Soundness goes back to having a balanced total program for your barrel horse. It involves riding right, proper diet and exercise, as well as good veterinary care, dentistry and chiropractic care. The overall health of the horse affects soundness, both mental and physical.

My advice is if you suspect something is not right with your horse, then get a second opinion from a qualified professional. A veterinarian will look at lameness with a trained, educated eye. If you feel a horse is off, it’s a good idea to take the horse sooner than later to someone trained to diagnose the potential problem.

Key Signals

If you aren’t very experienced at knowing how to feel if a horse is off, there are a few key things you can learn that will help you identify when your horse is experiencing pain. If a horse bobs his head at a trot, that’s a pretty sure indicator of lameness. When the sore foot or limb hits the ground, the response to the pain is the head bob. Obvious shortness in stride is another thing you can see with the naked eye. Someone pointing it out helps. You want to work with your veterinarian at that point to properly isolate the lameness issue.

Lameness in barrel horses.
Photo by John Brasseaux.

A real key factor is that just because it’s not an obvious lameness you can see with your own eyes doesn’t mean the horse doesn’t feel pain when he’s exerting himself. In situations like that, you want to rely on the best veterinarian or chiropractor to help you get to the bottom of what’s causing that soreness and getting the horse some relief before things deteriorate further.

Another thing you can learn to do yourself is check for heat in the legs. Check in the morning when it’s cool out. Feel the horse’s legs and feet. For example, you might feel a hot ankle or hot spot on a tendon, and you’ll know you’ve got some soreness to treat. Consult with your veterinarian about this to get to the bottom of it before you have a really lame horse.

If you notice swelling from the knees down, all the way around, you’ll want to take the horse’s temperature. This can be a sign of a virus or infection their body is fighting. The legs will swell, and puffiness is a good indicator that something’s going on.

Hocks can swell, too. Not quite as visibly, but it’s a good idea to know where to watch for inflammation in the hocks—where the joints of the hocks are exactly—so you know where to watch for swelling if it occurs. A veterinarian can help you learn where those joints are and where swelling and inflammation could be seen. Sometimes, you will run into swelling in the knees as well. There are simple things you can learn. You can learn to check flexion in the front end yourself by flexing the ankle and knee. Sometimes, a horse that’s had long toes in the past or that hasn’t had proper hoof care will lose some flexion in the ankle or knee.

Conditions like that aren’t necessarily always something you can totally fix, but it’s a good idea to be aware of it. If you recognize something like that on your own, it’s best to work with a professional on the next step toward trying to improve the condition. 

Leg Care

There are plenty of steps you can take to keep a horse’s legs tight. You can run cold water, which helps keep heat out and inflammation down. There are plenty of poultice products on the market you can apply to the legs to help tendons and ligaments stay drawn down and tight. Bandages will help some horses. I used bandages to keep Scamper’s legs tight, because otherwise his check ligaments had a tendency to get a little sore. I’ve never used the Game Ready machine myself, but I’ve heard good things about that as a cold compression leg therapy. I’ve used the Chi Machine on my horses for absolutely everything, from sore hocks to swelling.

There’s one thing to mention though, whether you’re talking about bandaging or using a therapy device. When an injury is involved, there are no quick fixes. Machines, physical therapy, massage—all those things will definitely speed up the healing in the legs, but the horse will need enough time off to allow the body to heal.

Drugs like Adequan, Legend and glucosamine are beneficial in battling joint soreness and inflammation. We’re also finding that the Omega 3s work well for joint soreness. You can feed cranberry seed oil, which is high in Omega 3s, to help the joints. There are a lot of things you can do to help horses feel their best.

A temporary block or a drug like banamine (a muscle relaxer) can get you through if you’re in a do-or-die situation, but you have to remember those methods aren’t curing lameness. They will give a horse some temporary pain relief, but a veterinarian should help determine if this is the best course given the situation. I also think it’s a good idea for people to research natural pain relief methods. Avoiding lameness goes back to good shoeing and keeping your horses conditioned properly.

Another very important thing is to make sure horses are always properly hydrated.

Horses that are dehydrated get sore, and dehydration can lead to a lot of problems, such as general body soreness. If a horse is dealing with the stress of being sore, that can induce ulcers. You might figure out the lameness, and in the meantime, the pain and stress may have caused ulcers to develop. That’s just one more reason to do all you can to keep your horses feeling their best.

Conditioning for Soundness

I’ve found that every horse is a little different and needs something a little unique as far as conditioning. It’s beneficial to ride your horse six days a week. Walking, long trotting and loping circles help get a horse flexible and pliable. Good conditioning keeps the body fit and moving well and keeps blood flowing to ligaments and tendons and circulation to the lungs. Loping circles—big and small—gets the horse accustomed to bending and flexing.

If a horse has been off with an injury, it’s best to start back on their conditioning program gradually—increase the time you spend riding little by little. Keeping the horse in the routine of working and running is important. Once the horse is regaining condition, it’s a good idea to get some runs back under them. With my horses, I’ve found that it takes one or two weekends of going to jackpots to get them tapped off right if they’ve had a break. Keeping horses in great condition helps eliminate injuries from occurring when they have to strain during a run. Keep in mind, if a horse really strains, and you keep riding that horse even if you feel something is a little off, it usually leads to a bigger problem. I see a lot of horses out there with sore suspensory ligaments. They’ll get sore in both legs and won’t show much of a head bobbing lameness because both legs are sore. If you continue running the horse, there is a chance of tearing a suspensory and putting the horse out of commission for an extended period of time. That is the kind of lameness you want to catch early, because it’s career-threatening.

Taking a horse too fast too soon after an injury or poor shoeing are both risk factors for lameness to develop. If the horse’s heels are too low or too high or you let the horse get long between shoeings, it all affects balance. It’s wise to get a horse shod every four to six weeks in the winter when the hoof doesn’t grow quite so fast.

A Sound Mind

I’ve always noticed in most cases that horses that are cared for and treated well stay mentally sound and, as a result, physically sound. Even great horses tend to go downhill more quickly both mentally and physically if they’ve been abused or if the rider’s outlook on them is negative. When you have a positive overall outlook on your horses, they gain a lot of confidence in you and what you’re doing. I see it over and over again. Horses that perform badly deteriorate physically, just like people who are under a lot of stress tend to get sick more frequently. You take a young girl that loves her horse and conveys that belief to him, the horse tends to give his whole heart and will work through things he might not do for someone he didn’t trust.

To me, it’s all tied together. My advice is to seek the best farrier, equine dentist, chiropractor and veterinarian and to ride the best you can for the longevity and mental and physical soundness of your horse.