Horse Care: When Less is More

Learn about commonly applied practices that owners and caretakers tend to overdo

It’s feeding time, and a horse eagerly nuzzles his bucket as his devoted owner doles out his dinner. She gazes upon his ideal body-condition-score-5 physique, wishing it were a fleshier 6. She contemplates adding more grain and hay to his ration, thinking, “A little more can’t hurt.” This mentality can sometimes do more harm than good, however, when it comes to managing horses and their diets, medications, and care. Sometimes, the best approach is to “keep it simple.”

Harry Werner, VMD, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), recently reviewed with us many situations in equine practice where less is certainly more. Read on to learn about commonly applied practices that owners and caretakers tend to overdo.

Musculoskeletal Care

Werner has concerns that many owners and veterinarians have come to rely on using joint injections as a routine—though not always warranted—procedure to maintain joint health. “Many joint injections are administered without evidence of lameness and solely based on trainer recommendations,” he says. While horses often do need joint support through intra-articular injections and/or systemic joint-targeted medications, in recent years this practice has become a routinely administered “therapy,” he says. Joint injections are invasive procedures and could be injurious if needle trauma or inappropriate corticosteroid (or other) medication use damages the cartilage.

He also reports that many horse owners are using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), especially firocoxib, like a “feed supplement” to treat musculoskeletal pain in competition horses. Any medication—NSAIDs, in particular—can have deleterious side effects ranging from gastric or colonic ulcers to kidney disease and intestinal microbiome disturbances. Use NSAIDs as infrequently as necessary, he says, and only when a veterinarian’s diagnosis deems them appropriate, keeping in mind that firocoxib is the option that’s least damaging to the gastrointestinal tract.

Farrier care is another area where sometimes less is more. Werner says many farriers and owners apply shoes and devices to horses’ feet without the benefit of a basic hoof examination and a fundamental and sensible trim. In many cases a good trim can solve a number of challenging foot issues. He says this type of farrier work is particularly problematic when done without veterinary intervention and assessment to target foot therapy to an accurate diagnosis.

Don’t go overboard with the barefoot trim, either. Despite good intentions, during their regular visits, some farriers or hoof care professionals remove hoof wall at a rate faster than it can grow. Over several trimming cycles, a horse might end up with insufficient hoof and sole support and become foot sore. Rather than having the horse trimmed at a specific interval, arrange farrier appointments according to hoof horn growth, which varies depending on a horse’s activity and the season.

Another area of consideration is the use of leg and bell boots. “Boots can cause problems if put on too tightly or left on too long,” says Werner. “They need to be cleaned of debris and, if put on too tightly, can cause skin abrasions or inflame tendons.” Typically, horses don’t need leg boots unless they’re involved in arduous athletic endeavors or if the horse has conformational qualities that result in limb or foot interference. If your horse loses shoes during turnout, you can use well-fitting pull-on bell boots—just be sure you check the horses’ pasterns and heels daily for any ­problems.

Overtraining

The topic of overtraining could consume an entire article, but we’ll mention a few important points here. “Some show-horse techniques use longeing to exhaustion, tying up a horse’s head for hours, or longeing a horse in ankle-deep wood chips as routine ‘training’ measures,” says Werner. Often these methods are cruel and/or injurious.

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