Expert Tips For Healthy Horsekeeping
Dressage riders with everyday access to veterinary expertise share their strategies.
Dressage riders with everyday access to veterinary expertise share their strategies
As a dressage rider, being a veterinarian or being married to one seems to offer an unfair advantage in the daily effort of maintaining a happy, healthy, peak-performing equine partner. Not many fit that description, but Dressage Today found five who were happy to share their strategies for things all owners can do or provide for their steeds.
“The first and most important thing for everyone to remember is that horses, just like people, are individuals,” notes Melanie Burnley, DVM, a veterinarian and Grand Prix competitor. “The most important thing that a rider can do is get to know her horse as an individual and then treat him as such. Everything else is just suggestions.” She and her husband and fellow FEI trainer and rider, JT Burnley, own Wrenwood Dressage in Fulton, Kentucky.
No “cake-baking” in the feed room, “psyllium Sundays” and a stimulating stable life are among the practices most owners can incorporate into their horses’ daily routine. Read on for more expert ideas on fitness, nutrition and maintaining digestive, joint and respiratory health, plus tips for healthy stable keeping.
“Never let horses get completely out of work,” recommends Carolyn Simme- link, DVM, who juggles her Redding, Connecticut, practice with keeping and riding two horses at home. Her herd consists of an 18-year-old “possibly Trakehner” she rescued and competed through Novice level eventing, and a 9-year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred cross who events at Beginner Novice. Both also do lots of dressage. Downtime from the show circuit is great, says Simmelink, but it should include regular physical activity and work. With the exception of the few horses who give themselves a good workout during turnout time, she suggests at least two days a week of deliberate exercise even during time off from regular work. Twice-weekly work is required to maintain muscle, she notes, and four times a week is needed to build it.
For Simmelink, a Northeasterner without an indoor ring, that often means jumping on her horses bareback and riding up and down the driveway in the snow. “It’s a half-mile driveway on a hill, so it’s great conditioning while also providing something completely different from arena work.
“It doesn’t have to be dedicated training work,” she continues. “Fortyfive minutes of walking will do or 20 minutes of refresher exercise like transitions. The horses just need to be reminded of how their muscles need to move and what’s expected of them.
“I think it’s really healthy for the horse to do trail riding, get out of the ring or do some gymnastics or small jumps inside the arena. People are afraid of things like that and always want to work in perfectly groomed rings. If the horse has never seen uneven terrain or, heaven forbid, a bit of a dip in the arena, he won’t know how to handle it.”
She notes that riders in England are known for trotting horses on hardsurface roads for a few minutes as part of their daily conditioning program, a practice proven to strengthen bones.
If you decide to incorporate road work into your program, Simmelink stresses that riders should start the practice gradually if the horse is new to it or get creative with other ways to mix up the routine. “Some variety is good, mentally and physically,” Simmelink says. “If they do the same thing on the same footing, they don’t know how to adapt to other circumstances. Horses are amazingly adaptable if we prepare them for what their body is going to have to do.”
Correct training is critical to fitness and soundness, notes veterinarian and amateur rider Sara Bartholomew, DVM, whose mobile practice, Capitol Equine Veterinary Services, is based in Sacramento, California. “As an amateur, it takes six times as long as a professional to produce the same result in terms of collection and throughness,” she says. She makes a point of lessoning during the four days a week her rounds enable her to ride, but she also has both her horses in full training with trainer Ra- chel Wade. “Soundness is hugely related to correct riding,” she explains. “Just like weight-lifting on the human side, it’s important to have a professional help us along the way.” Full training also ensures that Bartholomew’s horses get worked well and regularly when she can’t ride herself, a frequent occurrence given the demands of her profession.
Nutrition & Digestion
Good-quality forage is a feeding priority. “From there, decide if your horse needs additional nutrition,” says Simmelink. “Everybody thinks of grain when they think nutrition, but it should start with hay.” Appropriate body weight, muscle condition and coat quality are the main indicators of sufficient nutrition. A 5 score on the Body Condition Scoring System is ideal in her view. She acknowledges that many dressage owners prefer the look of 7s and 8s, even though that’s less healthy. Ribs that can be felt but not seen characterize a 5 while the “fleshy” and “fat” 7 and 8 scale-points include enough fat to feel it between the ribs, possible fat deposits near the withers and/or a crease along the spine of fleshy hindquarters. “Equine metabolic syndrome is almost an epidemic among horses, on par with heart disease in people,” she notes. “Keeping the Body Conditioning Score Lower helps with that.” A little extra weight on an older, retired horse is OK, she adds, because it counters winter weight dips that are typical in that equine demographic.
If grain is called for to add weight, it should be small amounts fed frequently, not large amounts all at once, and preferably with low-carbohydrate but high-fat content. Large amounts of carbohydrate-rich grains are a culprit in ulcers and other gut problems, she says. Simmelink‘s two horses live on high-quality grass pasture hay and receive Purina Enrich, a simple, lowfat supplement.
“Psyllium Sunday” is a mnemonic phrase Simmelink uses to remind