Health Care for Western Performance Horses

Knowing how to select the perfect mount, train and condition him properly, and manage his health so he’ll deliver his best in the show pen is how champion riders of reiners, cutters, and rodeo sports succeed.

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health care for Western performance horses
Stops, slides, and spins put pressure on joints, tendons, and soft tissues. Problems can develop in all four legs, but hock and hind end injuries can be particularly debilitating to Western performance horses. | Photo: Photo: Dirk Caremans/FEI

Knowing how to select the perfect mount, train and condition him properly, and manage his health so he’ll deliver his best in the show pen is how champion riders of reiners, cutters, and rodeo sports succeed. 

Caring for any athletic horse requires attention to certain basics. But as disciplines diverge, owners and trainers have learned where to concentrate their efforts for the best results. In the Western performance world that means paying close attention to a horse’s hind end, the engine that drives those quick, dazzling moves. It also means selecting the right breed and bloodline. While a Quarter Horse, Paint, or Appaloosa is not required for success, those are often the breeds that reach the top levels in these sports.

Al Dunning has ridden, trained, and judged Western performance horses for decades. Since 1970 he has owned and operated Almosta Ranch outside of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he trains cutters, reiners, and working cow horses. He and his students have shown 35 World and Reserve World Champions, and he has judged the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Show and National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity.

“We want a horse with strong muscle structure that lends itself to (soundness),” says Dunning about what he looks for in a performance prospect. “We’d like to see a horse with bigger, flatter bone so that the horse has a greater surface of bone to carry larger tendons.”

Horses that are strong over their back will be better able to handle the stopping and pivoting on their hindquarters that Western performance disciplines require, Dunning explains.

Watch Those Feet

The maxim of “no foot, no horse” is as critical with these animals as it is with any other. Dunning has a good farrier and wants his horses shod as flat as possible without much correction. He also never allows his horses’ feet to grow too long. “We want our horses to land flat,” he said, “so that there isn’t any rotation in any part of the leg when they land on the ground.”

Martin G. Crabo, DVM, of the Chaparral Veterinary Medical Center, in Cave Creek, Arizona, works with Dunning to keep his horses in good health. He also emphasizes the need for regular, good-quality ­farriery.

Of course, the ideal situation is to have the best farrier possible shoeing the horses on a regular basis, something that is paramount in a performance barn like ­Dunning’s. But the temptation of the single-horse owner to let the shoeing slide an extra week or two can have unfavorable consequences, especially in horses performing such demanding sports as cutting and reining.

“If the angles are getting off, or when you get out five or six weeks and all the horse has grown is toe, he’s going to put a lot more stress and strain on those soft tissue structures down the back of the leg,” says Crabo. “You’re going to be more likely to have something like a deep flexor injury down in the foot because of that.”

Hoof health also plays a key role in Western halter horses; these animals also must be structurally correct. This not only allows a halter horse to show well to a judge but it also prepares him to go on to another riding discipline.

Jason Smith of Whitesboro, Texas, has won multiple world championships in halter, both with Quarter Horses and Paints. An AQHA judge, he has also prepared numerous youths and amateurs to show halter champions. “If you don’t have a sound foot, nothing else really matters,” Smith says. “It’s all about taking care of their feet and legs.”

In the past, the breeding of halter horses became so specialized that these horses often did not segue to a performance career. After all, a good halter horse can be shown for many years and might never need a new career. But halter breeders and trainers have been placing more emphasis on breeding halter horses that are more ­versatile.

“About seven years ago the halter people maybe got a little off center,” Smith says, “where it was more about the muscling instead of structure and balance. It got to be pretty ugly. But I think it’s getting back toa more structurally sound horse that’s correct and can go on to do other disciplines. In any discipline the ones that are great and the ones that stay around the longest and are the soundest are the ones that are structurally balanced and correct.”

Of course, trainers don’t have the luxury of working with only the perfect specimens. That’s where their expertise comes in, allowing them to assess each horse individually and determine what training and exercise program will bring out his best.

“I try to be cognizant daily of all the horse’s frailties to give me an idea of how he should be worked,” says Dunning. “I’ve got to be smart about only giving him what he can really handle physically.”

As part of his horses’ fitness regimen, Dunning uses a panel walker that allows a horse to exercise freely, yet in a controlled situation and without a rider. “That horse can move right and left, and he can have his head high or low, whichever is comfortable for him,” says Dunning.

Dunning also pays close attention to arena footing, working it frequently. It can’t be too hard or too deep, and he adjusts the depth depending on the discipline. Reining calls for a firm base with a softer surface, giving it a smoothness and flatness for the horses’ slides. Cutting requires a slightly deeper surface so horses can get traction, an important function so they don’t hurt themselves when they push off while changing direction with the cow.

Fitness Regimens

Western performance horse trainers have to balance getting and keeping horses fit with teaching them the maneuvers inherent to each particular sport. “It’s kind of a zone of the proper amount of work and fitness that sometimes is a little bit challenging to get within,” says Crabo. “Certainly, it will vary from horse to horse.”

Dunning spends time determining that balance for each individual. “I see a lot of guys who drill their horses too much,” he explains. “They work on the stops or spins all the time, and that’s really hard on a horse. You need to work on them to develop the skill, but you need to know when to back off.”

Too much drilling can make a horse sore and lead to a poor attitude, says ­Dunning.

“The way to keep your horses fresh is to diversify your training,” he says. “A real horseman knows what that horse is thinking, what it feels, how it was yesterday, and how it should be tomorrow. You can feel when you ride that horse that he’s not okay. And when he does that, you back off.”

Those stops, slides, and spins put pressure on joints, tendons, and soft tissues. Problems can develop in all four legs, but hock and hind end injuries can be particularly debilitating to Western performance horses. Crabo says hind end ­suspensory ligament injuries can be the most ­serious.

“We certainly see a lot of problems with the lower hocks and potentially the stifles as well,” he says, “But most of the time those are more manageable issues than some of the soft tissue injuries, which require longer time off.”

Reiners perform many high-speed movements and can develop forelimb injuries as well, such as bowed tendons. However, the sliding and twisting inherent in all Western performance disciplines stresses the hind end, which takes much of the weight of these maneuvers. Fitness and not overdoing it can help prevent these injuries, and early detection and treatment can mean a quicker recovery.

“With a little bit of a strain or a small tear, if you give them an appropriate amount of time off, with maybe some shock wave therapy, they can be laid up for a short period of time,” says Crabo.

But even a short time off can be problematic, especially if the horse is working toward a futurity in which he only has one shot at the big prize money. Some trainers and owners might opt to manage a minor injury with anti-­inflammatory medication to get a horse through the show, but they risk having the horse sustain a more serious injury.

Ropers and barrel horses sustain the same types of injuries as do cutters and reiners. They also tend to perform at a more advanced age, says Crabo, meaning owners should be aware of conditions such as arthritis, ringbone, and navicular ­problems.

Keeping Hocks Healthy

Perhaps the most stereotypical injuries and treatments in Western performance horses involve hock injuries and subsequent joint injections. While long-term, repeated use of cortisone injections coupled with continued performance during injury can compromise the hock joint’s life span, Crabo explains that judicious use of proper medications can actually prolong joint health.

When a horse injures a hock, his body responds with inflammation. Without treatment, that inflammation can damage the joint and cartilage permanently and lead to arthritis, Crabo explains.

The veterinarian should determine whether the joint has a chip in it during the initial exam. If it does, treatment should include removing the chip, most likely arthroscopically. Injecting such a joint to allow continued performance can cause severe damage because the chip will continue to aggravate the joint, leading to more inflammation and pain.

If the injury results in low-level inflammation and no chip, then hyaluronic acid and/or short-acting cortisone injections might help. “We can actually really reduce the wear and tear on the joints,” says Crabo. “In that way, done properly, joint injections are going to be very good for the joint in the long run.”

The important points, Crabo explains, are to be sure these injections are not used in cases where rest would be a better solution and that they are used instead of ­other medications that are contraindicated for the joint.

Supplements to promote joint health might help prevent some of these injuries, but Crabo cautions that oral supplements might not have FDA approval and, because they pass through the animal’s digestive system, the active ingredient might not reach the joint optimally.

Boots and bandages also can help protect the legs from these injuries. Dunning uses protective boots on the front and back legs of his horses in training. He emphasizes the importance of proper application, whether it’s a sports medicine boot or a bandage. If a bandage comes loose, especially during performance maneuvers, it can cause injury.

Take-Home Message

Western performance horses can impress with their quick stops and turns, but their conformation, fitness level, and training must be suited to their line of work. Owners should take particular care with these horses’ hind ends because many of the maneuvers can put stress on the hocks, stifles, and backs. Diversity in their training—rather than overdrilling on a pattern or working a cow too long—can keep them sound and their mental levels sharp. As with any athletic horse, early diagnosis and treatment can keep minor injuries from becoming major, and proactive treatments, such as periodic maintenance of the hocks, can prolong athletic careers.


Written by:

Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.

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