I recently returned from working on a horse at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), and I never ceased to be amazed by how much care the top competitors give their horses. This high level of care, which keeps the horses sound for competitions all year long and for 10 days straight at the NFR, takes real dedication and attention to detail.
In my opinion, the competitors who take the most holistic approach to caring for their horses have the greatest chances of success. A successful rodeo competitor will typically have her horse's teeth floated twice a year by a competent dentist, and will fly farriers, massage therapists, and chiropractors to out-of-town rodeos to work on her horse as needed during competitions.
The best rodeo riders also carefully fit and maintain their tack, and use a variety of boots, magnetic blankets, ice boots, poultices, braces, and sweats to speed recovery from muscle soreness and minor injuries. The horse's nutrition is managed down to the last detail, starting with the highest quality feed and enhanced with supplements that support the immune system, digestion, and joints.
Finally, the best riders create and stringently follow custom-tailored conditioning programs and workouts for their horses, knowing that both horse and rider must be mentally and physically focused to succeed.
These riders have come to understand that their horses are much more likely to withstand the rigors of competition when they have a solid foundation of health, and strive to develop a unique program that allows each horse to perform at his peak as often as possible.
While I've focused mostly on rodeo horses in this article, the same principles apply to any performance horse. If you're actively campaigning a performance horse and you're not doing as well as you'd like, you might be missing one or two pieces of the puzzle. Check out my list of top ten ways you might be losing your edge.
1. Showing an Unsuitable Horse: Before you check any of the other items below, first make sure that you have a horse that is suitable for the events in which you want to compete. A tall lanky thoroughbred probably won't do well as a cutting horse, while a short, heavy quarter horse bred for cow work may not like jumping.
2. Dental Needs: You communicate with your horse through your seat, hands, and voice. If your horse has any pain or discomfort in his mouth, you've just lost one channel of communication. Get your horse's teeth floated at least once a year, and more if you're competing at high levels.
3. Poor Quality Feed: The old adage, "You get out of it what you put into it" definitely holds true when it comes to feed. Feeding your horse poor quality or unsuitable feed won't take you far in the performance world. Determine what kind of feed is best for your horse and then get the best quality you can.
4. Tack That Doesn't Fit: Saddles, bits, and bridles that don't fit can cause discomfort, soreness, and frustration for your horse. If your horse isn't going as well as you like, try a variety of saddles, bits, bridles, and pads to see if that is the source of the problem. Some top rodeo riders will try half a dozen bits and bridles before settling on the best choice for each horse.
5. Lack of Conditioning: Your horse won't compete well if he's over- or under-trained for the events in which you want to compete. Get expert help if necessary to create the perfect conditioning program for you and your horse.
6. Relying on Joint Injections: If you find yourself having to rely on frequent joint injections to keep your horse moving well, you might consider changing your horse's nutritional program. Frequent joint soreness indicates a need for support in the form of natural anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, and minerals. Good sources of anti-inflammatories and antioxidants include Coenzyme Q10, Tahitian NONI, and MSM. Super Blue Green Algae is a good source of minerals, and glucosamine products work well specifically for joint support.
7. Drilling a Seasoned Horse: Overworking or over-drilling a seasoned performance horse can sour his attitude. If you have an experienced horse, keep the training to a minimum and make sure he has a variety of other activities in his life.
8. Overuse of Synthetic Vitamins and Minerals: Adding too many non-natural sources of vitamins or minerals to your horse's diet can put a lot of stress on his liver and kidneys, plus he may stop eating since these supplements often don't taste good. As much as possible, design a customized program for your horse based on supplements in natural, whole-food form.
9. Too Little Variety: Remember that horses are herd animals meant to wander over acres and acres of land, grazing as they go. Allow your horse plenty of pasture time with his buddies, and alternative conditioning options in different disciplines. For instance, you might trail ride or work cows on a jumper to offer a change of scenery.
10. Using Drugs Rather than Solid Nutrition: If you have to give your horse non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs every time you work him because he gets sore, you might need to upgrade his nutritional program. A well-conditioned horse who gets solid nutrition will not get sore every time he is worked. Substitute natural antioxidants for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to combat normal muscle soreness from heavy training or competition.
Madalyn Ward, DVM, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic, established in 1985 in Austin, Texas. She is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy, Chiropractic and Acupuncture. Memberships include American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Holistic Veterinary medical Association, Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy, and International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. She has co-authored several books and publishes the monthly newsletter, "Holistic Horsekeeping." Her contact info is: Madalyn Ward DVM, 11608 FM 1826, Austin, TX 78737. 512-288-0428, www.holistichorsekeeping.com