Many factors that affect your horse’s soundness are out of your control. He may have sustained an injury before you owned him, for example, or his genes may put him at higher risk for orthopedic problems ranging from splints to arthritis to weak tendons. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps to keep him as sound as possible for as long as possible. Here are four general rules that can help preserve your horse’s soundness.
Rule #1: Schedule regular, custom hoof care.
High-quality hoof care is the foundation of your horse’s soundness. Ideally, your farrier will visit every six to eight weeks, closely observe your horse and keep track of his specific needs.
Any changes to a horse’s hooves are best made slowly over the course of several visits. Dramatic adjustments, even to fix imbalances or other problems, place stress on structures of the foot and leg. To avoid soreness, strain or worse, give these structures time to adapt. Reduce exercise for the week, or perhaps months, that it takes for marked changes in the foot biomechanics to finish the adaptation process.
Also take pictures of your horse’s hooves periodically so you can track changes over time. If problems arise, a review of photographs might reveal the point when things began to change.
Rule #2: Don’t rush your conditioning program—and provide variety.
A fitness program will not only help your horse perform better, but it will also help keep him sound by strengthening muscles and other vital structures. Controlled exercise challenges the targeted tissues, and the subsequent repair and replacement of these tissues during a recovery period leaves the system stronger than before.
A horse who is turned out 24 hours a day in a pasture of more than 10 acres will probably walk enough to keep himself fit for light trail riding, including walking, trotting and loping over terrain similar to his pasture. If you plan on doing more than that, formulate a progressive conditioning plan using the following guidelines.
• Start slowly with 20-minute workouts at least four days a week. Incorporate walking, trotting and, eventually, short canters into each workout. You want to work the horse until he is challenged but not dangerously fatigued. When he is ready for more challenging work, increase either the distance of your workout or the speed—never increase both speed and distance at the same time.
• Do not work a horse if he seems sore, lame, reluctant or grouchy. You may have asked too much in his previous workouts. Give him a day or two to recover and then try again, resuming an earlier level of demand.
• Try a little cross-training. Highly specialized conditioning can leave a horse at an increased risk of injury, not to mention physical or mental burnout. It is a good idea, then, to jump a dressage horse, let a reining horse walk up and down hills and trail ride every horse.
Rule #3: Pay attention to footing.
Horses evolved to travel over smooth, slightly spongy ground with a thin layer of vegetation and soil as cushion. Any deviation from this ideal presents a potential for soundness problems.
The types of footing that pose the greatest threat to soundness are obvious: Large, sharp rocks can inflict painful bruises; slick, loose shell can cause a horse to slip; and sucking mud that reaches mid-cannon bone can wrench tendons with each step.
Make every effort to avoid footing that is so soft or hard that it makes you wince when you look at it. And if you cannot go around bad ground, let your horse pick his own path and pace through it. When given the chance, he will learn to recognize adverse footing and protect himself.
Abrupt changes in footing are also problematic. If a galloping horse suddenly goes from good ground to a patch of freshly harrowed earth, he won’t be able to protect himself. If you’re riding in places with unpredictable footing, keep a close eye on what is coming up and regulate your horse’s speed to fit the terrain.
That said, a properly shod and conditioned horse can adapt to work on a wide variety of surfaces. The deep sand of a beach, for instance, places tremendous strain on the tendons and ligaments of most non-coastal horses. But a horse who is ridden regularly and sensibly on sand will have the necessary strength and physique to cope. (If you find yourself with a unique opportunity to ride on the beach, walk directly and carefully to the packed wet sand at the tideline; it is nearly perfect footing for all gaits.)
Rule #4: Warm up and cool down.
How you begin and end a ride can affect your horse’s performance, as well as his soundness.
A proper warm-up gently and slowly stretches the horse’s muscles and ligaments, preparing them for more intense bursts of activity. It also boosts circulation to critical structures. In addition to preparing the structures for work, a warm-up can get the horse mentally “in sync” so he’s less likely to trip, possibly injuring himself.
A horse who is turned out 24 hours a day will need minimum warm-up time because his near-constant movement keeps him in a continual state of readiness. In contrast, a stall-kept horse needs at least five minutes of walking and jogging on a loose rein with large turns, in both directions, before he’s ready for athletic effort. If you compete in events that have long periods of idleness between performances, remember to warm your horse up not only at the beginning of the day, but again before each go.
Also beneficial is a cooling-down routine, which helps to dissipate the heat generated in muscles during work. If a hot horse doesn’t keep moving, his muscles may cramp or stiffen and get sore. Loading a hot horse into a trailer for a long trip home can result in the same problem. Beyond lameness issues, an improper cooldown can lead to illness if a hot, sweaty horse is left to stand in a draft.
Horses can typically be cooled down while you are mounted; simply walk until his respiratory rate returns to normal and his skin no longer feels hot to the touch (given the ambient temperature). Hand-walking for prolonged periods is usually necessary only when the horse has exerted himself to the limits of his fitness.
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