Longevity and your performance horse

Top 8 ways to help your performance horse enjoy a long and active life.

Most of us amateur riders can only afford one performance horse at a time. We pour all our extra time, money, blood, sweat and tears into creating a lasting partnership with these equines. So we want to do everything in our power to keep them happy and healthy for as long as humanly possible.

Unfortunately, more than 70% of all sport horses are laid up at least once in their careers, due to musculoskeletal injuries, and many are retired before they even reach senior status. Why is it that longevity is so difficult to obtain in our equine athletes, especially when it is of the utmost importance to us?

Luckily there are many ways you can help prevent injury and maintain soundness in your performance horse, and keep them working well into their golden years.

To maximize longevity, injury prevention and good health, we must use a multi-factorial approach when caring for sport horses.

1. Environment

Horses are herd animals, and have evolved to cover upwards of 25 miles a day while grazing for about 18 hours a day. Taking any horse out of the pasture and confining him to a 12’x12’ stall will change his musculoskeletal makeup and affect his mental health. It is best if horses can be kept together in a pasture 24/7. If this is not feasible, at least give them ten or more hours of turnout while providing free choice access to appropriate forage. If you do stall your horses, adequate bedding is preferable so that they will be inclined to lie down and rest properly. Regular cleaning and adequate ventilation in the barn is also a must to prevent respiratory compromise and illness, which will decrease your horse’s ability to perform.

2. Dental care 

Horse’s teeth are constantly erupting. From an evolutionary viewpoint, this gave them a constant solid grinding surface with which to break down rough forages. Modern horses eat much softer forages than their ancestors, and are often eating at mealtimes instead of constantly grazing. For these reasons, sharp enamel points tend to develop along the edges of the cheek teeth and can lead to discomfort when chewing; ulcerations on the inside of the mouth; and pain caused by the bit or bridle when ridden.

3. Nutrition

No two horses will have the exact same nutritional requirements, and as the exercise intensity of their workload increases, so will their nutritional demands. It is important to work with your holistic veterinarian or equine nutritionist to ensure your performance horse is receiving an appropriate balance of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) as well as micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to maintain strong bones, support joint health, and allow for proper muscle development. Traveling and nutrition-related health issues (gastric ulcers, metabolic issues) must also be considered when designing a sport horse diet.

4. Hoof care 

Proper hoof balance is essential to body balance and joint health. If the hoof is unbalanced, every joint in that leg will then be unevenly loaded. If this happens repeatedly over time, osteoarthritis will develop as the body lays down new bone to try and stabilize the wobbly joint. The question of whether your performance horse should be barefoot or shod is one to discuss with your veterinarian and farrier. Many horses today are competing barefoot across the disciplines, and maintaining soundness. If shoes are applied, the choice of shoe should be based on the horse’s gaits, the surface he will be competing on, and the level at which he is competing.

5. Footing

In general, a good footing should provide strong support and resistance to the hoof, while allowing the toe to sink in a bit. Recent studies show that the smallest number of injuries occur on wax-coated and sand-and-rubber surfaces. However, training on varied surfaces is important for strengthening the nervous system and improving coordination, which will help prevent injuries in the long run. This is especially important if you are going to be competing on arena surfaces that are different from those you normally train on.

6. Veterinary care

Perhaps the most crucial point of all is that riders and trainers need to know their horses. Behavior changes, saddle asymmetry, fighting with the bit, a resistance to working on one rein or lead, tension in the back, or a change in performance are all subtle clues that there may be a lameness issue. A rider will be much more likely to recognize early on when something is not quite right if she not only knows what her horse feels like under saddle when healthy and sound, but also if she knows what his legs, body and mind feel like on a day-to-day basis on the ground. Detecting problems early means veterinary treatment can also be instituted early. With newer diagnostic technologies, we can often pinpoint where these subtle lameness issues are coming from and treat them before they become chronic and debilitating.

Routine bodywork (such as massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic work) is a great adjunct to keeping your performance horse balanced and supple, and allows him to recover more quickly from strenuous workouts and competitions.

7. Horse/rider/tack interaction

Assessing tack fit on a regular basis is of great importance. Many physical and performance issues can arise due to ill-fitting saddles, bridles and/or artificial aids. Rider stiffness and imbalances may also influence tack fit, and therefore the horse’s comfort under saddle.

8. Training

The individual performance horse will dictate the speed at which training progresses. But in general, a careful balance of strength (especially core strength), endurance, fitness, flexibility, and skill training is required to produce a healthy, fit horse that is ready for competition and less prone to injury.

Part of maintaining this balance includes incorporating cross training into your regular routine.  The most common cause of early retirement or decreased performance in sport horses is osteoarthritis, and the number one cause of osteoarthritis is repetitive trauma. This is typically referred to as  the result of “the wear and tear of old age”, but it actually begins as micro-trauma from schooling the same movements over and over again, day after day. So resist the urge to continually repeat the same exercise over and over, and instead reward your performance horse both physically and mentally for a job well done by taking him out for a hack.

In order to avoid overtraining, which can be mentally as well as physically detrimental, use interval training (e.g., trot three to five minutes, then walk one minute). This is especially important for younger horses whose attention spans are much shorter than those of adult horses. And always allow at least two days between strength training workouts (canter pirouette, piaffe, jumping, etc.) to allow the muscles to rest and recover.

A thorough warm-up is important for all horses, but especially for the older performance horse who has some stiffness. Plan for at least a ten-minute free walk warm-up followed by a ten-minute trot on a loose rein to increase blood flow to the muscles and prepare the horse for more strenuous work. Listen to your horse; if he feels stiff or stuck in a certain area, use lateral work and schooling figures to target and break up the stiffness prior to asking for more difficult work at higher gaits.

Equally important is a sufficient cool-down if you have worked your horse into a sweat. Keep him moving until his respiration returns to normal; returning occasionally to short intervals of walk and trot will help keep the blood flowing to the muscles and minimize soreness.


A mixture of stable exercises (stretches, dynamic stability exercises), ground work (longing, long lining), in-hand work, and cross-training under saddle (dressage, jumping, hacking, working on varied surfaces), all combined with proper nutrition, dental and hoof care, regular veterinary check-ups and bodywork, will keep your horse healthy, sound and able to compete well into his senior years.

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Dr. Kelli Taylor is a 2008 summa cum laude graduate of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She was born with a love of horses and has striven to be near them her entire life, even when it was impossible for her to have her own. Just after graduation, she completed an internship in Equine Medicine and Surgery at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital in Snohomish, Washington and obtained certification in animal chiropractic through the IVCA. She will be completing her certification in veterinary acupuncture this year. Dr. Kelli is very excited to be announcing the opening of her own mobile veterinary chiropractic and acupuncture practice in Washington State this winter. When not working, you can find Dr.Taylor trail riding or hiking with her husband in the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached via e-mail at kellitaylordvm@gmail.com.