An Apple a Day: Keep Your Competition Horse Sound

We’ve always heard that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but keeping an equine athlete happy, healthy, and, most importantly, sound goes beyond a Granny Smith. Ensuring soundness actually takes a well-formulated team of specialists.

By Jane Carlton

We talked to a few top veterinarians on the competition circuit for the scoop on maintaining a horse in
tip-top shape—from shoes to supplements, training regimens to wellness checks.

As with many aspects of horse care, prevention is paramount. “Having the horse looked
at by a sport horse vet on a regular basis is really important to take care of issues before
they become problems,” says Dr. Omar Maher, owner of Atlantic Equine Services and
expert in lameness and sports medicine.

But just how often should a sport horse veterinarian come look at your competition
horse? “At a minimum, the horse should be examined twice a year for a soundness
check,” says Dr. Kent Allen, volunteer Chairman of the United States Equestrian
Federation Veterinary and Drug and Medications Committees, International Society of
Equine Locomotor Pathology-certified sports medicine veterinarian, and owner of
Virginia Equine Imaging in Middleburg, VA. When a horse is showing heavily, however,
“we look at them every month to make sure that nothing is brewing,” Maher says. Allen
notes that the soundness check should evaluate the whole animal—and not just at a
standstill. “That check should consist of looking at the horse in movement to make sure
the horse is sound,” he says. “The veterinarian needs to critically assess [the horse] and
also talk to the rider about the history of the horse’s performance, how it’s doing, and
what it’s not doing.”

Horse health extends, of course, right down to the hoof and veterinarians recommend a
critical assessment of shoeing to help assure soundness. “In addition to looking at [the
hoof] and hoof testing the horse, you should also probably twice a year do balance films,
which is just a lateral view of each front foot, and then a horizontal view of each front
foot,” Allen says. Veterinarians can then transmit those pictures and any suggestions to
the farrier. “Balance checks are a critical portion of a performance horse’s aspect, and it
should be evaluated every time you do a soundness check or a lameness evaluation on the

Beyond checking up the equine’s anatomy, many riders turn to the use of a supplement to
keep their horses feeling good. Targeted supplements are considered particularly
valuable, says Allen. Not unlike with humans, however, moderation is key. “Supplements
do play a role [in maintaining a horse in heavy competition], but the basics of horse
training—having them kept in shape and what not, having them shod well, and having
them looked at by a vet on a regular basis—is really important,” Maher says.

Specialized day-to- day care of performance horses is vital to keeping them sound in the
long run—from turnout to nutrition.

A big factor of competition horse soundness is making sure that he is ridden and cooled
down properly. If a horse is not trained on a regular basis, or is overtrained, you risk
ending up in trouble, Maher says. As for cooling your horse down after being worked,
Maher notes that it is different depending on the discipline. “If it’s a dressage horse, for
example, you don’t necessarily have to go ice his legs each time he gets ridden. If it’s an
eventer, though, that just finished a big cross-country course, in that case you might want
to consider [icing]. We would recommend doing it [at horse shows] because those legs
are taking a lot of trauma.”

Nutrition is also key to keeping a horse sound. “Nutrition should really be ruled by the
KIS principle—Keep It Simple,” Allen says. “Don’t make it overly complex, and
remember that the biggest things you can do for your horse’s nutritional health are high
quality forage and to get the horse out on pasture for as long as you can reasonably do in
a day. And then you just give them enough of the supplements and grain to be successful
at their job.”

Horses can have their vices, too, and Allen says that grain is like junk food for horses.
“You should keep the grain to a minimum that a horse needs to perform. How do you
figure that out? It’s actually really simple. If your horse is working athletically and losing
weight, you’re going to have to supplement with more than high quality forage. If the
horse is holding its weight, pouring eight more pounds of grain into it is not going to help

Try as you might, some horses are just injury, or lameness-prone. When lameness strikes,
there are many treatment options to consider. “Joint injections are something we use very
commonly,” Maher says. “We use quite a bit of shockwave therapy for some injuries, and
we use quite a bit of ultrasound therapy, and stem cells depending on the injuries. We
inject some of the back joints and the neck joints, but we also do some other types of
injections like mesotherapy. We also use quite a bit of physical therapy.”

While joint injections and oral, intravenous, and intramuscular supplements, are
commonplace, alternative therapies, such as chiropractic work or physical therapy, can be
useful in their own right. A seasoned sport horse veterinarian will refer you to whatever
will benefit the horse the most with the least amount of risk, Allen says.

What it boils down to is finding a program that works for you and your horse. “We’re
talking about individual athletes who have individual needs and capabilities,” Allen says.

“You need to tailor a program around that equine athlete—what you can do to help that
horse be productive, reduce the chances of injury, and be a successful athlete as it goes
forward.” And that advice stands whether you’re talking about an Olympic horse or a
pony taking to the show ring for the first time.

Some of the most commonly used therapies for maintaining soundness and treating
lameness are joint injections—but they’re not a one-size- fits-all fix.

“There’s one big rule in joint injections: do not do it unless you need to,” Allen says.
“Everything we talk about—the oral products to the intramuscular and intravenous
products to the intra-articular products—you do because of a specific diagnosis or a plan
for that particular horse.”

Maher notes that it’s important to find the root of the problem, and that it doesn’t always
originate in the joint. “When a horse is lame, it’s important to look at the whole horse,
and not just that particular joint that’s causing an issue,” he says. “You need to make sure
that the rest of the horse is OK. If it was hurt because the horse was moving in a certain
way and had to compensate for something else, it could put strain on a particular leg or a
particular joint. If you don’t fix the initial cause, it’s going to happen again.”

Photo by Kelley Roche