- Performance horses have a higher risk of incurring injury or developing certain medical conditions due to the physiological and physical stressors induced by work or training.
- The most common performance-limiting problems in horses are related to joints, muscle, and the respiratory system.
- Nutrition, recovery time, and proper management all play a crucial role in maintaining resilience and ensuring success in performance horses.
We’ve all seen those older performance horses--the tried and true ones who still seem perfectly content and healthy, even though they’ve been doing their job for a good ten or twenty years.
And then, of course, there’s the flip side to this; the younger horses who can’t seem to stay sound, or who are forced into early retirement due to an injury or other performance-limiting medical condition.
What’s the difference between these two types of horses? Is it nutrition? Genetics? Exceptional care?
Oftentimes, it’s a combination of all three, but before we talk about creating resilience in performance horses, let’s first discuss what a performance horse is exactly.
What is a performance horse?
FullBucket co-founder and equine internal medicine specialist, Dr. Rob Franklin, goes on to explain that a performance horse is one that is simply doing some type of training. “It may or may not be rider dependent, but it’s definitely some sort of work, exercise, or sport that the horse is undergoing that is different from being young and developing, old and retired, or a breeding animal.”
By this definition, the term ‘performance horse’ can be defined as any equine in training, work, or exercise, whether that be light or strenuous.
What commonly afflicts a performance horse?
Performance horses are automatically at higher risk of injury or for developing certain medical conditions due to the physiological and physical stressors induced by that work or training. Of course, the more strenuous the type of work the horse is being asked to do, the higher the risk of certain problems.
“The most common performance-limiting problems are related to joints, muscle, and wind, or the respiratory system, says Franklin. “Those things sideline or decrease the performance of all breeds and disciplines of horses. You look at the 80/20 rule, that’s clearly the 80%.”
In regards to the respiratory system, some common respiratory conditions in performance horses include laryngeal hemiplegia (“roaring”), dorsal displacement of the soft palate (“choking down”), pneumonia, and asthma, or inflammatory airway disease.
Horses being asked to perform intense exercise at high speeds, such as in racing, polo, three day eventing, and steeplechasing are also prone to developing a condition known as Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH) where some lung capillaries rupture under the high pressure conditions.
Muscle and joints
As Dr. Franklin states, muscle and joint problems in horses are also common in the performance world. Five common injuries in performance horses include:
- Ligament injuries;
- Tendon injuries;
- Bone bruises (especially in the coffin bone, the ends of the short and long pastern bones, and the lower end of the cannon bone); and
- Acute Synovitis (joint inflammation); and
- Tying up.
In some cases, the level of a horse’s fitness isn’t suited for the activities the horse is being asked to participate in, and this increases the risk of injury as well.
“With the weekend warrior horses, oftentimes, they’re not fit enough and haven’t adapted enough musculoskeletally to handle going out and running 3, 4, or 5 times during the weekend,” says Latson. “In these animals we will see tendon and ligament injuries, versus the racehorses, where we’ll see similar soft tissue injuries, tying up and more issues associated with overtraining.”
Gastrointestinal distress in performance horses
In regards to the 80/20 rule Franklin refers to above, the other 20% of performance horses are primarily dealing with gastrointestinal problems.
To further expand on this, Latson says, “Often the 20% are directly related to the 80%. Performance horses in intense training programs require intensive feeding rates. Because intensive feeding, usually involving lots of grain, is far removed from what the equine digestive tract was designed to handle, we start to see an overwhelmed GI system, leading to chronic loose manure, diarrhea, digestive problems, ulcers, and even colic.”
Gastric ulcers affect performance horses at a higher rate than idle horses for several reasons: performance horses experience more stress, they tend to be stalled more which creates an unnatural situation for horses, and they also undergo strenuous exercise which can both contribute to and exacerbate the problem.
“It’s an interesting thing in performance horses, in my experience, that we'll see a horse performing at the top of its game and then their hair coat just starts to turn a little bit, or they have a little bit of muscle soreness and then that horse just starts to back out of its feed tub, ” notes Latson.
“Without a really astute groom or trainer who knows what is normal for this horse, some of those things can easily get missed. If we don’t address some of those small indicators until they get much more serious or much more noticeable, we begin to see bigger digestive problems begin to blossom. So often they start with a horse just not quite being right.”
Overall management is the key to resilience
Though injury and illness can occur with any and all horses, one important factor to keep in mind when buying a new horse or considering a different training regimen or sport for a horse you already own is the horse’s build and breeding.
“You’ve got to factor in the horse’s ability to do the job, whether that comes from breeding genetics, conformation of the horse, what it was bred to do, and what it’s being asked to do,” says Franklin. “If you’re asking a little ranch horse to be a racehorse, it’s probably not going to do very well, and it’s not going to be very resilient.”
Another factor in creating resilience is learning to read your horse’s communication signals. Since performance horses aren’t able to tell us when they’re hurting or dealing with some type of internal problem such as ulcers or a lung condition, they will show us in some other way--with their attitude, performance, or even their physical appearance, and we have to actively be paying attention in order to understand these signals.
“The key to resilience is realizing that in some cases we just need to back off and let them recover and recuperate, to encourage maximum performance, and in other cases it means we need to be a lot more consistent about the training, the nutrition, the horse’s mental health - individual horse management - to keep a horse healthy through its show and performance season,” says Latson.
We’ve heard it before, but an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure when it comes to keeping performance horses sound and healthy. Nutrition (both the feed and supplements), recovery time, and good management all play a crucial role in maintaining healthy performance horses.
“It’s all about not allowing those little impediments to build up and turn into the thing that ends up taking performance horses to the vet,” says Franklin. “Unless there’s an acute orthopedic injury, most of the time it’s wear and tear or lack of proper conditioning. It could be saddle fit issues, it could be nutritional; all of those things won’t create a problem right away, but they’re small factors that end up creating a larger problem and that wears against the resiliency of our performance horses.”
Find out more about some of our favorite performance horse supplements to ensure success here.