Keeping your horse free from soreness is crucial—here’s how to do it within your budget.
Soundness is of the utmost importance for our barrel racing athletes, but the methods we use to keep our horses sound can range from minimal costs to astronomical. Being constrained by finances doesn’t mean you can’t help your horse, though. There’s a wide range of options available for treatment and maintenance that can benefit your horse’s overall soundness. We turned to expert veterinarian Dr. Marty Tanner, DVM for advice, and talked to two successful barrel racers to learn their philosophies on care.
The Importance of Maintaining Soundness
Experienced performance equine veterinarian Dr. Marty Tanner, DVM, says soundness care is a top-three priority in your horse’s overall maintenance.
“From my perspective, outside of good nutrition and keeping your horse fit, it’s the next thing on the list,” Tanner said. “Unsoundness creates everything from poor performance all the way to a full-blown injury to the horse. It also can cause a lot of behavioral issues, especially if it’s a low-grade problem you may not be picking up on—some of these issues could be directly related to soreness.”
For barrel racers, Tanner says he sees soft tissue injuries most often, followed by joint issues.
Rodeo competitor Cierra Chapman Nelson says soundness is important to her, but she also prefers to keep her horses’ maintenance simple as much as possible, which she says helps keep costs in line with her budget.
“I feel like sometimes we get wrapped up in fads, what’s new and what’s hot,” Nelson said. “While something may have worked for my friend’s horse, my horse might not need it. I prefer to ride it first instead of rushing to the veterinarian first. I prefer to turn a horse out for 10–14 days and see how they are. I take a more relaxed approach to it.”
Tricia Aldridge is a seasoned barrel racer and trainer, and she has several horses going in each age category. Aldridge has had barrel horses all her life and says as time has passed, she’s grown more conscientious about her horses’ care.
“I think sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” Aldridge said. “I didn’t use to inject anything; we didn’t do anything. But we’d have all these problems, and we’d just ride through it. I’ve definitely changed my thinking a lot over the years. Now I don’t have a lot of problems, and I think it’s because I focus more on their soundness.”
Aldridge says paying careful attention to soundness has improved her horses’ performance and trainability.
“I always say you can’t out-train pain, so it doesn’t matter how much work you put in, if that horse is sore at all, it won’t matter,” Aldridge said. “You can make it better, but it’s never going to be great, and that’s what I need to be competitive today.”
Many of the horses Aldridge has in her program were fixer-uppers from other programs. She says a focus on soundness has made all the difference in these horses’ performance and behavior. She also says don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if you feel your horse has an issue.
“I’ve had clients with horses that are turning pretty good and they trot [in a lameness exam] fine, so they don’t think they need their hocks injected,” Aldridge said. “And then every single time they’re going around the barrel, they’re changing leads on the back end or they step out of a turn. It’s super frustrating, because the horses are trying to be good to work every day. But think about how much better they could do if they weren’t in pain.”
Factors Contributing to Issues
Tanner says soreness and unsoundness can often come from one of two scenarios—horses that aren’t fit enough, and horses that are overworked. He says the latter can be exacerbated by exercise other than riding.
“I think a balance has to be there,” Tanner said. “The old horseman’s saying ‘there’s no substitute for wet saddle pads’ is true, but sometimes we get caught up in other modalities of keeping a horse fit other than riding. I think exercisers are good—I use them every day and they’re useful tools—but there is no substitute for riding a horse, not only for the conditioning, but also the good that you and your horse both get out of it.”
Benefits from riding your horse versus using a mechanical exerciser include enhanced non-verbal communication and familiarity that Tanner says translates into improved performance.
Conformation also impacts a horse’s long-term soundness, but poor conformation doesn’t necessarily mean your horse can’t be successful.
“You need to understand what your horse can and cannot do, and that varies,” Tanner said. “Some individuals, based on their conformation, are predisposed to certain types of injuries. That injury may never occur, but the possibility is there. They can also be more prone to re-injury.”
Lower-Cost Treatment Methods
Nelson has a TheraPlate at her barn and has used it for the last six years as her primary therapeutic tool.
“I’ve seen it work pretty incredible things, not only on my horses but on myself and my husband, too,” Nelson said. “My husband tore his pectoral muscle, and it played a pretty big role keeping him comfortable. I know it works the same for my horses.”
She also has a PHT magnetic blanket she’ll put on her horse after a hard day to ease body soreness.
First and foremost, Aldridge feels good shoeing and correct angles are crucial to keeping her horses sound.
“Part of my program is making sure I have a very good relationship with my veterinarian and my farrier,” Aldridge said. “I can head off the most basic prob- lems by making sure I have a good shoer on my team that is listening to not just what I feel I need, but what my veterinarian is needing to do with each particular horse, too.”
She advises choosing a performance veterinarian if possible and says it can actually save you money.
“It ends up being cheaper in the long run if we can diagnose what is wrong and fix it the first time, versus me coming back six more times to figure it out,” Aldridge said. “A performance vet sees a high number of high-end barrel and rope horses, often over 20 a day, versus a vet that sees maybe one a week—I feel that makes a big difference. You don’t go to the family practice doctor if you play in the NFL.”
Regular veterinary work makes a big difference, says Aldridge.
“We have a game plan, and I pretty well let my vet (Dr. Don Lee, DVM, at Double X Equine in Sunset, Texas) have free reign of whatever we need to do,” Aldridge said. “I have learned that if I don’t just do what needs to be done, I’m going to be back.”
Educating yourself, researching options and asking your veterinarian questions can all help you make good choices about your horse’s care, says Aldridge.
Feed-wise, Aldridge feeds her horses a diet that is as natural as possible, including free choice alfalfa, while also offering all the nutrients needed. She believes aminos are an important part of their diet, because she feels aminos assure that horses are getting the most from their protein, while also helping to decrease soreness and reduce fatigue from training. She feeds a product she developed, Red Hot Pre-Workout Repair, to boost amino intake and help horses recover from the strains and stress of competition.
“Horses can often injure themselves while protecting another area that’s sore,” Aldridge said. “It’s my goal to eliminate anything that’s easily preventable.”
Nelson is careful not to overfeed, feeling that an overweight horse will have more issues with soundness.
For joint issues and soft-tissue injuries, Tanner says the most economical option is cortisone steroid injections. However, he says they need to be used judiciously.
“They have anti-inflammatory effects, but they can also have detrimental effects on say, joints, if they’re applied at intervals too close together,” Tanner said.
Aldridge is careful about how often she has her horses injected with cortisone, especially not to use cortisone in high-motion joints, which is why she feels injections have gotten a bad reputation in the first place.
In addition to leg joints, Aldridge has her horse’s temporomandibular joint (TMJ) in the jaw injected as needed. “I feel like it’s one of the most overlooked and most used joints,” Aldridge said. “I sometimes have horses do goofy stuff with their tongues or grind their teeth, and that joint is pulling overtime. If you’ve got one that rattles their head, pulls their face back or just rides around stiff, I like to have the TMJ injected.”
Tanner says an oral tablet medication like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Equioxx is a low-cost way to enhance your horse’s overall soundness.
“If you go in and inject the joint, you’re just injecting that joint, and that’s what you’re treating, but there are a lot more parts of the horse,” Tanner said. “[Drugs like Equioxx] allow you to have a broadcast treatment effect on that horse.”
In the next tier of cost to the owner, hyaluronic acid (HA) is a staple treatment method, but Tanner cautions against choosing a HA option strictly by cost.
“You’ve got to realize there are different qualities of hyaluronic acid, at different prices,” Tanner said. “We grade hyaluronic acid based on the molecular weight, which translates to not only the viscosity—or lubricating qualities—but also how long it will stay in the joint, because anything we put in a joint breaks down with time.”
The higher the viscosity, the longer you’re going to have the benefit of HA, Tanner says.
HA is often used in conjunction with other joint medications, at varying price points.
Some non-medication injectable treatments include Adequan (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) and Legend (hyaluronate sodium). These can be given either in the joint or intramuscularly, which can help reduce the frequency your horse needs to receive joint injections.
“It’s just good maintenance and good help for the horse,” Tanner said.
Dietary supplements can be helpful—and affordable—methods to care for your horse’s joints. Tanner mentioned Platinum Performance CJ, Oxy-Gen and Cosequin as examples of feed additives targeted for joint nutrition.
“They’re valid and useful products,” Tanner said.
Entering the higher-priced category, a newer injectable medication on the market is synthetic joint lubricant NoltrexVet. While not suitable for every horse or joint, it’s stepped into an important place in the options available for joint care.
“It’s a very good product—it has a much higher viscosity and it doesn’t break down,” Tanner said. “They’ve shown in research that with repeated doses it has the ability to address cartilage defects. It can have almost like a scaffolding or buildup affect, almost a resurfacing-type effect on the cartilage.”
Regenerative products are another high-end category showing excellent results in keeping horses sound. Tanner says sometimes they can be used for maintenance, but more typically they’re used for treating injuries. These products include Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP), platelet-rich plasma (PRP), and a newer product called Pro-Stride APS.
IRAP is pricey initially, but Tanner says the number of doses that can be created for a horse from one blood draw make it ultimately more affordable per dose. “The benefits that this product provides allow you to treat the horse without any detrimental effects,” Tanner said.
To spread out costs, Tanner will often rotate which treatments he gives the horse—HA one dose, a regenerative product the next dose a few months later, and then a man-made product.
Nelson uses Pro-Stride APS and is attracted to products that can regenerate cartilage growth and help the joint. “Pro-Stride has actually been a game-changer for me,” Nelson said.
Choosing Your Maintenance
Tanner recommends strategizing which races to enter, which can possibly increase your horse’s longevity by not running your horse at every race.
Tanner says several things affect the amount and type of maintenance your horse will need. Preexisting conditions may mean your horse needs a higher-end treatment, versus a horse without injuries or conformation issues.
A horse competing at the pro rodeo level may need more and higher-end maintenance than a horse occasionally competing at jackpots.
The season of your horse’s life can also direct your maintenance strategy, says Tanner. A 3-year-old futurity horse competing heavily may need a much dif- ferent regimen of treatment to stay sound for the next 15 years of its career, while a 20-year-old horse packing around a youth rider might need a completely different strategy.
“You’ve almost got to work backwards when you’re managing a horse’s career sometimes,” Tanner said. “You’ve got to keep in mind where the horse needs to be in five or six years.”
Aldridge agrees—she feels a futurity horse is at the apex of athletic stressors, with serious practice at home and multiple competitions in the span of a few days.
“It’s harder on futurity horses as a 3- and 4-year old, and a derby horse as a 5-year-old, than maybe a rodeo horse that lopes circles during the week and you don’t really have to do anything but keep him in shape,” Aldridge said. “That experienced horse knows where to put his feet, and he knows how to use his body, and he’s not using himself as hard. But it depends on the horse.”
Aldridge said she gives herself a set amount of money at the time of purchase or when she really starts to compete on a horse to spend on a horse’s medical care, including soundness, to address issues at once.
“Not every issue has to be continually addressed—sometimes you just need to inject or treat something once, then fix the cause of the problem, and you won’t have to do it again,” Aldridge said.
Nelson devotes a minimal amount of her budget to soundness maintenance but does work with her veterinarian regularly as well as a good farrier.
“I recommend having a really good relationship with your veterinarian,” Nelson said. “I’m a minimalist, but I recommend establishing your own routine when it comes to soundness. Not many people see things the way we see them here, and that’s OK. It’s what works for me.”
Consult with your veterinarian to build a maintenance plan for your horse that fits your budget and also keeps your horse comfortable while you work toward your goals. This could mean implementing several types of medications or therapies, with the goal of long-term soundness.
“Just have a plan,” Tanner said. “You’ll choose your modality based on those factors. It’s a team effort. It takes a village to keep these animals healthy.”
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Barrel Horse News.