A competitive athlete’s success on the field or court starts with his program between games and matches. The same goes for your horse. The program you follow (or don’t) at home dictates your horse’s ability to do his job when called on. My tips here focus on the show horse, but the truth is this can be applied to a recreational horse, one used for roping or speed events, and even your child’s lesson mount. A horse that’s well-cared-for at home does better in any job.
Weekend warriors, heed my advice to save yourself vet bills and higher maintenance costs after your horse recovers from an injury that could’ve been prevented with proper at-home care.
Of all the elements for proper home care of a show horse, fitness is the most important. A fit young horse can withstand the pressure of preparing to compete early in his career. Your aged or senior horse will require less veterinary maintenance such as hock injections and other treatments if he’s fit and in good shape. The bottom line is that a fit horse performs better, has gas in the tank when you call on him for more, more easily bounces back from the strain of competition, and has longevity for his career in the show pen.
If you can’t ride your horse regularly but want to go hard on the weekends at shows and other events, consider putting your horse in training during your busiest riding season. The price you pay for regular riding and care could be much less than the cost of treating a serious injury and the saddle time you lose during recovery.
Fitness sounds simple, but it encompasses each of the remaining topics I’ll address that are essential to keep your mount at his physical best.
Nutrition and Feeding
My feeding program takes high priority and is a main component of overall fitness. The overarching theme is consistency. When we’re at shows or traveling between them, my horses are fed at about the same time each day, regardless of time zone. Flexibility is required if a class falls during a customary meal period, but we stick to a schedule. If you eat breakfast around 7:30 each morning, you’re probably getting hungry by 7:45; by 8:00, you’re on the road to hunger-induced rage. A regular feeding schedule helps moderate those mental states in your horse, too.
The feeding schedule doesn’t mean a thing if you’re not providing quality hay and feed to fit your horse’s needs. I work with my vet and a nutritionist from time to time, but the most important component is treating each horse individually. If a horse has a quarter crack, we increase his biotin intake to help it grow out. Individualized attention can help fend off possible problems before they become big challenges.
One extra I swear by is oil. All of our horses get it, and we almost never deal with impaction colic. As a side benefit, our horses’ coats gleam. It’s as simple as pouring corn oil you buy at the store over a daily ration or using an oil designed for horses.
A clean, well-ventilated barn prevents respiratory infections and other illnesses and injuries. I’m meticulous about my barn’s cleanliness, from air circulation to disinfecting stalls to monitoring new horses that come to my place carrying contagious problems.
We’re taking almost every horse in the barn to a 10-day show coming up, so my help will strip all the stalls and spray them with disinfectant. (It’s even easier for you to do at home with only one or two stalls to treat.) When we get to that show, all of the rented stalls will be sprayed, too, so we can ensure that we don’t bring home any illnesses or skin conditions. Contagious conditions are easily avoided by staying home or keeping infected animals out. If there’s a disease outbreak in an area you’re traveling to, stay home. If you’re taking in a new horse, check him over for anything he might bring into your barn. Quarantine him away from your other horses to be on the safe side. If I have a horse come in with a skin condition, I ride him in his own tack, from his head to his splint boots, and he’s groomed with his own brushes until his problem has cleared. Then anything that’s touched him is disinfected or thrown away if it can’t be adequately cleaned to prevent transmission to other horses.
In addition to the three main pillars listed, I use at-home therapies that help horses recover after vigorous work. The most accessible one is cold/ice. I rely on cold therapy more than any other supplemental treatment. That can be as simple as running a cold hose over a horse’s legs or applying ice boots or wraps. (You can read more about my thoughts on cold therapy in “Ode to Icing” on HorseandRider.com.)
There are some high-tech gadgets out there for at-home therapy, too. You can find them in some training barns and at larger horse shows. Game Ready integrates cold and compression for post-training recovery and when healing from injuries. Vibration therapy with a device like the TheraPlate can also aid in preventive care and rehabilitation. (I even get on it to help with my back pain.) These types of implements are helpful if you have access to them, but they can’t make up for poor fitness, nutritional shortcomings, or unsanitary living conditions.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.