Sticky Scenarios You Might Encounter When Shipping and Showing Horses

Two sport horse veterinarians have shared how to make smart horse health decisions at competitions. See if you select the right paths toward a healthful and successful showing experience in these sticky scenarios.

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Sticky Scenarios You Might Encounter When Shipping and Showing Your Horse
With horse showing comes a variety of scenarios you wouldn’t otherwise face at home. Therefore, it’s important to plan ahead and know how to handle them. | Photo: Erica Larson

From Home to Show: Solving sticky scenarios you might encounter when shipping and showing your horse

Your list of things to think about when prepping for a horse show is long. Did your horse nail that last jump school? Are his hooves trimmed or shod? Do you have a current health certificate and negative Coggins test on hand? Did you remember to pack everything in the trailer? With horse showing comes a variety of scenarios you wouldn’t otherwise face at home. Therefore, it’s important to plan ahead and know how to handle them.

Two sport horse veterinarians have shared how to make smart horse health decisions at competitions. Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, ISELP, is a sports medicine practitioner and co-owner and founder of East-West Equine Sports Medicine, in Lexington, Kentucky, and Nancy Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic, in Boulder, Colorado.

It’s up to you to “choose your own adventure” in the scenarios below, just like the popular gamebooks of the 1980s and 1990s. See if you select the right paths toward a healthful and successful showing experience.

Getting to the Show

You’ve hired a commercial shipper to transport your horse to a show several hours away. Upon arrival, the driver hops out and opens the trailer door. The smell of manure wafts out, and you spy dried diarrhea all over one wall. Who knows whether that diarrhea was caused by nerves or some kind of infection? But, obviously, potentially exposing your horse to pathogens (disease-causing organisms) is not an option. Do you:

  • Ask the transportation crew to clean and disinfect the inside of the trailer? See No. 1.
  • Refuse their service and try to get another ride to the show? See No. 2.

1. The shipper hastily cleans and disinfects the trailer, after which you load your horse and he heads to the show. Several days later at the event, your horse becomes sick, developing a fever and diarrhea. The on-site veterinarian diagnoses him with an infectious gastrointestinal disease,  which prompts show management to isolate your horse and start a quarantine process at the venue. Your horse show experience is not only a bust but also a biosecurity nightmare.

Loving believes choosing to transport your horse in that trailer is not worth the risk. “There is no good reason to put your horse on a van that houses potentially infectious material,” she says. “It is unlikely that sufficient cleaning and disinfection are possible to accomplish in the short time frame you likely have to still be able to make it to the horse show.”

2. You refuse to use the transportation company you hired and find that a local horse trainer with a reputation for keeping her horses properly vaccinated and healthy has an open spot on her trailer. She’s leaving the next morning, but losing a day at the show is better than having your horse get sick. You later find out that the hauling company has a reputation for substandard cleaning practices that have led to several cases of infectious disease spread. You’ve dodged a bullet.

“Electing not to put your horse on that van is good horsemanship and demonstrates that your concern for your horse’s well-being is more important than attending any single event,” says Loving. “This is a red flag that this transport company should not be used now or in the future. Word-of-mouth (which can also include online reviews such as on Google) can help horse owners find an appropriate transport company, as well as help weed out those that are undesirable.”

Unexpected Diet Changes

Once you arrive at the show, you stop by the office to fill out paperwork and purchase extra bedding and hay. You only shipped in a few days’ worth of supplies with your horse because this venue typically sources the same hay as you do. Your heart sinks when the office staff tells you the hay is a different type than what you had been told and were expecting.

“My horse can’t handle a sudden hay change,” you say. “What if he colics?” The staff member shrugs and asks you to decide quickly if you want the hay because the line behind you is growing. Do you:

  • Purchase and feed the hay anyway? See No. 3.
  • Decide to find another hay source that’s similar in type to your horse’s regular grass hay? See No. 4.

3. Your horse isn’t a fan of the new hay but eats it eventually. He shows some mild colic signs that resolve quickly, but you end up having to pull out of most of your classes. You vow to always ship in enough hay for the entirety of a show or talk to your veterinarian about using a complete feed or alternative forage source.

“Any feed change is associated with an increased risk of developing colic because the microbiome (microorganism population) in the horse’s intestines takes a bit of time to adapt to a new feed composition,” says Loving. “That said, there is not as much concern if you offer different grass hay from his normal grass hay diet than if you were to switch him from grass hay to alfalfa hay.”

In addition to abdominal discomfort, your horse might develop diet-related diarrhea, says Peters.

4. You are lucky enough to find someone in the next barn who offers to sell you bales of their grass hay. It was produced in your state, which means it was grown in the same general climate and conditions as the hay you normally buy.

Loving reminds owners to always blend hay from different sources to allow the equine gastrointestinal system time to adapt. While you should ideally do this gradually, over two to three weeks, you won’t be able to  make the change that slowly while at the show. “Blending what you have with something new is certainly a better choice than just offering only hay from a new source,” Loving says.

Behavior Issues

Your horse usually spends half his days grazing in a field, but this show doesn’t have paddock access or rentals. You know this could potentially cause behavioral issues for your horse. To deal with his pent-up energy do you:

  • Find ways to get your horse out of his stall frequently? See 5.
  • Longe your horse as much as possible before a ride? See 6.

5. You hand-walk your horse several times each day. At other times you tack up and go for short strolls around the grounds. You also take your horse out of the stall simply to stand with you while you cheer on your friends. He loves watching the horses walk by and the hustle and bustle of the show grounds. Every now and then he drops his head down and forages in the dirt. He seems to have settled in nicely.

Peters recommends staying on guard for behavioral changes, such as signs of frustration or stress or just being difficult to handle. “A horse that is completely fine at home may act like a completely different individual at the show,” he says, especially if it’s a young, inexperienced show horse.

Peters suggests getting most horses out of their stalls as much as possible to mimic the amount of movement they get while turned out. This is especially helpful for horses with arthritis or muscle soreness. He says you can also feed your horse’s hay on the ground to allow him to stretch his neck down as if grazing.

Some shows or facilities do provide small paddocks to rent or areas in which to put up a picket line. Peters warns, however, that any communal paddocks increase the risk of disease transmission.

6. You longe and longe your horse, but he is still acting excitable. There’s only so much longeing you can do. Your classes don’t go well due to your horse’s behavior changes. This just isn’t your show.

Loving says longeing is not always effective at calming a horse. “A fit horse would need an excessive amount of longeing to wear him down or calm him,” she says. “Longeing is fine within reason, but 10 to 15 minutes should be more than ample to get some of the ‘vinegar and spice’ out of him. It gives him a chance to run and buck and vent some fiery steam without putting undue stress on his musculoskeletal system. Too much longeing can overtax his limbs, particularly if performed in a small circle.”

Loving says the best option is to put in the time and let your horse experience many situations and places so he can develop confidence in new settings.

Close Quarters

You are resting in a camp chair set up stallside between classes. You hear a low, deep cough coming from the barn, turn around to check on your horse, and find him munching his hay quietly. It’s then you realize the cough is coming from the stall directly behind your horse. Do you:

  • Put up a barrier so the horses can’t touch noses? See 7.
  • Talk to the owner to determine the cause of the cough and monitor your horse for signs of illness? See 8.

7. You hang a tarp to prevent nose-to-nose contact through the stall bars, but several days later your horse starts coughing. You call the show’s veterinarian, who confirms your horse has picked up a virus—the same one with which his stall neighbor has since been diagnosed. The vet says your horse was probably exposed early on at the show just by being near the sick horse. Both horses, and others, end up in veterinarian-mandated quarantine.

The risk of disease transmission at public venues, such as horse show grounds, is a risk owners take when they show.

Your horse might have been exposed if the two horses had touched noses prior to the tarp going up. And even if you were able to prevent direct contact, viruses don’t respect physical barriers and your horse could’ve been infected other ways.

“Ventilation issues, wind, etc., can cause dissemination of aerosolized droplets (from a horse’s cough) around a horse venue,” not to mention people and equipment (manure rakes, wheelbarrows, etc.) around the stable acting as fomites (objects likely to carry pathogens), Loving says.

Do not allow horses at shows to touch each other, and do not share equipment with other horses, such as grooming supplies or tack and communal water troughs, says Peters. These are well-known fomites for spreading infectious diseases such as strangles.

8. You talk to the neighboring horse owner to get the scoop on her horse’s cough and find out he suffers from seasonal allergies. You’re relieved but monitor your horse’s vitals during and after the show anyway. Luckily, your horse stays healthy.

Peters says, yes, a cough could be due to allergies, or a change in environment or feed could be to blame. However, he recommends monitoring your own horse for three to five days for signs of illness. This should include observing food and water intake and urinary and fecal output. Take your horse’s rectal temperature twice a day, and watch for signs of nasal discharge, dullness to the eyes, or overall attitude changes.

Your Horse Just Isn’t Right

You are working your horse right before your next class, and he seems unusually stiff. You wonder if he might be lame but, if he is, it’s subtle. You hear your name called on deck for your class. Do you:

  • Hope your horse is just working out of some stiffness and decide to compete anyway, then call your vet after? See 9.
  • Err on the side of caution and have your trainer and veterinarian evaluate your horse, even though it means missing your class? See No. 10.

9. Your horse continues to feel off during the class, and you don’t place. By the time you get back to the barn, he’s noticeably lame. You call the show veterinarian. He does a typical lameness exam and finds a moderate injury. You talk treatment options, and he advises you to scratch the show.

“If you think there is a problem, it is not good horsemanship to just carry on as if nothing is wrong,” says Loving, adding that each event has a veterinarian on the grounds (or on call) who can look at your horse. “If it turns out that something is definitely wrong with his soundness, it is always possible for him to incur more damage with continued exercise.”

10. You scratch the class and have the show veterinarian look at your horse. He determines your horse is mildly lame due to a sole bruise and advises skipping the rest of the show. Per his instructions, you ice your horse’s foot, head home, and continue treating. A week or two later, your regular veterinarian rechecks your horse and confirms he’s sound.

“Veterinarian expertise is the most reliable source for discovering what your horse might be experiencing, especially if you and your trainer both think there is a problem,” says Loving. “It is better to … scratch from those classes than to put your horse in continued harm’s way through competition.”

Peters adds that most horses that don’t feel well won’t perform well.

How Did You Do?

How did your hypothetical adventure turn out? Hopefully you chose options 2, 4, 5, 8, and 10 for a smoother outcome. Even if you’ve tried to anticipate any problems that could arise and planned for how you might handle them, the unexpected can always happen. When in doubt about a health issue, always talk with a veterinarian, whether it’s your own or the event’s official vet.

“In most cases, there’s another show you could go to, and it’s better off not to jeopardize your horse,” says Peters.


Written by:

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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