Straight from the Vet’s Mouth: Reducing Risk with Better Farm Management

I’ve always said that you could put a horse in a sterile padded room and they’d still come out half-blind with three broken legs and some sort of skin fungus. Meanwhile, the horse that lives in that junkyard you pass every day on your way to work will live happily to the ripe old age of 44 years old and look great doing it. I don’t sound bitter, do I?

Determined to discover whether we should all invest in a junkyard for our horses, I turned to Grand Prix Dressage rider, veterinarian, and FEI delegate Dr. Courtney Varney . She has been a veterinarian for 14 years, and has served as veterinary delegate for international dressage and jumping shows for nine years.

Alongside her husband and Ocala Horse Properties co-owner Matt Varney, Courtney has lived on her 22-acre Ocala farm for about ten years now. As a sports medicine vet and partner of her practice, Ocala Equine Hospital, she says, “I love coming to a barn and getting to know the horses not just for their medical problems, but how they perform, and what their strengths and weaknesses are in the arena. When they win, it almost feels like you won. You’re just so excited knowing what the rider and horse have both been through and that you’ve been there to help them get back in the ring.”

An unfortunate side-effect of being a veterinarian is dealing with our favorite fragile animals in the worst situations. Courtney has seen her fair share of injuries that could have been prevented with better farm management. Still, Courtney says you can’t prevent every single cut and scrape. “Horses will be horses and they’ll get themselves into trouble now matter what you do to prevent it.”

But, if you’re looking to make your farm safer, Courtney has a few pieces of advice.

Photo by Matt Varney

#1: Choose Concrete Over Wood
Courtney has a total of seven stalls on the property, five of which are in a concrete shed row barn, and two in a small wooden shedrow barn. She was very specific on her choice of concrete over wood.

“I think you could build a very high quality, sturdy, safe wood barn and I’ve been in plenty at my job every day. As long as you have a good contractor and build it up to code and have the electricity put in the right way, you can actually have a fantastic wooden barn. I just personally prefer a concrete barn. I think they’re a little easier to clean,” Courtney said. “Every month, we’ll take some cleaning solution and power wash the inside of the stalls. I can get the concrete really clean and you can disinfect a little easier.”

#2: Stalls Should Be Level and Ditch-Free
The majority of the residents at her farm are show horses who spend some portion of the day inside, so one of her biggest priorities was to create a comfortable barn. That includes big comfortable stalls with appropriate mats and good drainage. Courtney prefers to use crushed concrete under her stalls, as it doesn’t deform over time and still drains well. Lumpy stalls can cause a horse to misstep and injure themselves, while poor drainage contributes to bad air quality.

Photo by Matt Varney

#3: When it Comes to Turnout, Quantity & Quality Matter
Courtney and Matt have a total of nine acres of turnout on their farm. “We’ve got it laid out well to keep the horses having plenty of time outside,” Courtney said.

But size and access to pasture isn’t all that matters, drainage, fencing, and maintenance matter nearly as much. Dry pastures with good drainage prevent thrush, abscesses and other hoof conditions. “They will get thrush and this is a fairly simple thing to treat, but it can become chronic and cause lameness. They can get abscesses, which can lead to other problems,” Courtney said. “We can’t do anything about nature, but if you happen to have paddocks where there’s a lot of standing water, it’s a good idea for them to come in for a portion of the day or night just so they can have the chance to dry out their feet.”

Courtney sees a fair amount of horses with skin disease from being out in tall wet grass. “Keep up on your mowing. Especially in the summertime, if you have tall grass and it’s dewey every morning or it’s raining, the horses will get recurrent skin disease. They can get cellulitis and become extremely lame and painful. And then they have to go through various treatments including antibiotic therapy and NSAIDs and possibly steroids.”

Be prepared to spend good money on your fencing and check it often. Even though Courtney checks her pastures once a week, she’s still occasionally surprised by what she finds.

“If there are sharp edges or old nails sticking out or broken boards, the horses will hurt themselves,” Courtney said. “I’ve been surprised. I think my fencing looks good and then I’ll drive around the perimeter and realize this board’s been down for a while, or I didn’t realize that there’s a bunch of nails sticking out or there’s holes from little gophers or other critters that can get into the paddock. Those holes could be deadly should the horse step into it the wrong way.”

#4: Design Your Barn to Cool Your Horse Off Efficiently
In an effort to beat the Florida heat, Courtney has an efficient cooling system for her horses. Her wash rack includes shade and fans. “In the summertime here it gets so hot. It’s important when I’m done riding that I get a fan on them right away because sometimes it is really hard to get them cooled off,” Courtney said. “You need to be able to untack, hose them off, and get them nice and cool in a timely manner.”

Courtney Varney riding in her arena. Photo by Matt Varney

#5: Poor Footing is an Injury Waiting to Happen
Courtney designed her outdoor dressage arena with safety and convenience in mind. ”I decided I wanted all weather footing so I had Joe Watkins from Longwood farm come out. The footing is fantastic. It’s impossible for a puddle to form in that ring. That’s really nice for me because there are times when I don’t get to ride because I’m busy with work. And then if I get time to ride and my arena’s flooded, that’s no good. It is super important to me, not only for my horse’s safety to have good footing, but for my own lifestyle as well.”

And it’s not just drainage Courtney worried about, she was very specific about the concussion of the footing as well. “Harder footing is harder on joints, even though it might be better for soft tissues. But over time, those horses may need more maintenance or are more prone to having arthritis develop at a faster rate because of the harder footing,” Courtney said. “But honestly, I prefer hard footing to soft footing. Footing that’s too deep and too soft makes you much more prone to a soft tissue injury, which from a treatment standpoint, can be heartbreaking.”

“I think it’s good to vary your footing. I always tell people, ‘go outside the ring, go train on the grass, go have a gallop. Go ride on uneven footing.’ That’s good for them,” Courtney said. “It increases their proprioception and it gives them a little more strength in their distal limbs.”

#6: If There’s a Chance Your Horse Can Get a Leg Stuck, They Will
Look at your stalls from the perspective of a curious toddler. Is there anything your horse can get stuck in? Some of Courtney’s emergency calls with the least optimistic outcomes are those where a horse is hanging by a limb.

“I’m really picky about what kind of separation you have between stalls. If you have boards with more than five or six inches between them, sometimes horses will get upset and try to kick and will get their legs stuck. That’s a potentially fatal mistake. I’ll have people change the slots between the boards so the gaps are much smaller, maybe even only an inch or two. That still gives you good air circulation, but prevents horses from getting their legs stuck.”

The same cautionary tale also applies to slow feeders and hay nets. “Some people really like the slow feed hay bags or buckets, but you have to be very careful about the type you get, as some are safer than others. Sometimes you get babies that are curious and investigate them and get their legs stuck in them,” Courtney said. “It’s the same thing with hay nets. I try to put them up high enough, as I’ve had horses paw and catch the edge of their shoe on the net. They can get upset and fall down only to be hung up by the edge of their shoe.”

Photo by Matt Varney

#7: Gates Are Your Best Friend
Accidents involving a loose horse and a car are quite possibly Courtney’s most dreaded emergency call. She suggests, “Make sure that your gate is always closed or that you have an automatic gate. Sometimes you’re handling a horse and they spook and get away from you. If your farm is completely enclosed, a loose horse getting out onto the road is one less worry. Horses getting out into the road is an absolute disaster and a nightmare in every way that it could be. It’s obviously deadly to them and deadly to drivers.”

At the end of the day, all we can do as barn owners and horse owners is try our best. “I have clients that go above and beyond and put their heart and soul into trying to keep their horses safe, and they still have things go wrong,” Courtney said. “We can only do the best we can.”

This article was sponsored by Ocala Horse Properties. Courtney says Ocala has become her home. “I chose Ocala because I love the space. It’s such a diverse area where you can go out and be away from it all and really feel like you’ve got that isolated farm feeling or you could be close to the show grounds and feel like you can pop out to the restaurants and get to the grocery store fast. I just think Ocala offers equestrians anything they want. You can have a busy show barn or you can have complete peace and quiet.”

If you fell in love with Ocala like Courtney did, check out their website to find your dream farm & home.

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