YOUR HORSE IS WORKING HARD,
and your trainer has recommended you sign him up for next week’s hock injections. Of course, your barn buddies all agree—they all have their horses injected at least three times a year for maintenance. Reluctantly, you go along with the plan even though your horse seems sound and has been working well. If you want to win, you figure you’d better do what everybody else is doing. That’s just how things work in a big show barn, right?
Not necessarily! In fact, “routine joint injections” and show-day medications might not be the healthiest choice for your sound, hard-working horse. A “magic pill” might sound appealing, especially if it could make your horse slide farther, turn a barrel faster, or take the edge off for a rail class. But rarely does it take the place of good old-fashioned horsemanship.
In this article, I’ll share five common scenarios where medication-heavy plans are relied upon to maintain health. You’ll learn why a quick fix might not be the best answer and what alternatives you can consider to replace that “magic pill.” In the end, you’ll see that although medications have their place in keeping your horse sound, healthy, and performing well, proper management is your most important tool.
Scenario #1: Flex and Inject
The subject: Sam is a 12-year-old reining horse that campaigns hard with his owner in the youth division. He’s always been quite sound and healthy, and competes almost every weekend during spring and summer months.
Two weeks before competition season starts, Sam is scheduled to have his hocks, stifles, and coffin joints injected with steroids and hyaluronic acid. Sam’s trainer says it’s just like changing the oil in a truck—because Sam’s a little older, he needs to be lubed up to remain sound. Sam also gets two grams of bute every night during competition. All of his medications are carefully planned out to avoid rule violations. →
Why not?: There’s absolutely no justification for injecting “healthy” joints to help maintain soundness; in fact, this practice could actually be harmful. A normal, healthy joint is constantly replenishing its own joint f luid— a very different scenario than the oil in your truck. Every time a joint is injected, there’s risk of an acute inf lammatory reaction called a “f lare” that can take your horse out of action for weeks or longer, or of an infection that can be life-threatening. Repeated injections into joints can weaken bone over time, increasing the risk for catastrophic fractures.
Non-steroidal antiinflammatory medications can also be hard on your horse’s system, especially when given frequently to a hard-working horse that lives a stressful lifestyle. Stomach ulcers are a risk as well as kidney failure. When it comes to joint injections, consider hard if your horse really needs them. Instead of signing up for “maintenance” injections, schedule a soundness exam. Your vet will palpate your horse’s limbs, watch your horse move, perform stress tests on his joints, and possibly watch him work.
If she identifies areas of concern, she’ll likely recommend additional diagnostics such as radiographs or ultrasound. With this information, she can recommend a management plan.
Does that mean a joint should never be injected with medication? Absolutely not. For diagnosed conditions where joint inflammation is involved, a joint injection is probably the most effective treatment available and may be a necessary part of the solution. Injections might be recommended to help manage chronic arthritis in an older performance horse. They might also be used to treat an acute injury, often followed by a period of rest to allow for healing.
When it comes to longevity in a performance horse, the worst thing you can do is inject a joint and continue work if your horse has an acute injury requiring rest. By opting out of “routine” injections, you’ll avoid this risk. You’ll also eliminate unnecessary risks associated with injections if you just say no to injecting a perfectly healthy joint.
Use the same careful consideration with antiinflammatories. If your horse is stiff and sore all the time, find out what’s wrong and correct the problem. Evaluate his shoeing, pay close attention to footing, and consider adjusting your training schedule to allow for better conditioning and less intense work. If you’re on the road chasing points every weekend, consider a less rigorous competition schedule. The subject: Bubbles is a 10-year-old Quarter Horse mare that competes in Western pleasure at breed shows. She’s feisty, and often has too much energy in the show ring. While she does well when ridden by her trainer, she’s difficult for her novice owner to handle without lots of preparation.
The alternatives: Don’t overlook management of the environment. In fact, careful environmental management could eliminate the need for medications at all.
Splash’s owner should pay close attention to hay quality and consider watering Splash’s hay at feeding time, as well as choose bedding carefully to reduce dust. Studies show that dust in a barn is as much as 16 times higher when stalls are being cleaned, indicating turnout during cleaning time is an important management step. This will also minimize lung damage from ammonia that pervades the air at cleaning time. Improved barn ventilation with fans or by installing cupolas that allow dust and air to escape the barn can help, and Splash should be moved to a stall as close to the outside of the barn as possible. Finally, supplementation with an omega fatty acid can be quite effective for controlling allergies.
While management may not completely eliminate the need for medication in a coughing horse, it can reduce it significantly and can make it easier to control symptoms with less risky medications than dexamethasone. The subject: Marley is a 5-year-old Arabian gelding in training for endurance. He and his rider recently successfully completed their first 25-mile ride. He gets a little colicky from time to time and had a full-blown colic episode two days after his last ride.
The alternatives: Back-pain management is especially important. Toby’s owner should start by examining saddle fit and taking a serious look at Toby’s fitness plan. It’s just not fair to let a horse stand around all week, and then work hard on a weekend trail ride. Toby needs a plan that includes more consistent exercise, with a focus on stretching and abdominalmuscle strengthening. Incorporating a set of carrot-stretches designed to help strengthen your horse’s core muscles can be really helpful when it comes to back pain. If Toby still gets sore, acupuncture or massage therapy could help keep him more comfortable and avoid the use of medications.
Is There a Time for Medication?
Does all of this mean you should never medicate your horse? Of course not. In fact, joint injections and medications prescribed by your veterinarian for a problem that’s been diagnosed are crucial for maintaining your horse’s health. But it does mean you should turn away from medications for a quick fix— especially when a little good old-fashioned horsemanship is what your horse really needs.