Chapter OneHorse Management: Conditioning to Win
Since we are responsible for our horses' well-being, we must find a sensible balance between the horse's natural ways; the requirements of riding, showing, and training; and the needs of each individual animal. Show horses are not self-sufficient; we have a heavy responsibility to take the best possible care of them. The success we have in producing and keeping horses healthy, sound, and fit to show their best depends on how much time, knowledge, and effort we are willing to put forth for them.
When horses live as nature intended, they are usually fit, healthy, and self-sufficient as long as they have adequate range, forage, and water. Equine systems, habits, and behavior have evolved over fifty million years to help horses function and survive in a herd, constantly grazing and moving over a wide territory. It is only when we remove horses from their natural environment and use them for our own purposes that they need special care and management.
A horse "in the rough" is adapted to withstand harsh weather and fend off flies. The natural oils of the ungroomed coat prevent rain from soaking through, and his long winter coat keeps him warm even in bitter cold. The long mane and tail and the hair inside the ears protect him from flies, while long hair on the legs, face, and fetlocks keeps those parts warm and allows water to run off. Ranging over large areas and varying terrain toughens his feet and wears them down into a natural shape, and he grooms himself by rolling in dust or sand.
Horses kept in domestic pastures are adapted to living outside but usually are more sedentary and less physically fit than range horses. Some develop overgrown feet, which can crack and chip and may cause stumbling, sprains, or gait abnormalities. Some pastures do not supply sufficient nutrition, while others have such lush grass that some animals are in danger of obesity and grass founder. Horses prefer to graze clean grass; but in small, overgrazed, or high traffic areas the grass becomes contaminated with manure and the eggs and larvae of internal parasites. The smaller the field and the more horses that use it, the more severe the internal parasite infestation is likely to be. In conditioning pleasure and show horses, we are asking a horse to adapt to an artificial lifestyle. He may be confined to a stall or small paddock and expected to perform demanding gaits and paces instead of roaming and grazing at will. He may be fed a concentrated diet high in energy instead of the constant grazing she prefers. We may shorten his coat artificially by keeping him blanketed in a warm stable but make him more vulnerable to chills. His work may demand athletic performance, travel, and stress on her mind and body that his natural life never would.
Domestic horses used for sport or pleasure riding need care and management that their wild ancestors would neither need nor tolerate. Some horses, through selective breeding, have become so refined and sensitive that they would suffer and deteriorate if placed under range conditions or even a lower standard of care. In this chapter, I give you some guidance on how to successfully keep your horses healthy, sound, and fit so that they can show their best.
The ultimate use of the horse may dictate the type of stabling, care, and management. For instance:
A saddle-bred show horse with built-up feet and a set tail must be kept stabled, meticulously cared for and exercised, and can seldom be turned out safely.
Endurance horses often do best kept in a field and seldom stabled.
Pleasure horses used for occasional showing can usually be kept as they would be for ordinary riding, with a little extra attention to show details.
A stall with an adjoining field, so the horse can be allowed to go freely in and out or kept in when necessary, is an excellent arrangement for horses whose owners work or go to school.
Try to permit your horse the most natural lifestyle possible. Don't impose procedures on her that limit his lifestyle (such as blanketing or body clipping) unless they are necessary; if you do, you must be conscientious about such details as changing blankets according to the weather.
A horse kept stabled full time requires more time and daily work. When a horse is kept stabled, you need to pay attention to several details:
His stall must be cleaned and picked out more often to keep him clean. He needs plenty of bedding to cushion his legs and so that he can lie down in comfort.
Feed and water buckets must be scrubbed out daily and clean, fresh water always available.
Fly control is important because show horses' manes and tails may be shortened, tied up, or otherwise altered; and many have fine coats and skin that are extremely sensitive to fly bites. Some fly-control measures include:
Fly sheets Ear covers and fly masks
Meticulous stall cleaning and manure disposal
Use of fly repellents, insecticides, and automated fly spray systems Turning horses out at night instead of during the day
He needs exercise every day-nothing is worse for a horse than standing in confinement, particularly when she is fit. Allow him access to a pasture or paddock as often as you can, or graze him on a lead line when turnout is impossible.
Let your horse "be a horse" by rolling and playing; no matter how dirty he gets, you can always clean him up!
Organization and Planning
If you're planning to show your horse, you should consider your goals and resources. Are you a pleasure rider who wants to show at a few local shows, or are you campaigning pursuit of major breed or national awards? When is your first competition, and how long will it take to prepare your horse? Must he be fit for athletic events such as jumping, reining, or barrel racing, or in "halter condition"? Most important, how much daily time and effort can you devote to conditioning, exercise, grooming, and other care?
Your show schedule impacts your day-to-day management because you have to balance your conditioning plans with other essential tasks:
Major competitions and prep shows should be marked on a calendar so that you can plan to bring your horse into peak condition at the right time.
No horse can maintain peak condition indefinitely, and the greater the physical demands on a horse, the more important it is to allow some rest time at home.
Routine but essential procedures such as shoeing, deworming, inoculations, and dental care must be scheduled so that they are taken care of well in advance of shows and travel.
To make sure you don't miss a beat, the following sections help you chart your way to success so that you make plans for conditioning as well as day-to-day management tasks.
Charts, Calendars, and Keeping Records
Charts, calendars, and records can help in planning, managing your horse, and going to competitions. You should assemble the records and documents you need before the show season and keep them up to date. A zippered binder with photocopies of all required papers can be taken to shows. Some horsemen prefer to keep shoeing, deworming, work schedules, and similar information on a chart in the barn. You may need some or all of the following:
Registration papers (extra photocopies)
Individual health records, including:
Veterinary Health Certificate (if required for shows or interstate travel)
Coggins test (extra photocopies)
Inoculation records; proof of rabies inoculation (extra photocopies)
Normal vital signs (temperature, pulse, and respiration rates)
Veterinary record (exam and treatment notes, illnesses, injuries, allergies, sensitivity to medications, etc.)
Dental record (dates and notes on dental work)
Deworming schedule, including dates and product used
Shoeing notes; special shoeing requirements
Insurance policy (if horse is insured), with contact information in case of a claim
Contact information and emergency phone numbers for veterinarian, farrier, equine dental specialist, and other professionals
Membership cards, USEF numbers, and owner/trainer information, as required for shows and competitions
FEI passport (if horse competes in FEI classes)
Calendar with show dates, plus scheduled dates for shoeing, deworming, inoculations, dental work, etc.
Daily notes on training, condition, feeding, vet or farrier visits, etc.
Your Professional Team
No one produces a winner single-handedly. Here's a list of some of the professionals show horse owners may work with:
An instructor or trainer
A stable manager
A regular veterinarian
A good farrier
An equine dental expert An equine massage practitioner
All are important members of the team who contribute to the effort of getting the horse healthy, sound, fit, and ready to show. Everyone who works with the horse needs up-to-date information about his training program, his health, his soundness, fitness, and attitude, and should communicate about any problems or major changes.
Keeping notes or a logbook can make sure that important things are not missed. Jot down daily progress notes on work and training, occurrences such as heat in a leg or a loose shoe, or any significant changes. This can help in keeping track of progress, or health, fitness, or training issues.
Before You Begin
To bring a horse from pasture to show condition, you must prepare her system for the new demands to be made on it. His digestive system must gradually become accustomed to more concentrated energy-producing food. His muscles, legs, and cardiovascular system must be conditioned for more strenuous work and his immune system prepared to meet the challenges of stress and exposure to disease. His feet need proper shoeing for his best movement, and his coat and skin must be conditioned for best appearance and to cool and dry efficiently as he works. All this takes time, so you must start to prepare a horse well before his first show. A horse that's only slightly out of shape might take a month to condition; an unfit horse may need three months or longer to reach peak condition. Before you begin your conditioning regimen, you need to first assess your horse to see whether you're beginning with an unfit horse or a slightly out-of-shape horse.
Assessing Weight and Condition
You'll need to evaluate your horse's present condition and decide on conditioning goals. Is he overweight, lacking muscle tone, or too thin? While you cannot change his conformation, you can get him into the shape that shows him off best. Show horses look better with a little fat-just enough to round their body contours a bit and produce an overall "bloom." Judges discriminate against horses that look thin, which gives a poor impression of their management.
You should know your horse's current weight, for feeding purposes as well as for evaluating his condition. This can be found by weighing the horse on livestock or truck scales or estimated by using a weight tape around the heart girth.
You need to evaluate your horse's condition coupled with his weight. The Henneke Body Condition Scale classifies horses from 1 (emaciated) to 10 (obese), based on body fat. Ideal show condition falls in the middle range (5 to 6), along with indications of health and fitness such as good muscle tone; a healthy, shiny coat; clean, tight tendons and ligaments; clear eyes; a good appetite; and an alert attitude.
Where to Begin
Fat horses are soft, lack endurance, are easily injured, and are prone to problems such as laminitis and colic. While show fashions, particularly in halter classes, have sometimes favored overfed, overweight, and under-exercised horses, this is an unhealthy trend that has cost horses their show careers and even their lives. It is better to condition for optimal muscle development and the health and stamina to do the job in the show ring; the results are lasting and worth the effort. Happily, more judges are selecting well-conditioned horses over excessively fat "feed 'em and lead 'em" types.
If your horse is used to being on pasture all the time, you could bring him into the stable during the day and turn her out at night for the first couple of weeks. While inside, he can have hay and a small feed of grain twice a day, can be groomed, trimmed, shod; and can begin her exercise program. Eventually he may be kept stabled with daily turnout, and hay will replace the grass in her diet. A horse's grain intake must be carefully balanced against her work and all changes made gradually.
When you first begin to work an unfit horse, start at a walk for about half an hour, just long enough to make the horse sweat under the saddle. Gradually increase the time and amount of exercise (see The Conditioning Process, p. 17).
Always groom before riding, warm up and cool out gradually, groom or rinse the horse clean after work, and put him away clean, dry, and comfortable. Tack (especially girths, harness, and saddle pads) must be kept clean, soft, and supple to prevent rubs and galls. He should get a good daily grooming, with attention to feet, mane, and tail as well as cleaning and grooming the coat.
Prepping and Caring for the Hooves
The farrier should check your horse's feet and shoes, note their condition, wear, alignment, and angles, and evaluate her movement before trimming or shoeing. Tell your farrier what kind of work your horse is doing, and about any problems such as stumbling or forging. Major changes in shoeing should be made gradually, so as not to stress the structures of the feet and legs.
The horse's feet must be trimmed so that they are balanced and the bones of the hoof and pastern are correctly aligned according to her conformation. Sometimes showmen try to camouflage conformation faults by having the feet trimmed with excessively low heels, or having large feet pared down to make them appear smaller. Such practices can contribute to lameness and conditions such as navicular disease and may make it impossible for the horse to move athletically.
Feeding the Show Horse
The right feeding program is a vital factor in producing and maintaining a fit and healthy horse and in conditioning for competition. All horses require energy, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, salt, and water in the right amount and balance to meet their individual needs. The kind and amount of feed a horse requires depend on many factors-his age, weight, condition, body type, and temperament; work intended; and any special nutritional needs. Nutrition is important, but it is too large a subject to be covered in depth in this book, which can only give you some basic guidelines on feeding show horses.
Each horse must be fed as an individual; the amount of feed must be adjusted for her condition and work. It is more accurate to feed by weight than by amount; weigh a container of grain and an average flake of hay so that you know how many pounds of each your horse gets per feeding.
Balancing a ration means determining a horse's nutritional requirements and the kind and amount of hay, grain, and supplements that will meet her needs. Balancing a ration requires nutritional charts and a little math; it can save money and ensure that your feeding program meets all her nutritional needs without deficiencies or dangerous overfeeding. You can get help in balancing a ration and other nutritional advice from your county agricultural agent or a feed company representative.