Is your performance horse lacking in the show ring, or in his training? Here are the top three reasons your well- bred and well-trained horse may not be living up to his potential.
You have saved up and bought a very well-bred performance horse. You have invested in a proven and successful trainer. But your horse is not “living up to his potential”. Your trainer tells you he has the ability but is just not advancing. She wants to send him home unless you can find a way to help him improve. Let’s take a look at the top three reasons why your wonderful horse may not be thriving in his performance!
# 1 – Nutrition
Most performance horse owners and trainers know that commercial bagged feeds and grass hay don’t provide all the nutrients required to support high level equine athletes. Based on this knowledge, performance horses are often given multiple supplements in an effort to enhance their performance. These supplements often contain many varied ingredients in an effort to support hoof, joint, digestive and immune health. The challenge with this approach is that your horse is getting more than he needs of some nutrients and not enough of the ones that could potentially help him. Your best plan is to start from scratch and design a program specifically for your horse.
Start with what your horse is eating the most of, which is hay. Start with the best quality grass hay you can buy and feed it in a slow feed hay net so your horse will have hay in front of him for as much of the day as possible. Plan to use the least amount of grain or bagged feed needed to maintain your horse’s weight and energy. Horses have very small stomachs so keeping bagged feed under one pound per feeding is best. If your horse does not keep his weight on with lower amounts of bagged feeds and quality grass hay, you can consider adding some alfalfa hay to his diet. Good alfalfa is easier to digest and gives more nutrition per pound than grass hay.
Additional vitamins and minerals may be needed for a performance horse, especially if he is still growing. It is better to get these nutrients from whole foods, such as algae, rather than from formulated supplements using synthetic or inorganic ingredients. Good quality whole foods will support healthy hooves, joints, digestion and immunity in most horses.
# 2 – Pain
Acute pain is easily recognized but chronic, low grade pain can hurt the performance of any great athlete. Digestive and musculoskeletal pain can both fall into the chronic, low grade category. Digestive pain can come from ulcers or simply an upset stomach caused by stress. Hay access 24/7 is one of the best ways to avoid ulcers and upset stomachs. Pre and probiotics can also support healthy digestion by keeping the horse’s gut bacteria balanced. Feed that is too high in sugar and/or starch will damage healthy bacteria and encourage the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast.
Poor digestion can lead to more than gut pain. Damage to the intestinal lining can lead to toxins moving into the blood where they are deposited around joints or ligaments. These toxins can cause pain and stiffness. Stomach pain can also interfere with deep breathing. If a performance horse can’t inhale without discomfort he will take shallow breaths. Full, deep breaths are needed to bring in adequate oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the bloodstream. Higher levels of circulating carbon dioxide cause the kidneys to work harder to produce buffering agents. Sore kidneys can cause low back pain, and if acid levels remain high then calcium will be pulled from bones leading to bone and joint damage.
By supporting good digestion you are also supporting healthy connective tissues, but additional joint support may be needed for horses that work very hard. Again, it is better to pick a targeted joint supplement with fewer ingredients than use a shotgun type product. Injectable joint support products may be better in some cases than oral supplements.
Regular bodywork is a great way to help or avoid musculoskeletal pain. Osteopathy, Bowen, chiropractic, massage, acupuncture and acupressure are all modalities that support the body and help it compensate for low grade injuries, and overcome soreness.
# 3 – Temperament
Your horse may be bred for a particular event but that does not mean he has the right temperament for it. There are many different ways to temperament-type your horse. One option is found at horsetemperament.com. Competitive events that require a horse to be focused, obedient and precise take a different temperament than those that require strength, speed and boldness. Some temperament types are not suited for the stress of long road trips on the rodeo circuit, but may do well in the same event in a less rigorous show schedule or atmosphere. Knowing your horse’s temperament can help you anticipate his needs so he has the best chance of success; trying to force a horse to work in a discipline he is totally unsuited for can lead to disaster.
A successful performance horse is a dream come true for many horsepeople. Every good horse also wants live up to his potential, be pain-free and appreciated for who he is. When you take into consideration the three reasons your well-bred and trained horse may not be performing, you can overcome almost all obstacles holding your horse back. You, your trainer and your horse will all benefit.
Madalyn Ward is trained in Veterinary Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Bowen Therapy, Network Chiropractic and Equine Osteopathy. Memberships include the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. She has authored three books, Holistic Horsekeeping, Horse Harmony, Understanding Horse Types and Temperaments and Horse Harmony Five Element Feeding Guide. Holistichorsekeeping.com, Horseharmony.com.