the radiographs it looks like the coffin bone on one foot is piercing the sole. You can't believe your veterinarian when she nods and says, "You never know with these cases. I've seen a lot worse." What could be worse than this?

At the clinic, your horse is receiving around-the-clock nursing care, plus medication, plus special "diet" feed, plus regular radiographs. Finally, your veterinarian tells you that your horse is out of the woods. No, he can't walk much, but he seems to be stable. What would you like to do?

You think about the abscesses, the feet wrapped in diapers, the hospital plates on the shoes that need to be removed with wrenches, the betadine soaks. You could quit your job and stay home to nurse the horse, but could you be sure you were doing it correctly? And if you did that, who would pay off the veterinary bills, to say nothing of the farrier bills?

The per-day cost to keep the horse at the clinic is out of your budget. The care requirements are impossible for you to meet. You think about boarding barns, and the likelihood of the teenage girls who work there being able to care for your horse--not an option!

Your veterinarian suggests that you consider a few layup farms in the area, or else the farrier who works at the clinic, who often takes in founder recovery cases. "Regal Rest" is an option; most of the horses there are racehorses with bowed tendons or suspensory injuries, but they have taken in founder cases in the past; "Founder Farm" sounds like it is more in your budget, and the most specialized care for your horse.

Your horse makes the move to Founder Farm. You are horrified to see that the horses are in small sand pens, with no grass. The farrier laughs, asking you to recall why most horses founder in the first place. "Grass is the last thing these horses need," she explains. Then she shows you the feet of several residents, noting that all had abscesses as bad or worse than the ones on your horse's feet. "The abscesses show up on the outside," she tells you. "We can treat them as they come. What we have to hope for is that there's not too much damage on the inside. Keeping him cleaned up, comfortable, and stable, and watching him closely, we'll be hoping for no repeat laminitis attacks."

You make arrangements with your veterinarian to call on the horse at the farm on a regular basis, where follow-up radiographs will monitor the hoped-for recovery. You find out that she already calls there regularly for other cases in her care. The farrier gives you a video on founder shoeing to take home and watch, so you can understand what she and your practitioner will be doing to your horse's feet ("It won't be pretty, in the beginning," she warns) and tells you that you are welcome to visit your horse each evening. "But don't bring any treats!" she laughs. "And don't be upset when you can see his ribs," she adds. "There are no fat horses here!"

The Seriously Lame Horse: Where To Now?

Many layup farms are simply stopovers for racehorses. A trainer might feel that a horse needs a break from training. "He's gone to the farm," is a common saying at the track when a horse is missing from its stall. The horse might be having behavioral problems, muscle soreness, or simply not training well. Particularly with older campaigners, occasional breaks from routine can work wonders to refresh a horse.

So, not all horses at a layup farm have a specific health or lameness problem. As a result, many layup farms are staffed by former grooms or trainers from the track, and they are experienced in the daily care, behavioral idiosyncrasies, and medical needs of racehorses. Veterinarians from the nearby tracks often will call on individual horses. These farms might seem to have revolving doors, with horses rotated in and out on a weekly basis.

A layup farm for injured horses usually is quite different. Often the owner or manager has worked at a veterinary clinic, or was a groom who found rehabilitation particularly challenging and interesting and decided to pursue it as a specialty. Sometimes the manager or owner will be skilled in massage, or be a veterinarian or farrier, offering a treatment center as an additional service to clients.

The most important aspect of a layup farm is the experience of its owner and staff. Working on seriously lame horses is not the same thing as working on horses stabled at a training barn. Lame horses require careful observation, constant bandaging, dressing changes, and most of all, great patience.

It is understandable that lame horses could become barn sour. Most layup farms will have a few small paddocks where horses can be turned out individually if the veterinarian agrees. The turnout is partly psychological, to give the horse a change of scene, but there is always a risk of a horse reinjuring itself, or pulling off special shoes. Horses recovering from bowed tendons often are handwalked. Other horses, depending on the stage of recovery, might be put on a hot walker or be lunged in a roundpen.

At a layup farm, you might find that all the equipment needed to help your horse is on hand, although some farms charge extra for use of special therapy devices such as lasers or magnetic blankets. Special therapeutic bedding materials and extra-deep-littered (or, alternately, flat-matted) stalls might be available at layup farms. The staff members should be able to bandage, soak, and dress injuries and abscesses much more efficiently than you could at home, and they have the advantage of being able to compare your horse's problems with other cases.

Special feeds bought in bulk at layup farms are a real advantage. Foundered horses in particular can benefit from high-bulk, low-protein feeds like "Diet Rite," hoof-growth supplements like Farriers Formula, and glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate compounds like Cosequin.

Grooms at layup farms know how to whisk off hospital plates and apply medication to soles and frogs. They watch for thrush and white line disease, and are accustomed to the nuances of bar shoes, Easy Boots, and glue-on shoes.

Do-it-yourself Rehabilitation

Have you always thought that you'd like to work at a veterinary clinic? Are you a real pro at wrapping and rolling bandages, cleaning feet, and monitoring healing of pressure sores or abscesses? If the smell of rotten flesh, the sight of granulation tissue, and the sound of a groaning horse don't make you flinch, and you have lots of time to dedicate to your horse, you can take on the task of nursing your horse yourself.

Before you consider this new adventure in horse care, discuss all your options seriously and thoroughly with your veterinarian. Make sure that he or she knows what facilities you have to offer your horse, and knows your experience level. Ask at your regional veterinary college if there are students or staff who might be willing to help you in the beginning. You soon could find the task too daunting for you, if your horse has a major problem like founder.

Caring for a recumbent horse (a horse that lies down most of the time) is particularly challenging, since the horse will suffer from sores. Some cases are able to get up to eat and drink, but being in the stall with a seriously lame horse can be dangerous, since the horse is unsteady on its feet. It is not advisable to be alone in a barn, since you might need help supporting the horse at some point. Keep a realistic eye on what you are trying to do, what you are capable of doing, and what is best for your horse. Be careful about accepting advice from so-called experts in the neighborhood. Listen to your veterinarian and farrier, and follow their advice. Keep their phone numbers on the horse's stall, have a cordless or cellular phone handy, and make sure that you can schedule frequent stall checks.

If your horse is well on the road to recovery, or if the lameness is not too severe, you probably can set up a care program at home that will work for you and your horse. You might want to schedule appointments with a massage therapist to work on your horse to aid in circulation and help prevent boredom. Give your horse a stall toy to play with, and watch for cribbing and weaving. Learn how to help the horse lean against a stall wall if necessary when you need to lift its feet, and have someone available to help you whenever possible.

If you feel overwhelmed, ask your veterinarian to refer your horse to a local layup farm, or hire the services of a specialist stablehand. Caring for injured horses is a professional skill, and you can't expect to acquire these skills overnight.


Complementary Medicine and Therapies for the Horse (video), by Judith Shoemaker, DVM.

Equine Foot Therapeutics (video), by Burney Chapman

Hands On with Mary Bromiley (video)

Equine Sports Therapy, by Mimi Porter

Equine Injury and Therapy, by Mary Bromiley

Instructions for Equine Clients, by R. A. Mansmann and P.S. Miller

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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