As we prepare for show season, most riders think of extra lessons, fitting up their eventers with conditioning programs and trailering in to school at different arenas and venues and buying new accessories and gear. As a vet, my perspective is a little different, as I think of the ramped up work load as an extra stress/strain on joints and muscles, vaccination, deworming, nutrition and dental floating. Just as people are getting geared up for bikini season with extra training sessions and if we’re lucky, a new wardrobe, so are our horsey companions. However, they aren’t getting prepped to lay on a sandy beach with a cold beer, they’re getting ready to work harder in the summer heat!
As I found when training for a half marathon, in a new training program, your muscles are sometimes sore and problems you never knew you had come to light. Before you know it, you’re finding it difficult to train/compete due to an injury! Before my first ½ marathon, I developed very painful shin splints, and found out I needed orthotics and needed to retrain myself to run in a more ergonomic way, as well as perform exercises on an ongoing basis to strengthen my muscles to avoid further injury. If I had taken the principles I apply to my patients, I could have avoided the agony of sore shins and had a much more comfortable race. A mid-training dynamic exam with a physiotherapist/ sports medicine doc would have revealed these problems and helped me solve them sooner!
Typically, I encourage as many of my patients as I can to take advantage of a pre-season checkup, which includes a physical exam and a dynamic musculoskeletal exam. I consider myself one part of the horse’s health care team, and I hope to be one of the voices to let the rest of the team know what is going on. I could obviously tell my doctor that my shins were killing me. Horses have all different ways to let us know; whether through actual limping, mild tenderness on palpation, a change in attitude etc. It’s best if the horse has been in at least moderate work prior to the examination so that we can gain the most information. Listening to the heart, lungs, GI tract and looking in the eyes are just part of the physical exam. I have often identified new heart murmurs (potentially dangerous when jumping obstacles!), or cataracts or other ocular abnormalities that would otherwise be unknown, even on horses who have been normal in previous years. Additionally, it allows us a chance to take a dedicated look at the horse in a holistic sense. Is there weight gain/loss? Muscle loss, or uneven development? Is his coat all of a sudden dull and burnt out?
The palpation and dynamic aspects of the exam is an important annual aspect as well, allowing me to monitor ongoing problems and identify new ones prior to investing in expensive show fees. Conformation issues, shoeing changes, or new lumps and bumps and areas of referred pain give me clues to changes or areas of soreness in the body. Sometimes we’ll find some lower back pain prior to true hock pain, or a small splint that has been causing a left drift. The dynamic aspect of the exam is usually performed on the lunge line to start, and involves a thorough look at how the horse behaves in motion. A new way of moving a limb, out of character behavior, or new musculature issues can all be clues to a small underlying soreness. We may perform an under saddle portion, or surcingle exam. Flexions are a part of the exam allowing us to stress a particular joint and see if there is any change to movement. When I look at horses annually, I get to know them pretty well. Sometimes I forget a horse’s face marking, but I can often recall their legs and way of traveling for years! Of course good record keeping is also key!
A common misconception many clients have is that pre-season checkups always end with the recommendation to inject specific joints and a huge bill. Sometimes this is elected, but I tailor my approach to the level of competition of the horse, age, issues we know to be at hand, and what is best for the horse. Understanding your goals for the season helps me make better recommendations. For example, if you were hoping to jump FEI in 3 weeks’ time, leaping over 1.50m fences and continuing with an aggressive schedule for the season with your campaigner with some extra arthritis baggage, I’m going to recommend something different than a young clean horse in his second year of A level or Trillium level competing! Often I will make shoeing recommendations together with the farrier, provide exercises to strengthen an area, recommend a nutrition change, or recommend preventative care such as Adequan, acupuncture or chiropractic to maintain a specific problem. The rider is usually more aware of specific deficits their horse has, so they can work on them with their coach too. All in all, a pre-season examination usually yields good preventative results for most horse rider teams, it allows us to get a handle on how the horse is doing going into the season, and have some idea of what bumps there might be in the road ahead.
Melanie Barham DVM