Planning for Your Horse's Success During Show Season

Proactive planning and care can translate to show season success

To be successful in any arena, horses must be at their best on competition day. For many owners and trainers, that means maintaining a horse’s peak levels of fitness and performance through an entire show season, which can span several months to a year.

It’s not always an easy task, and the stakes can be high: Lameness or long spells of unexplained poor performance can not only keep a horse from winning but end your show season prematurely. Whether you are chasing points, paychecks, or year-end awards, three top sports medicine veterinarians say the best way to stay competitive is by developing a proactive approach to managing every aspect of your horse’s health and ­soundness.

Plan Your Season for Success and Rest

For Duncan Peters, DVM, Dipl. ACVSMR, and Lori Bidwell, DVM, Dipl. ACVAA, CVA, proactive management starts with developing a realistic show schedule. Peters and Bidwell, who founded and co-own East-West Equine Sports Medicine, based in Lexington, Kentucky, and Thermal, California, frequent some of the largest hunter-jumper circuits in the country as both veterinarians and competitors.

“The key is making a plan for the year,” says Bidwell, who remembers when showing was a summertime sport that provided ample time for horses to have the winter off. For serious competitors those days are long gone, but the horse’s need for time off is as important as ever. “I recommend people make a schedule for the year that allows for the horse to have some downtime.”

Planning for Your Horse's Success During Show Season

For Ben Espy, DVM, Dipl. ACT, CVA, of San Antonio, Texas, that downtime includes letting a horse be a horse. Espy travels the professional rodeo circuit providing veterinary care for horses that compete in events such as tie-down roping, team roping, steer roping, barrel racing, and pole bending, as well as bucking horses and pickup horses. Even the best athletes in the world, he says, can benefit from a vacation.

“It’s very self-serving to give horses time off,” says Espy, who recommends horses get 30 to 60 days off every year. “I think turnout, rolling in mud, getting dirty—all that stuff—are super valuable not only psychologically but also mechanically with a horse.”

In addition to planning for extended downtime, Bidwell and Espy recommend setting realistic expectations for how much a horse can do during the year. That might mean entering fewer classes on a given day, especially on a veteran horse that doesn’t need the practice, or not showing every day at a long event.

“A lot of people push, push, push, push, and then the horses get worn down,” Espy says. “Then they get in a tough spot because they get near the end of the year, and the horses are just plain tired.”

Peters and Bidwell incorporate physical as well as mental breaks for their horses during shows, and they advise their clients to do the same. Even a few minutes of turnout in a small pen can make a big difference.

“I would rather see a horse go out and roll a couple of times and at least be able to kick up its heels for a minute than be trapped in a stall all the time,” says Bidwell. “I think for overall sanity, health, and body health, they need to do that. Hunters can get sour so quickly, and we end up seeing a lot of horses that people have pushed too hard, and they’ve broken them, either physically or mentally. You have to find a balance to be able to keep them going.”

One of the ways to do that is to take a page from human sports medicine best practices when conditioning and training. Athletes are advised to push harder on days they feel good and not push as hard on days they don’t. Peters recommends riders do the same with their horses.

“You need to really be able to feel and recognize and appreciate the horse, rather than just looking at them as a machine to get you to win a big class,” he says. “I think people can be a lot more successful by being attentive to what is happening underneath them, in terms of their horse.”

Schedule Regular Lameness ­Evaluations

During show season Peters recommends scheduling regular checkups with a veterinarian, even if nothing is wrong.

“Regular evaluations are good for the horse that is just normal,” says Peters, who is a multidiscipline licensed Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) veterinary delegate. “Rather than people calling their vet when the horse isn’t doing well, they should talk to the vet when the horse is doing well and get an impression of what is making this horse be good at this point. Let’s work as a team so that this horse can be good most of the time.”

While it might seem counterintuitive to schedule a lameness evaluation for a sound horse, regular examinations can allow veterinarians to catch small problems before they become big ones. Additionally, they offer peace of mind that the horse is physically equipped to perform at his best. 

“There are people that are at weekend events and the horse doesn’t feel right to them and, so, we look at them early in the week because they didn’t do well at the event the prior weekend,” says Espy. “And then there’s another population of horses that we look at because they don’t see a problem. Rather than waiting until you have a verified head-bobbing lameness that you have to recover from, be more proactive in your equine athletes’ care.”

Many veterinarians who specialize in sports medicine travel the show circuits, which gives clients the opportunity to schedule lameness evaluations at home or at the shows. If you know you will be traveling away from your regular veterinarian, it might be worthwhile to talk about the availability of telehealth appointments with him or her while you are on the road.

Don’t Discount Trailering’s Effects

Even the soundest performance horse can succumb to health issues caused by the extra stress of traveling for hours at a time. While horse trailer technology has improved over the years to include shock absorbers and air-ride suspensions, trailering still takes its toll on a horse’s body.

Bidwell suggests giving horses extra time off and turnout, if possible, after a long trailer ride and before asking them to perform at a high level. During transit Espy recommends using extra bedding on the floor of the horse trailer and outfitting horses with hoof boots to reduce vibration.

“I think that all of us should be aware of the shock that’s absorbed by the locomotion apparatus in the horse just from the vibration of the trailer itself,” Espy says.

In recent years much research has focused on how stressors such as long-­distance trailering can cause gastric ulcers.

“Gastric ulceration is very common in these traveling horses,” Espy says, citing a 2005 study (McClure, et al.) published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that found increased gastric ulcer development in horses that experienced simulated show conditions. “Whether it’s a preteen rider and a pole bending horse in a junior high rodeo, all the way up to my NFR (National Finals Rodeo) horses, a lot of behavior or performance deficits that we see are gastric-ulceration-dependent.”

If you suspect your horse has ulcers, have your veterinarian obtain an accurate diagnosis prior to treating the horse. Peters and Bidwell have scoped many horses whose owners believed they had ulcers, only to find that wasn’t the case.

“We always recommend fasting the horse for a night and scoping it so we can diagnose it appropriately before treating it,” Bidwell says. “If it’s not ulcers, then we need to find out what is the problem.”

Peters agrees, adding, “If you don’t do the scoping and just treat for ulcers, because you’re assuming that’s what it is, then you’re potentially missing the chance to find the real cause of the horse’s problem, which could be any number of things that, if left untreated, could lead to bigger issues later on.”

Planning for Your Horse's Show Season Success

Keep Horses Well-Hydrated

One of the horse’s most basic needs—water—can be the most challenging to provide away from home, because some horses refuse to drink water that smells or tastes different from their sources at home.

All three veterinarians recommend a tried-and-true approach: a flavored water additive. When you are home and not showing, experiment to find a flavor your horse likes—such as grape or cherry Kool-Aid, Gatorade, or apple juice—then add it to his water bucket at shows.

“The old adage, ‘You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,’ is true,” Espy says. “I always suggest to people that they figure out some plan for water consumption, whether that’s giving them salt blocks or an electrolyte paste to make them thirsty or whether you put Kool-Aid in their water.”

Peters and Bidwell use only yellow water buckets for their own horses, citing a 2017 study (A.T. David, et al.) published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science that found horses drink better out of light-colored buckets. And when it comes to buckets, ditch the oversized vessels in stalls, as they can be difficult to keep clean and make it harder to see if the horse is drinking an adequate amount of water. Also avoid communal troughs in the barns that can easily spread germs.

Take-Home Message

Small changes such as flavoring water at shows or using hoof boots while traveling might not seem like big things in the overall life of a show horse that travels extensively, but each management decision can affect the horse in myriad ways.

By being proactive and developing a plan to optimize your horse’s physical and mental well-being throughout the year, you can increase the odds of remaining competitive to the end of the show season with a happy and healthy horse.