Ray Hunt told me that when you pick up a lead rope, the horse on the other end knows what you know, and he knows what you don’t know. That horse will never forget that feel. You can walk away from that horse for a year, and you come back and that horse knows you from that feel.

I’ll be honest. The first time Ray told me that, I didn’t believe him. I thought he was nuts, even though I knew how good he was because of his reputation. But ever since I met that man in 1978, it’s been proven to me over and over again. I’ve walked down a shed row with a horse and handed him to a groom, and within three steps, that was a different horse. Once I understood it, I spent the next several years apologizing to horses.

People who have the same horse and touch that horse literally on a daily basis, like most barrel racers, there is a rapport there I can’t even start to explain to someone. When you’re really, really aware of your horse on a day-to-day basis, you’re in a position to catch subtle signs of a problem that could turn into a bigger issue had those little signs gone unnoticed.

First thing in the morning, I check for any signs of a problem in a horse’s lower legs. I want to be in there before he’s up and moving around for the day. When I feel his knees, ankles, and tendons, I want them to be cold. If there’s heat, there’s a problem, because the body has already increased the circulation to that area. The horse is trying to show me something we need to work on.

Here’s how I do it:

  • I stand on the left side of a horse and use my right hand. However you do it, use the same hand to check both legs, so you can feel any difference in heat.
  • Check the front of both knees, go down the front of the leg to one ankle and then the other, and then down to the coronet band on both legs. All of that should be cold. I don’t mean ice cold, but there shouldn’t be any heat in there. If you can feel a hot spot, you’ve got something you need to address.
  • Reach around the back and check the ligaments behind the knee, then down the back and both sides of the tendon. Check for any kind of wind puff or fluid in the joints or around the tendons and ligaments. Finally, very softly run a finger down the back of the pastern from the base of the ankle down to the foot to see if there’s any puffiness in there.
  • There are two joints in a knee, the top joint and the lower joint. Kneel down next to the horse and with the heel of your hand, apply pressure on the top joint of the knee from the inside to the outside. If it forms a little bubble on the outside of the knee, you’ve got excess fluid in there.
  • The hind ankles are the weakest point in the horse’s system. On a sound horse, under the assumption the horse hasn’t had any injuries, there won’t be any fluid in the hind ankles. If you see some puffiness there, is it from lack of exercise, or could there be a problem? If you see puffiness in the hind ankles of a horse you’re riding every day, over the course of two or three days, it might be a sign of an infection setting in. That infection isn’t necessarily there in the ankles, it could be anywhere in the body, but since that’s the weakest point, that’s where it will show up.

A lot of people don’t believe a horse has a mind. They don’t believe he has feelings, emotions. I know they do, because I know when it was proven to me and it changed my whole outlook. You can see it when you are aware and learn to read your horse. When you get on his back and he says, ‘Let me show you what I can do,’ you know you’ve got everything in the right spot.

Thoroughbred trainer Chuck Karlin has spent the majority of his 70 years on racetracks across the United States, developing a discerning eye from studying thousands of horses. He got his first job at the age of 5, working under his grandfather, Marion Van Berg, and as an adult worked for his uncle, Jack Van Berg, both legendary Racing Hall of Fame trainers and Karlin’s lifelong mentors. He now resides in Haughton, La., with his wife, Koleen, and can often be found at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City.