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Piecing Together the Performance Horse Puzzle

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Whether you’re chasing cows or running cross-country, getting—and keeping—your horse performing at his best requires carefully combining nutrition, exercise, and veterinary care to create the perfect picture of health.

One blue ribbon

Maybe you got lucky.

A few blue ribbons

You’ve got a pretty good horse there, and you know how to ride.

A barn full of blue ribbons, gleaming trophies, and shiny medals:

You’ve got a good horse, you know how to ride, and you know how to maintain your performance horse.

There’s no secret to success when it comes to competing in the equestrian world. Peak performance requires good breeding, consistent training, and an accomplished rider. But if you want to extend and enhance that good performance, you’re going to have to master equine maintenance, as well.

Maintenance isn’t just about making sure your horse has a clean stall and a full bucket. It’s also about:

  • Basic nutrition, including understanding how calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals work;
  • Practicing musculoskeletal exercises to maintain longevity;
  • Keen observation of subtle physical and emotional changes;
  • Staying up-to-date and ready to adapt as research brings us new information;
  • Maintaining open, positive relationships with veterinarians, physiotherapists, saddle-fitters, and farriers; and
  • Protecting horses from infectious diseases.

Lesley Hawson, BSc, BVSc, DVM, PhD (Equitation Science), is an animal biomechanical medicine practitioner and independent consultant based in Willowmavin, Victoria, Australia. Having first studied psychology and neurophysiology and worked in industrial relations and human resource management, she earned her veterinary degree at the University of Sydney and a postgraduate diploma in animal chiropractic. She later completed a PhD in the science of horse training and currently lectures in equine biomechanics and equine exercise physiology at Charles Sturt University. An active member of the International Society of Equitation Science (ISES), Project Hope Horse Welfare Victoria, and her local equine land care group, she works as an official veterinarian at endurance races and rides homebred Quarter Horses.

This list is certainly not exhaustive, and there’s not one feature that’s more important than the other, says Dr. Lesley Hawson, an animal biomechanical medicine practitioner and independent consultant in Australia.

“That is the art of maintaining a performance horse,” she says. “There is no one single aspect of their management that you can reliably say will determine their ability to perform.”

Still, this battery of skills gives any team a winning edge. To make sure that latest blue ribbon doesn’t become a lonely dust collector on your stall door, let’s look at what our sources have to say about maintaining performance horses.


Nutrition: Feeding a Champion

With more physical demands come greater nutritional requirements.

“A leisure horse may still thrive on a diet with suboptimal micronutrients, but a performance horse won’t perform optimally if his diet is deficient,” Hawson says. That’s because exercise exhausts all available micronutrients—vital for good performance—making them unavailable for maintenance needs.

Clair Thunes, PhD, is an independent equine nutrition consultant who owns Summit Equine Nutrition, based in Sacramento, California. She works with owners, trainers, and veterinarians across the United States and globally to take the guesswork out of feeding horses. Born in England, she earned her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and her master’s and doctorate in nutrition at the University of California, Davis. She works with all horses, from World Equestrian Games competitors to Miniature Donkeys and everything between.

Independent nutritionist Dr. Clair Thunes agrees. “You’ll see poor performance before you see a weight drop,” she says.

Good competitive riders should learn to evaluate body condition, aiming for a score of 4-6 out of 9, says Thunes. Body condition checks are part of the morning routine in well-maintained performance horses.

Owners should check their horses’ weight monthly, she says, adding that’s weight calculator is an “excellent resource.” A weight tape alone won’t give a reliable estimate, but if you use the same tape every time, it can help you follow a horse’s weight gain and loss, she says.

If horses are losing weight, they’ll experience performance problems as their bodies start to dip into their reserves. If they’re gaining weight, their performance could also suffer from having to carry an increased load, and they’ll put more wear and tear on joints.

“Don’t be obsessed with ribs, though!” Thunes cautions. “A very fit horse—especially if he’s doing a lot of speed and endurance work like eventing—can still have a slight rib outline. You have to look at the whole picture.”

A common misconception is that protein intake must increase significantly in performance horses, says Thunes. “The demand for additional calories as work level increases is proportionally greater than the need for protein,” she says. You’ll know if your horse is lacking protein if he’s not building muscle mass consistent with his work level. “If calories are already adequate, you’re not going to build topline with more calories—that’ll just make him fatter.”

Maintaining a horse well also means keeping an eye on key minerals. Calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, and chloride can easily get depleted in performance horses—especially sodium and chloride (salt), which get released in sweat.

Vitamin E, found naturally in fresh grass but practically absent in hay, is critical for muscle function, Thunes says. If horses are lacking it, their muscles will recover poorly, and they might be more sore after workouts than horses getting enough.

Be cautious when adding commercial supplements to a ration, she says. They often contain substances in such small quantities (compared to research-tested quantities) that they might be ineffective, or they can upset established nutritional balances. “Before adding any supplements, be sure to check with your nutritionist or veterinarian,” Thunes says.

A yearly consultation with an equine nutritionist—even remotely—is good practice for maintaining performance horses, says Thunes. He or she can not only provide customized feeding plans but also give critical information about feeding habits (where, when, how often, which mixes at what times). A nutritionist can also help you choose “the right fuel source” (i.e., fats, fibers, starches) for your horse. “Ensuring the correct fuel will help create success for the type of work the horse is doing,” she says.

Nutrient Necessary Increase From Maintenance to Heavy Work* Deficiency Risks Sources
Calories 60% increase Poor performance, weight loss Hay, performance feeds, oats, beet pulp, rice bran, oil
Protein 35% increase Poor muscle development, lacking topline Hay (especially legumes), performance feeds, ration balancers, seed meals such as soybean
Calcium 100% increase Weakened skeleton, stiffness, shifting lameness Hay (especially legumes), beet pulp, performance feeds, ration balancers, supplements
Phosphorus 107% increase Bone changes Wheat bran, rice bran, grains
Magnesium 100% increase Nervousness, muscle tremors Hay, performance feeds, ration balancers, supplements
Sodium-Chloride Sodium 155% increase, Chloride 66% increase Poor muscle contraction, decreased feed intake, weight loss, dehydration Salt, electrolytes
Vitamin E 100% increase Muscle soreness and underdevelopment Fresh grass, commercial feeds, supplements
* Percentages based on 2007 National Research Council guidelines.

The Musculoskeletal System: Pillars of Performance

The horse’s musculoskeletal systems—his muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and related tissues—make up his foundation as an athlete. Injury to this system is the single most common reason for days off work in performance horses, says Dr. Sue Dyson of the U.K.’s Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies.

Sue Dyson, MA, Vet MB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, is head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, U.K. A graduate of Cambridge University, she is a specialist in equine orthopedics, focusing on the investigation of lameness and poor performance in all types of sport horses. Her research interests include improving lameness diagnosis and the application of diagnostic imaging.

Pain—whether it causes actual lameness or not—contributes to poor performance, she says. Fortunately, our horses have reliable ways to communicate that they’re in pain through their behaviors. We can learn to recognize facial expressions, including those that are specific to ridden horses. You might see an intense stare or back-facing ears in any horse in pain, she says. In a ridden horse, though, you could see a mouth gaping wide open, which would not be common in other circumstances.

“This is a great tool to recognize a problem early,” Dyson says. “Instead of just thinking, ‘Oh, my horse is grumpy,’ or that there’s a training problem, we can recognize that if the horse is putting his ears back and opening his mouth, this is actually a reflection of pain.”

Early attention to pain can lead to earlier intervention and more effective treatments, she says. It can also prompt us to change whatever might be causing the pain—ill-fitting tack, improper riding technique, poor surfaces, etc.—to stop the accumulating damage.

Warmup and warm-down are also critical components of maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system, our sources say. “Horse muscles don’t achieve optimal operating conditions until they increase by 1°C above resting temperature, and ligaments and tendons can’t stretch and rebound correctly, so injury is more common in colder tissues,” Hawson says. “Warmup should include at least five minutes of working trot, relaxed and loose.”

The warm-down prevents the “rebound increase” in heart rate after a workout and helps move out lactic acid—the substance that leads to muscle soreness. “Science indicates that trotting is more effective than walking at reducing lactic acid and encouraging effective thermoregulation,” she says. “So, five to 10 minutes of trot followed by five minutes walking after work is appropriate.”

Horses in hot climates should be cooled down after work, as well, with rapid tack and boot removal and cool water showers, she adds.

Breaks between workouts are also part of smart maintenance, says Hawson. “It takes horses up to 72 hours to replenish their glycogen stores in their muscles, which are important for optimal performance,” she says. And researchers recently determined that longer breaks between competitions seem to keep horses sounder and more successful.

A performance horse can benefit from monthly visits with a physical therapist, who can evaluate the horse for signs of discomfort and muscle tension and treat as necessary, Dyson says. “If the issue is repetitive, there’s an underlying cause that merits a veterinary evaluation.”

Good horse sense can go a long way in preserving the musculoskeletal system, she adds. “If your horse goes to the back of the stable when you arrive with the tack, you need to realize that that’s not normal behavior.”

Regular hoof care—as frequently as every four to six weeks—is also important, because imbalanced feet can lead to lameness and body soreness. Your farrier should work in concert with your veterinarians recommendations to help keep your performance horse sound.

Even with the most careful training and conditioning programs, some equine athletes might require additional joint support and pain management, especially as they age. If your horse is showing signs of discomfort in work, talk to your veterinarian about whether the judicious use of joint injections or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs might help your horse, and always check your sport’s governing body for drug rules and dosage limitations.


Longevity: Good Habits, Good Surfaces

If you want your horse to perform well, now and in the years ahead, take up some good habits, our sources say.

Variation—in everything horses do—is essential. Vary workout times, locations, and activities. While horses are creatures of habit, they can also get “bored out of their minds” by monotony, Dyson says. And there’s a risk for not only boredom but also repetitive strain injuries from using the same muscles day after day in the same way.

Lars Roepstorff, DVM, PhD, is professor of equine functional anatomy at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala, where he focuses on equine biomechanics using state-of-the-art technology. He also performs biomechanics research for the Fédération Equestre Internationale.

Footing also needs to vary, says Dr. Lars Roepstorff of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Trying to protect a horse by always working him on the ‘best’ footing is actually a bad idea,” he says.“First of all, we don’t know what the best footing is yet, although we’re working on that,” he says. “Also, what’s ‘best’ will always be different depending on the individual horse (conformation, way of going, previous training, etc.) and what you want to do. But more importantly, we can’t anticipate what footing you’ll find at events. And the best way to prepare horses for different kinds of footings is to work them on a wide variety of footings at home, to get their muscles and supporting tissues, especially bones, fit and ready for the task.”

Loading strengthens bones, Roepstorff says. This doesn’t come from “gentle” ground, but, rather, hard surfaces. “One of the most underestimated training regimens is road work,” he says, referring to riding on compacted dirt or gravel roads. “Get them out on safe roads regularly and work them at a trot or light canter. This isn’t bad for their bodies. It’s good for them!”

On the other hand, extra-soft surfaces can be bad for the bodies, he adds. While they cushion landings—which is pretty important when you’re talking about forces equivalent to three times body weight coming down from a jump—they also require the horse to push off more with each stride. Harder surfaces offer more resistance. Softer ones can lead to repetitive strain injuries from the push-off effort.

So, vary riding surfaces, Roepstorff says, but be wise about it, and introduce new ones carefully.

“We all modify our gaits, whether human or animal, according to what we’re walking on,” he says. “It might take a while for a horse to learn to adjust, and he might even stumble a little when learning new footing. Pay attention to his reactions, and progress gradually.”

You should also pay attention to your horse’s own particularities. “The amount of work a horse needs to stay fit and not bored is really individual,” Hawson says. “Too much and you risk injury, and not enough and the horse will not cope with competition. Designing training programs to protect tendons, ligaments, and joints while still achieving the fitness/education goals is both tricky and desirable.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, competition horses often must adapt to ample frequent change when they go to events. “Here, they need to maintain some degree of regularity,” Dyson says. “If they can’t get daily turnout, they need to be at least hand-grazed, so they have variety in their diet and they spend time with their head and necks down so that they can stretch their back muscles.”


Vaccination and Biosecurity: Protection, Prevention, and Observation

A well-maintained performance horse is healthy and disease-free, so we must also focus on disease prevention.

First priority is keeping your horse’s vaccinations up-to-date. The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) recommends every horse receive four “core” vaccines against:

  • Eastern/Western equine encephalomyelitis;
  • Rabies;
  • Tetanus; and
  • West Nile virus.

The AAEP further recommends horses receive additional vaccines based on their individual risk. Because show horses come into frequent contact with and are stabled in close proximity to other horses and are under stress from travel, U.S. Equestrian requires horses competing at sanctioned events receive equine influenza and equine herpesvirus vaccinations every six months.

In addition to keeping current on vaccines, you’ll need to respect basic hygiene rules.

Nicola Pusterla, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, is an associate professor of equine internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, as well as chief of large animal medicine and section head of equine medicine and dentistry. His research focuses on selected aspects of equine infectious diseases, with an emphasis on epidemiology, clinical disease understanding, diagnostics, prevention, and treatment.

“Don’t share tack or equipment, and clean and disinfect if you do,” says Dr. Nicola Pusterla at the University of California, Davis.

Clean and disinfect a stall or trailer that’s been used by other horses (besides your horse or his pasturemates) before putting your horse in it, he says. Quarantine newly arrived horses to your barn. Wash your hands between working with different horses, and change clothes completely after working with a sick horse (who should be quarantined away from the healthy populations) before working with or near healthy ones. Store your feed and hay in tightly closed containers.

Avoid letting your horse drink from common water sources at events, and keep him away from common areas as much as possible.

Also at shows “take his rectal temperature one to three times a day, just to stay ahead of any infections,” Pusterla says, adding that many horses will have temperature increases before they have clinical signs. Report temperatures greater than 101°F in a resting horse (not worked for at least an hour) to a veterinarian.

Free Download: Horse Health Parameters Form


Horse owners should also spend time with their horses year-round to know what’s “normal” for them, Pusterla says. “When your horse is boarded, sometimes all you do is show up and ride,” he says. “But that’s not getting to know your horse. Take time to observe him every day in the stall, take his temperature, and see how he eats and drinks, so you can recognize when things aren’t right.”

Good performance riders keep good records, he adds—not just vaccination dates, but transportation dates, show dates, medication dates, and any abnormal clinical signs with their dates and descriptions. Keep in mind that medications can lead to positive drug tests, so check elimination times with your veterinarian before competing.


Getting on the Right Tack: Fitting and Maintenance

No horse can perform well with ill-fitting tack. It can cause painful pressure that can be debilitating. “Some horses may be able to work through these pressures in the short-term, but over time they will induce permanent changes in the musculature, and it will become harder for them to produce the performances they were giving initially,” Hawson says. “Ill-fitting equipment, especially saddles, is not consistent with career longevity.”

Getting the right fit requires good initial evaluation and regular checkups, says Dyson. “Saddles need to be checked by a qualified saddle fitter every three months in performance horses, because their backs constantly change shape, even in established athletes,” she says. In horses in their first year of training, get the saddle checked even more frequently, she adds, as the back shape will change rapidly with the growing muscle.

Bridles should also fit properly, but it’s currently difficult to find qualified bridle fitters, Dyson adds. “I see a lot of poorly fitting bridles,” she says. “We’re still lacking in training for the personnel in this field, however.”

And, of course, quality tack that’s kept clean and well-oiled is more supple and comfortable for your athlete and for you.


Maintenance Schedule: Keeping the Pieces Together

You schedule routine maintenance on your truck to keep its 420-horsepower engine running smoothly. But don’t forget your one-horsepower engine that’s also putting in lots of miles. Because animals don’t come with odometers, we’ve put together this calendar to help you keep track of daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance checks for your performance horse.

Activity Daily Monthly Every 3 months Annually
Check Body Condition
Check Weight
Run Bloodwork
Consult With Nutritionist
Consult With Physiotherapist
Check Saddle Fit
Farrier Trim/Shoeing (every 4-6 weeks)
Observe Facial Expressions
Observe Soundness
Vary Workout/Footing
Check Rectal Temperature (at Events)
Vaccinate (per Recommendations for Your Region)
Clean and Disinfect Barn Common Areas
Veterinary Examination

Take-Home Message

Are you a blue-ribbon rider? Or a multiple-blue-ribbon rider? To promote and safeguard your horse’s health, welfare, performance, and longevity, it’s critical to be not only a skilled equestrian but also a skilled maintenance manager. By building your knowledge and aptitudes in recognizing your horse’s needs, and by keeping good relationships with health professionals, you can significantly improve your chances for success—in the show ring and at home.