By Mary Burger

Equine health and nutrition is always important, not only for the livelihood of your equine partners but also for their success in the arena. There are a few things you can do to curb the potential for injuries and ensure your horse is getting the proper conditioning for its health and safety. 

I ride every day I can, whether it’s exercising in the arena or riding in the pasture and hay field. It’s a matter of contact with my horses every day. Normally I’ll walk, trot and canter both ways. I’ll do both small and large circles, and I may just walk or trot the barrel pattern. Then, I’ll go ride somewhere else, such as the pasture. I usually walk five to 10 minutes and then trot and lope just enough to warm my horses up, and then I’ll go off to the field for a relaxing ride.

The way I exercise each day depends on different things, such as the weather conditions and whether it’s hot outside or raining, but my goal is to get my horses exercised every day. I do this with every horse, whether it’s a young colt, older seasoned horse or “Mo” (Sadiefamouslastwords). Right now, Mo is on a walk-trot only exercise program as he recovers from his deep flexor tendon injury, but I make sure to exercise him every day.

If I run my horses somewhere and notice they were a little sloppy in one area on the pattern, I change my focus during the exercise period. It doesn’t change the fact that I’ll have some type of contact with my horses every day. If they need to be sharpened or have an issue fixed on the pattern, I’ll tune that area at a walk or trot. I make sure the horse is in the correct position and that it knows when to rate a barrel turn.

For example, if a horse runs past the first barrel, maybe because it went into the turn too tight, I’ll just move that pocket out at a walk or trot. Then, I’ll go off somewhere else and ride in a relaxed, calm atmosphere away from the pattern.

Rarely do I work my horses hard, and I don’t work on anything specific unless it’s to make sure their body is in the correct position or tune on a mistake the horse made in a competition run. I don’t put a lot of emphasis on any certain area or drill the horse to the point it dreads its job. I simply want my horses to know they’ve made a mistake and recognize the correct way when I tune them, such as correct body position and where their feet should go.

Conditioning While Hauling

If your horse is in good shape, you shouldn’t feel concerned about hauling and competing. However, you will occasionally encounter a situation that’s out of the ordinary.

For instance, Pendleton [Round-Up] will always be out of the normal, but you can handle it if you prepare correctly. You have to get your horse’s wind up for a huge pattern like Pendleton— walk, trot and lope a pattern set larger than normal to let the horse know it’s going to be running further between each barrel. Teach the horse to keep its shoulder up and stay straight longer. That way, if it starts to drop or turn too soon, you have the ability to pick up its shoulder and go on with the run.

It’s not a matter of just galloping, galloping, galloping, but rather having control and doing a bigger pattern to stretch the stride and muscles in the process of building up the horse’s wind.

Once I get out on the road and my horses are making several rodeo runs a week, I try to keep the exercise quiet and peaceful. I do some light, relaxed riding. I’ll lope a few circles and keep the horses moving so they aren’t just standing in one spot all the time, especially when they are used to being active. It’s important to me to make sure they’re moving, even if you get stuck in an area where you can only hand walk. At least move them as much as possible in a small area and keep their muscles going, because trouble starts when horses stand too long. This becomes especially true if the weather changes from one extreme to the next or if you’re in a humid or cold, damp climate. This also holds true when hauling horses in a trailer. Every four hours, I get them out and walk them to stretch their legs and get all the kinks out of their muscles.

Stretches can also be useful on the road, especially if you get into a situation where you don’t have much room or time to warm your horse up. With Mo, I like to stretch him and do as much range of motion flexing as possible to relax his muscles and tendons.

The Extra Step

On top of proper conditioning, you can help your horses’ overall health and nutrition by providing the correct nutrients. This might mean supplements or electrolytes, and just like humans who take vitamins and minerals for our own health, sometimes we have to provide those extra components to our horses to make up for what their diet lacks.

I have always given my horses extra vitamin E and selenium because of the hauling and stress barrel racing horses encounter, as well as how many runs they make in a week at times. I also give electrolytes for the muscles and to keep fluids circulating. I use Equiwinner [Electrolyte Patches] to distribute and balance the electrolytes in the horse’s system. For instance, Mo has tied up a couple times, so I use Equiwinner to balance the electrolytes, because he had a problem with it in the past. I believe electrolytes are important to get through the system and circulate with vitamin E and selenium to make sure the horses have enough muscle support to prevent soreness and tying up.

I also use LubriSyn joint supplement to help keep my horses’ joints working properly and ease any discomfort. I use Back on Track products faithfully as well. In my May 2017 column, I wrote about Back On Track and Professional’s Choice products for protection and comfort. Oxy-Gen products also help to keep horses drinking on the road, manage stress, circulation and other components of keeping the body functioning.

If you’re going to be hauling long distances, you have to consider the feed your horses eat. If you’re going away from home for an extended amount of time and traveling long distances, you don’t want to switch feeds in the middle of the trip—keep this in mind when hauling. Choose a feed that is readily available at feed stores around the country or in the area you’re traveling, or make sure to pack enough of your feed to last the entire trip. For example, I feed Mo a pelleted feed with high fat and low starch, but I also add oats. Oats can be purchased anywhere, so when I plan a long-distance trip, I bring more of Mo’s main grain than oats. On my other horses, I use a drymix feed that I can get anywhere. I think about these factors as I choose a feeding program for my horses. If I get out on the road somewhere and know I have to switch feed or brands, I make sure I have enough of each brand to mix and switch my horses over gradually.

The Whole Body

The most important thing to know is your horse. Knowing Mo has tied up before, I know to watch his electrolytes, vitamin E and selenium intake and to watch for behaviors he exhibited in the past so I know how to react. If you know your horse and what to watch for, you’ll know what to do when you’re on a trip or if you’re going to be working them heavily.

I believe that with help from my vet, Charlie Buchanan, DVM, at Brazos Valley Equine Hospital, and my other sponsors that I can be confident leaving the driveway for every trip. I don’t stress about the unknown, and I know how to handle a dangerous or unhealthy situation because of the contacts, relationships and knowledge I have of my horses. You can be too if you take the initiative to get to know your horse and figure out these factors ahead of time.

Health and nutrition aren’t the only things that affect your horse’s happiness and performance—it’s a myriad of factors working together. If you condition your horse properly, build a working relationship with a veterinarian you trust, know your horse and its behavior so you can address your horse’s actions, provide proper nutrients and keep it relaxed and happy, you will go a long way toward improving performance in the arena.

Article originally published in the June 2017 issue of BHN. 


Kailey Sullins is editor of Barrel Horse News, and an avid barrel racer and breakaway roper. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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