Few things are more frustrating for a barrel racing competitor than a horse coming up lame. If you’re just getting started in barrel racing, not riding regularly can derail your learning process, disrupt your competition goals, and most of all, discourage you from the sport. Arlis Baze, DVM, has worked with barrel racers for years, and he shares some advice to help keep your horse sound and healthy for the long haul.

Prepurchase Exam
Before you buy a horse, make sure you are aware of any potential soundness issues. Baze says to talk with your veterinarian about your riding goals before you schedule a vet check. You and your veterinarian should also have a conversation with the horse’s previous veterinarian and owner to better understand its past history.

“You want to do whatever it takes to assure you are not buying a horse with a problem,” Baze said. “There is nothing worse for a novice rider than to have a horse and not be able to ride it or be constantly dealing with lameness problems. You want to do everything you can to ensure the horse is sound from the beginning.”

Injections as Maintenance—Not Prevention
One thing Baze says some riders misunderstand is the role joint injections play in a horse’s management. Rather than viewing injections as preventative treatment, he advises riders to consider it as maintenance only as necessary.

“Hock injections are not going to stop the problem—you are treating the symptom,” Baze says. “There is nothing I can put in the joint that will actually stop the joint from wearing out. All I can do is help that joint feel comfortable. It can be very effective, but it is not preventative.”

During the pre-purchase exam, Baze advises riders to talk with the horse’s veterinarian about the horse’s injection history. If the horse requires injections every two months to stay sound, that should signal the rider to look for a more sound animal that requires less medical care.

“Make sure you know ahead of time how much hock maintenance the horse will require and if you’re prepared to continue that regimen,” Baze said.

Invest in Proper Horseshoeing
The most important thing you can do to keep your horse sound is to have it cared for regularly by a good farrier, Baze advises. Not all horses need shoes, but every horse needs to be trimmed properly to keep its feet balanced.

StayingSound2 webExamine all four of your horse’s legs and hooves before booting up and getting on. Photo courtesy Classic Equine Examine Hooves and Legs Before Riding
Baze says you should look over your horse’s legs and feet before you ride, similar a pilot performing a complete pre-flight check before leaving the ground. Look for visible bumps, bruises and cuts, palpate the legs for unusual swelling or wounds, and watch the horse walk around before mounting.

“All of these things are important, because if you get a horse out and he has a swollen tendon, but you don’t realize it until you’ve ridden him for 30 minutes, you may have done more damage than you can imagine,” Baze said.

Even if you’re not going to ride, it’s a good idea to clean out your horse’s hooves daily to check for foreign objects and for thrush—a bacterial infection in the frog of the hoof characterized by dark and smelly tissue.

Choose Good Ground
The ground on which your horse stands and works can affect his soundness. Baze says keeping the horse’s stall and paddocks as clean as possible will help reduce chances for thrush.
He recommends riding on properly conditioned ground properly conditioned—avoid overly hard or uneven footing.

“Barrel horses are so athletic, and they are turning at such a fast rate of speed that you need ground that is forgiving,” Baze said. “You don’t want them slipping or falling with you. Ground preparation can be overlooked by inexperienced personnel, but it’s really important to your horse’s soundness.”

woman wrapping splint boots
While both polo wraps and protective boots offer support and protection from interference, boots are quick and easy to apply and can offer additional protection against abrasions. Photo courtesy Classic Equine

Use Protective Boots Correctly

Baze emphasizes that no protective boot can prevent an injury such as a bowed tendon or a torn suspensory ligament. Even the most supportive boot will fail under the strain of performance conditions. However, support boots, polo wraps and splint boots can protect the horse’s legs from interference, striking and cross-firing incidents.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can put on a horse that can keep him from hurting his tendons if he slips and falls or overextends himself,” Baze said. “Boots give important protection, so I suggest using them for barrel racing.”

If you’re using polo wraps, Baze urges to make sure you apply them correctly. Start in the middle of the cannon bone, and wrap from front to back—if you are wrapping the front left leg, wrap counterclockwise, but not in concentric wraps. Baze says professional athletic trainers recommend wrapping up and down from the center along the leg and filling in with additional wraps of material around the leg until you have covered the desired area. Apply firm pressure, but avoid wrapping too tightly because you could cause tendon damage. Baze suggests practicing on a friend’s arm to get a feel for the correct pressure.

“You want a pleasant firmness to the wrap,” Baze said. “If it’s too tight for your friend, it’ll be too tight for your horse.”

woman wrapping splint boots on horse
The pre-formed design of protective support boots makes proper fit easy to find. Photo courtesy Classic Equine

Support boots made of neoprene and Velcro are quicker and easier to apply and offer the legs more durable protection. Baze says sports boots can protect the ankle and fetlock from skid burns that can occur during the barrel pattern’s speedy turns.

Baze also recommends form-fitting bell boots to protect the horse from interference between legs. He focuses mainly on the front legs but says if your horse has a tendency to really get down and turn or slide around the barrels, skid boots or short roper-style boots can be beneficial for the hind legs.

Learn Proper Horsemanship
Baze says your riding position can directly affect your horse’s soundness.

“The balance you have on your horse—staying in the middle of the horse and up over his withers— is so important,” Baze said. “Jockeys don’t flop around on racehorses, because they know they can jerk the horse over on its side.”

Baze has seen many instances where the rider leaned too far in one direction and caused the horse to slip and fall on the barrel pattern.

“It’s no different than if you were running a race and someone pushed you—you would go flying sideways,” Baze said. “Even though a horse is big and stout, an unbalanced rider can create a dangerous scenario when running at a high speed.”

Condition Your Horse
Running a barrel pattern only takes 15–17 seconds, but your horse is giving 100 percent of its effort during that time. Baze says a horse that is not in top condition can easily injure itself during that quick race, with long-range consequences.

“Your horse needs to be fit and in shape,” Baze said. “You should do a lot of long-trotting and some loping to keep tendons and muscles strong and toned.”
Baze likens barrel horses to football players—they don’t only exercise during football games. Athletes need to work on conditioning more than they compete.

“Some barrel racers only ride 10 or 15 minutes a day two or three times a week and think they are ready to go barrel racing,” Baze said. “You need to have a conditioning program and stick to it. Have your horse in tip-top shape to eliminate muscle tears, muscle soreness and to protect the tendons. The horse will be in shape to do the physical activity you want.”

Baze suggests choosing a different discipline if you can’t commit to regularly conditioning a barrel horse.

“If you think you don’t have time, then don’t compete in barrel racing,” Baze said. “It’s not fair for your horse to ask him to compete when he’s not in shape. He will pay the price.”StayingSound ArlisBazeBio

Travel Smart
Baze and his wife have competed in rodeos around the country, and travel can be strenuous for horses. If you’ve got a long road trip, he recommends stopping every four hours and getting the horse out for a 1/2-mile hand jog.

“If you have ever ridden in the back of a horse trailer, you’ll realize it is tremendously traumatic,” Baze said. “Get your horses out of the trailer if at all possible every four hours and let them move around. Let them drink—keep them hydrated, because this is very important in preventing muscle tears.”

If your horse doesn’t like unfamiliar water, Baze recommends flavoring it both at home and on the road with one of the following: a tablespoon of baking soda, a splash of apple cider vinegar, or a bit of powdered sports drink.

“Some horses don’t drink water that smells differently to them,” Baze said. “If your horse really won’t take in any water, you might get a veterinarian to IV treat the horse with fluids. Plan ahead and start flavoring the water at home first.”


This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BHN as part of the Barrel Racing Basics series.

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1 Comment

  1. Jackie Crosby Reply

    Enjoyed this post about horse soundness – Especially as we are approach summer months when we tend to start asking more of our horses. Also liked the comment about hock injections and how these treat the symptom, but aren’t service as preventative care. Great read!

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