Top Tips on Bringing Event Horses Back Into Work

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Selena O’Hanlon and Foxwood High off to a fresh, fit start at their first FEI outing of 2018, the Red Hills International CIC3*, where they finished 4th. The pair went on to place 24th at Badminton, win the Bromont CIC3*, and represent Canada in the Tryon WEG. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

For many riders the beginning of the eventing seasons brings excitement and anticipation as competition schedules are made and goals are set. Therefore, it is important to bring horses back into work carefully and thoughtfully.

The ERA of NA caught up with Dr. Susan Johns, Associate Treating Veterinarian for the USA Land Rover Three-Day Eventing Team and Virginia Equine Imaging; Max Corcoran, USEA President-Elect and 2018 Liz Cochran Memorial Groom’s Award Recipient; and Abby Velting of Virginia Equine Imaging to get their recommendations on best practices for legging horses up and what to keep an eye out for.

Do you recommend horses having a check-up/evaluation by a vet before their holidays? What should this evaluation include? 

SJ: I believe it is beneficial to evaluate horses prior to them heading into an extended period of vacation. As a rule of thumb in our practice, we advise evaluating an equine athlete one to two weeks post their end of the season three-day event. This helps to make sure they did not sustain an injury at their last outing prior to sending them off on a period of reduced work. In some cases, a superficial digital flexor tendon may not be overt on ultrasound until a few days after a competition. It is very frustrating to riders to discover two months later that their athlete injured a soft tissue structure at the event, but it was not addressed until clinical symptoms arose when they return to work weeks later.

A routine examination post an event helps identify areas that can be managed while the horses are on vacation. It also gives the riders an opportunity to discuss any veterinary issues that may have limited their performance throughout the season. If a horse has been struggling with losing shoes and poor hoof quality all season, an examination may include balance films of the feet. This would help foster a conversation between the farrier and veterinarian to strategize about a corrective shoeing plan for the next season.

Another instance would be a respiratory concern. If a horse that routinely made time on cross country comes in 30 seconds over the time with increased respiratory noise throughout his jumping phases, a respiratory workup would be encouraged prior to the horse heading into an extended period of downtime. If that horse was diagnosed as a “roarer” or had a persistent inflammatory airway disease, intervention could begin while the horse headed into his break and potentially be back in good form before the start of the next season. If a veterinary delegate heard a murmur or arrhythmia at the end of cross country, it would be a great opportunity for a cardiovascular workup prior to a horse’s vacation, so a plan can be implemented for the future.

Finally, if the horse struggled with soundness throughout his season, an end of the season examination might include advanced diagnostic imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear scintigraphy (bonescan), or computed tomography (CT scan) to more specifically identify the cause of lameness and direct a detailed treatment plan. These modalities can provide a roadmap for a more favorable prognosis for continued athletic soundness.

Dr. Susan Johns. Photo courtesy of ERA of NA.

How should feeding schedule and feeding amount change as horses are brought back into work?

AV: Horses that are turned out for the winter and not in any work require only enough calories to maintain their current weight, which is termed “maintenance requirements.” When horses are performing moderate to intense work, for example during the spring eventing season, their caloric needs can double from this maintenance requirement. This means the amount of feed offered will need to increase substantially in order for them to maintain proper weight.

Whenever increasing a horse’s rations, it’s always important to make these changes slowly, over a period of several weeks. This allows the horse’s gastrointestinal tract to acclimate to the differences in types and amounts of feed offered.

Also, it is important to maintain a balanced diet that is best utilized by the horse’s gut. Forage is the most important component of a horse’s diet and should always be increased first before adding in concentrates (grains) to ensure proper motility of the gastrointestinal tract. If you have concerns about your horse’s nutrition, you can talk to your veterinarian to formulate the best diet for your horse through every season.

Dr. Abby Velting. Photo courtesy of ERA of NA.

MC: Typically when a horse is being rested whether on holiday or from injury, grain is typically cut back. It is important to continue to monitor their weight throughout to make sure the horse isn’t getting too fat or losing topline during the break; OR if the horse is getting too sharp during the break, you can alter the type of grain they are getting to keep everyone happy and maintain good condition.

Should horses be clipped prior to being brought into work?

MC: Fur can be your friend — a horse coming back into work can be quite sharp, and a freshly clipped horse in cold weather coming back into work can be REALLY sharp. They typically are not doing enough work to need clipping — we clip to help with cooling out process and keep horses from getting too warm. Best to bring them back to walk and then clip as their fitness progresses and the work increases.

Max Corcoran. Photo courtesy of ERA of NA.

Is there a recommended schedule for putting horses back in work?

MC: This is a good question — many ways to skin the cat. For rehab, the most popular and successful has been to start walking under tack, progress to trotting for five minutes and increase one minute a day until up to 20 minutes. A recheck with your vet is always a good idea before progressing to more work — typically then you would start some “light flatwork” — not too many small circles, etc. alternating days with continued increased trot sets. Then introduce some small jumping, then some canters sets, etc….

For after holiday, the horses hopefully have been turned out in a field and have only had four to six weeks off. Horses don’t lose too much fitness during that time, but they do lose strength and muscle memory, so the trots can be a bit more progressive — and flatwork, etc. — but a preseason checkup with your vet before first jump or soon after is a great way to stay on top of everything before the season really gets going.

Skin issues often pop-up during this time. What are your recommendations to avoid these issues and what is the best way to treat winter/spring skin problems?

MC: Keeping horses covered (fly sheets, etc.), not bathing them too much as it strips the body’s natural oils that protect skin, Apple Cider Vinegar in a spray bottle or as a wash rinse, witch hazel in spray bottle during grooming, keeping legs clean and dry, clean boots on their legs.

AV: Although the warmer months can bring a variety of fungal and bacterial skin infections, horses can also develop dermatological diseases throughout the winter. With long winter coats and blankets, it becomes easy to overlook these infections, therefore, it is recommended to remove blankets and feel over your horse’s body often to make sure no skin bumps or crusts go unnoticed. One particular skin disease that can be problematic is “rain rot,” a bacterial dermatitis. Any prolonged moisture on the horse’s back, for instance from a wet blanket, can create the perfect environment for this bacteria to grow.

Most bacterial and fungal skin infections will resolve with topical treatments of the affected areas with medicated shampoos. You can obtain a variety of different shampoos from your veterinarian. Always be sure to check the labels, however, as some medicated shampoos can contain ingredients that are not permitted for FEI competitions.

Anything else you think is important for people to know/address when bringing a horse back into work?

MC: Take your time, or they will do it for you!

Learn more about the Eventing Riders Association of North America and join the ERA of NA here.