western horses

Western horses do it all: pleasure riding, trail classes, reining, cutting and roping, barrel racing and other speed events, and more. There’s even Western dressage. All these disciplines place different stresses on the horse’s body, potentially resulting in a variety of injuries. When one of these horses isn’t performing as he should, there are more than a few places practitioners can look.

William Rhoads, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, ABVP, owner of Premier Equine Veterinary Services and Sports Medicine Center, in Whitesboro, Texas, and an experienced reiner, is well-versed in evaluating and treating Western performance horses in multiple disciplines. At the 2018 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in San Francisco, California, he shared tips on how veterinarians can approach poorly performing Western horses.

About 90% of the poor-performance-related cases Rhoads sees in his practice involve clinical (apparent) or subclinical (inapparent) lameness or musculoskeletal pain. Some common causes of lameness or pain include:

  • Synovitis (inflammation of the synovial membrane, the joint lining) in the hock, stifle, fetlock, or coffin joint;
  • Tendon and/or ligament injury;
  • Osteoarthritis in older horses;
  • Stress-induced bone remodeling;
  • Sacroiliac issues (where the spine meets the pelvis); and
  • Kissing spines.

Other causes of poor performance include gastrointestinal, neurologic, respiratory, cardiac, renal (kidney), and hepatic (liver) issues, as well as muscle diseases (such as polysaccharide storage myopathy, or PSSM), which are prevalent in stock horses, he said.

“As some of these horses are not required to jog in their respective disciplines (such as reining, cutting, and roping), many times lameness is not the presenting complaint,” he said.

Rather, the rider or trainer notices a decreased ability to perform a certain maneuver, diminished gait quality, or measurable time increases in speed events.

Diagnosis Step-By-Step

“The initial performance examination is no different than the prepurchase or lameness exam,” Rhoads said. “Get a systematic approach, and follow it every time.”

He encouraged practitioners to conduct a complete exam each time, even if they think they’ve found the problem early in the diagnostic process.

Rhoads’ exams include:

  • Observing the horse on the longe line at walk and jog in a sand arena, traveling both directions;
  • Palpating the neck, back, pelvis, and all four limbs;
  • Evaluating each hoof with hoof testers;
  • Conducting flexion tests on all four limbs; and
  • Walking and jogging the horse in a straight line on a concrete surface.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be this exam,” he said, “but stick to one approach.”

If his initial exam does not reveal any significant findings, Rhoads moves on to additional tests.

“In some instances the horse may be evaluated under saddle, with and without a rider,” he said. “Many times a problem is not apparent until the horse is actually performing that specific maneuver.”

He also recommended repeating flexion tests with the rider aboard to garner additional information.

If the practitioner identifies lameness, diagnostic analgesia or imaging can help localize the problem to a suspected area.

If there are no clear answers, however, Rhoads recommended conducting objective gait analysis. He said this can help detect gait asymmetry at different stride phases.

“This technology is much more sensitive than the human eye and can provide valuable information pertaining to the way a horse is moving,” he said.

He offered a word of caution, however: “All lame horses have gait asymmetries, but not all horses with gait asymmetries are lame. That’s where the art of lameness diagnosis comes in.”

When All Else Fails

“Every attempt should be made to find the underlying cause of poor performance, and this may take several examinations and multiple diagnostic modalities,” Rhoads said.

Even with thorough examinations, however, there are cases where practitioners can’t find a definitive explanation for the poor performance.

“In these cases, it is very helpful to have knowledge of the specific discipline of the horse and the most common abnormalities that lead to similar performance limitations,” Rhoads said. “Response to treatment based on a clinical hunch may lead to a proper diagnosis.”