Make sure your horse is fit and healthy before you start competition season with tips from these experts.
Before futurity competitor Lacey Donegan Harmon heads out to any major barrel race, she makes an appointment with her veterinarian to check her horses for lameness and other health issues. Like rotating your tires before a road trip, taking the time to evaluate your horse’s health is just one step in an important list of tasks you don’t want to miss before you hit the road.
Competition season is upon us, and if you’re like many riders, you’re planning out your event schedule, gathering your gear and preparing your horse for consecutive races. If you’re new to the game or returning to competition and a bit fuzzy on what you need to do for spring conditioning, you’ll be glad to hear from Harmon and her veterinarian, Charlie Buchanan, DVM, of Brazos Valley Equine Hospitals in Stephenville, Texas.
Harmon specializes in futurity colts, so for her coming 3-year-olds, she focuses on getting them in shape prior to competition. Each horse begins by working on an automatic exerciser—a round pen with rotating panels to guide the horse in a circular motion at a specified rate of speed.
“Before I get on any of my horses, they go on there for 30 minutes at least—I will build up, walk for 15 minutes, trot for 10, walk again,” Harmon said. “Then I get on and ride them and do whatever else I feel like they need to work on.”
Even if you don’t have access to an exerciser or hot walker, you can spend the same amount of time easing your horse into the ride with plenty of walking and jogging. Once the horse is warmed up, Harmon’s preferred speed for conditioning is loping. She’ll lope 15 to 20 minutes in various directions.
“I am a loper, not really a long trotter,” Harmon said. “I like to lope lots of small circles and big circles, then do straight lines and go diagonally across the arena.”
Harmon says fitness is especially important for horses competing in the heat.
“You want to make sure your horse doesn’t get overheated, and part of that is by keeping them in top shape,” Harmon said. “If they get out of shape in the summer time, it’s hard on them to keep up.”
A horse competing frequently will also need a high level of fitness.
“You’re asking so much of your horse,” Harmon said. “They are sometimes running three or four times a weekend, so it definitely helps them to be as physically fit as they can.”
Harmon does most of her work away from the barrels, and she only works her horses on the pattern on average three times a week.
“When I first start them, I will work them four times a week, but once they know the pattern, I will only work them on the barrels three times a week,” Harmon said. “And not for very long. I keep it very short.
“It’s something that’s worked for me, and I have always felt it keeps them fresh,” she continued. “As soon as they do what I’m asking them to do correctly and they’ve increased a step and learned something, then I’ll stop.”
Harmon says to get to that point, it could take two trips around the barrels or it could take 10.
For horses that need additional fitness work, she’ll add some aquatic workouts. To increase their cardio health, Harmon sends her horses to equine free-swimming facility Hydro Fit to increase their physical fitness.
For horses recovering from injury, Harmon uses an AquaPacer, which is an aquatic treadmill, at Brazos Valley Stallion Station, LP near her house.
Her horses live in 40-foot-by-40-foot pens, so they’re always able to move around throughout the day.
Charlie Buchanan, DVM, says your horse’s physical condition is key to preventing injuries.
“The main thing is to make sure your horse is fit,” Buchanan said. “A lot of the injuries we see are simply due to the horses running and competing, but if they’re not healthy or fit, it’s easy to get injured.”
Buchanan says you need at least two to four weeks of just exercise before you start working your horse on the barrels and practicing the pattern.
“You also want to run them a few times before you leave, if you can, so you can get a handle on how they’re working,” Buchanan said.
The most important thing about conditioning your horse is getting to know the animal so you can recognize if they need additional support, veterinary care or a change in diet.
“If you have a horse you know tends to stress out when on the road, be prepared for when that horse doesn’t eat well away from home,” Harmon said. “I’ll usually put that horse on an ulcer preventative supplement a few days before I leave, and I’ll also try to beef up their feed and hay in the weeks before we leave so they don’t lose too much weight if they’re stressed.”
For horses competing heavily, Harmon increases hay and feed on the road to maintain body condition even when they’re running frequently.
As she’s preparing her horses, Harmon observes their overall health.
“I’m always looking out for changes in my horses’ personalities—are they irritated, groggy, too fresh?” Harmon said. “Most of what I look for is related to how they’re acting.”
Before every major event she goes to, Harmon takes her horses to her veterinarian to get a lameness exam and general physical check-up.
“It doesn’t matter if the horse is working good or bad, it’s a preventative,” Harmon said. “The vet will also go over everything in a general exam.”
This proactive approach has kept Harmon from feeling frustrated over a horse’s less-than-stellar performance. Knowing the status of her horses’ health at all times gives her the information she needs to push forward on which horses are ready to race and which ones need time off.
Buchanan says for barrel racing clients, his first step in helping them prepare for competition season is to conduct a routine medical exam.
“One major benefit of routine exams is that the veterinarian develops a ‘normal’ for a particular horse,” Buchanan said. “If something subtle changes, it’s a little easier to notice it and address it. It also lets us know if there is something unusual but has been there for a while to know it’s not a big issue.”
Buchanan will discuss with the owner the horse’s medical history and any potential issues that need to be addressed or managed while they are on the road.
“We might inject the hocks and stifles; if the horse has an issue that needs corrective shoeing, we will make a plan on how to communicate with the horse shoer down the road to make sure the horse gets shod properly,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan will also discuss proper leg wrap selection and application, how to care for soft tissue soreness on the legs—icing, mudding the leg or sweating it—products to use, and other topics to keep your horse sound.
Horses preparing for a series of competitions also typically have their teeth floated to minimize potential issues while on the road. Additionally, Buchanan puts together a strategy for vaccinating the horses to make sure they receive them at the right times throughout the year.
Next, Buchanan will perform a lameness exam—a preventative measure to pinpoint any potential issues before they become problematic.
“For barrel horses, we frequently inject the hocks if they have arthritis issues that need to be addressed,” Buchanan said. “If you don’t address that, these horses can compensate with their bodies, and it can affect their suspensory ligaments or their backs. It creates a vicious cycle of one problem after another, and then when they do have a significant problem, they hurt themselves badly, and you will have missed the signs.”
For this seasonal soundness exam, the veterinarian observes the horse standing still to look for obvious swelling or injuries. Next, he’ll palpate the joints, tendons, ligaments and back.
“We will make sure the range of motion on all their limbs is normal, make sure the range of motion on the neck when bending around is normal,” Buchanan said.
Once the exam on a standing horse is complete, Buchanan will watch the horse trot toward and away from him. He will then do flexion tests, which involves the veterinarian flexing a leg joint before the horse is trotted off to more clearly see any signs of subtle lameness.
“The soundness exam is the important thing, and then just putting your hands on the horse and palpating them,” Buchanan said. “Because you may find a little bump or something swollen somewhere that may need to be looked at, identifying problems before they cause real lameness.”
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.