Comparisons are regularly drawn between competing equines and professional athletes. But there are actually no human athletes who perform the feats that hunter/jumpers or cross-country eventers do.
The physics of a horse’s considerably greater mass change all the calculations for bone and muscle stress. For this reason, preventative measures to protect the well-being of your horse—much less its performance levels—need to be carefully thought-through and addressed.
In this article, we’re only going discuss regular “wear and tear” for the more intense disciplines. For acute physical ailments or unusual symptoms, always consult your veterinarian.
As with any health regime, you want to follow it systematically. In the case of hunter/jumpers and eventers of all kinds, the system can follow the four key situations related to the sport: at rest, during training, in-transit, and during competition.
Lower Leg Health
Let’s start at the most basic level: the shoes. How much have you consulted with your farrier? Have you ever discussed any unique characteristics of your horse that might necessitate adjustments to the shoes? Sometimes hooves must be trimmed at an angle for proper bone alignment. An idiosyncratic gait can apply pressure on the heels that requires wedge pads or bar shoes to relieve or, rolled or rockered toes to ease breakover.
Routinely check your horse’s hooves for injury or infection. Don’t wait for your horse’s gait to change. Sometimes problems can present themselves on both hooves simultaneously. In such cases, your horse may not display a limp but only shorten its gait or change hooves frequently when at rest.
If you use boots or bandages during schooling or turnout, be sure they’re removed for stabling. They can trap heat after exercise which can be injurious to muscles, tendons, and ligaments, even when your horse is in its stall. To ease tendon and ligament soreness, consider applying ice boots to alleviate muscle soreness use electronic stimulation to promote healing.
On the other hand, bandages can be used to prevent swelling in the lower extremities if the horse is going to be put up in its stall for an extended period.
Brushing, tendon, or fetlock boots are recommended during training for the same reason they are a virtual necessity during competition. While there are varying opinions about the degree of protection boots offer to tendons and ligaments, there is no debate that protecting the legs from jump rails and hoof strikes is a wise move.
Training actually presents the greatest jeopardy to a horse’s well-being because of the potential for repetitive motion injuries to tendons, ligaments and muscles. Your horse can also suffer musculoskeletal concussion injuries from impact on hard ground which can have knock on effects higher up.
If your horse is starting to refuse or its gait is off, check all the sources of areas of discomfort. A horse’s refusals can be indicators of poor saddle fit resulting in sore spots on the back (which may not be visible) or sore teeth exacerbated by pressure from the bit or other areas of tension. Start off investigations by consulting all relevant professionals, if the issue is not readily apparent and easy to address consult your vet.
Travel boots are not a luxury or a fashion statement, but a necessary horse care measure. Horses are born to walk and run, enclosing them into a small space can prove problematic. Even if they are not nervous travelers, they can fidget in their travel space. Travel boots can prevent hoof strikes from adjacent legs which may result in injuries.
The same caution regarding heat build-up under the boots should be applied here. If transporting your horse long distances, consider exercise breaks for your horse to “stretch its legs” in free-flowing air.
Shows can be nerve inducing and exciting occasions in yours and your horse’s routines, they should not be sources of special concern if you’ve taken care up until then. You should ensure the muscles are thoroughly warmed up and oxygenated prior to competing to prevent injury.
Brushing, tendon, or fetlock boots of some kind are recommended for all jumping disciplines, and bell boots are a wise addition also, to protect your horse’s legs and hooves when you’re going all out to win.
After completion of exercise ensure you cool the horse down by keeping the horse moving, this will help to prevent tying up and reduce the risk of strain injuries. Once breathing has returned to normal wash down to remove sweat. You can also add ice boots at this point to cool and relax tendons.
Ultimately, treating your horse like the athlete it is requires a team effort. In addition to your farrier and, of course, your vet, you will want to occasionally consult a saddle-fitter. An equine physiotherapist can also be an important contributor to your horse’s well-being. Monthly massages in addition to twice-yearly dental exams assure your horse is in peak condition at all times.
By properly equipping your teammate for every stage of their preparation, and paying keen attention to its signals, your horse will be ready to give their best performance when the time comes… as all the best athletes do.