Horse showing weeks and weeks in a row can take a lot out of both horses and riders. Luckily, we riders are able to express our emotions and feelings, knowing what parts of us hurt or if we are just “too stressed out”. On the other hand, horses rely on us to read their subtle signals and just know how they are feeling in order to ensure they remain sound and happy. All we should ask from our equine partners is that they try hard every time we take them into the show ring. In order to ask that from them, we need to ensure they have all of their needs met so that they may perform at their best.
Personal preference is highly important when making decisions regarding your horse’s care, and individualized programs are important to create. Picking up bits and pieces of information and techniques here and there that you think will be beneficial will help to create a complete routine that will best suit your own needs. Over my years of grooming for various hunter/jumper riders and trainers up to the FEI level, I’ve picked up a lot of little tricks, and I like to combine them to create a personalized routine for each horse I work with.
Keeping a horse happy and sane during an intense show season starts with management, and horse management is a highly individualized program, best outlined by an experienced professional. Having a knowledgeable trainer that you trust is key to success on the show circuit. Management starts with the horse’s care routine – ensuring that the horse is sound, healthy and happy starts with routine visits from the behind the scenes team of veterinarians, farriers and chiropractors. I am a firm believer in chiropractic medicine for both humans and horses, and I think it is a vital part of ensuring a horse is able to perform at his peak. In addition, management at the horse shows is very important. While I do firmly believe in personal preference, I think it is so important not to ‘over-show’ your horse. Limiting the number of classes per day is always really important both mentally and physically for a horse while showing. One or two classes a day is probably enough, especially once you start jumping over the 1.10m level, but every horse is different, and an experienced professional can help you determine what is right for you and your horse.
Horses thrive on a routine, and it is important to keep that in mind at a horse show. There are three particular routines I like to follow; a morning routine, a pre-class routine and a post class routine. My ideal morning routine typically would start with unwrapping stable bandages and removing any poultice. After a long night in their stall, getting your horse out for a morning walk is beneficial both mentally and physically for your partner. Stretching their legs and getting to move will help loosen them up and help to prevent injury, plus can help alleviate stress. Also, BONUS, they will love the opportunity to nibble on some grass! If your class isn’t until later in the day, the morning is a great time to start on hot or cold therapies, if your horse may need them. The consistent use of ceramic blankets and wraps such as Back on Track (look for my review article which is coming soon for more information) can help to increase blood circulation, reduce pain and inflammation as well as heal injuries. Back on Track products such as hock boots and back pads should be used prior to your class. If you have a Back on Track blanket, it is best to keep that on overnight and can still be used during the day. If you notice any swelling or stocking up in the legs that persists even after your morning hand walk, an icing session using ice boots can provide relief. Some barns may have an electromagnetic blanket such as Centurion for use, which is very helpful for pain relief in muscles and ligaments.
Pre-class routines help to enforce that it is time for business and that they are going to be put to work. The simple process of grooming and tacking up done in a routine fashion should be enough to enforce this to an experienced show horse.
Upon returning to the barn after your class, I find it extremely important to keep your horses back warm, particularly on a cold day. Some of an equine’s vital organs are located behind the saddle region, and keeping those warm post exercise can reduce risks of illness and colic, plus it is important to prevent a sore back. I always like to bathe horses post class, particularly in warm weather. Liniment baths are great to help reduce sore muscles and prevent injuries and stiffness. Many different types of liniments are available on the market, and my personal favorite for a full body bath is Vetrolin Liniment – and as a bonus it smells AWESOME!! Every time I’ve used it during a horse show, particularly on older horses, I feel like I have a more flexible and happy horse underneath me the next day. An important part of the post class bath for show horses is washing the horse’s legs. If you are competing on dirt, synthetic footing, mud or even grass, dirt particles will get on their legs and can create sores particularly if you wrap post class without ensuring it has all been removed. Since leg washing is so frequent at horse shows, using a very gentle soap is the ideal product. A simple, hypoallergenic, unscented gentle dish soap is always my go-to choice. Icing is also an important part of my post-class routine. Just like human athletes will ice their bodies after an intense workout, our horses deserve to have their precious tendons and joints in their legs treated with just as much care. If your horse will allow it, use large buckets full of ice and water as an ideal choice. It will ice from the bottom of their hoof up to their knees – ideally. Alternatively, an ice boot is always a good solution particularly for icing tendons. I prefer the Equi-Fit Ice Boots, or those of similar design. Ice-Vibes, by Horseware are also a good choice, however I find a weakness in them, as they do not cover the horse’s fetlocks. The more expensive alternative would be an icing system such as Game Ready, which in my experience is really cool – I’ve tried it out on my own legs and I have to say it’s pretty awesome! Post icing, there are a few options on how to treat the horse’s legs. I always start with a leg brace, Sore No More liniment is a good option, or you could go for a make it at home option – Malt Vinegar, Witch Hazel and Rubbing alcohol in equal parts. Overnight I like to either poultice the legs or wrap with standing bandages. Typically, the rule of thumb used by my trainer is to start off with poultice – as it draws out the heat and can draw attention to problem areas, and then wrap if mild swelling or stocking up is noted. As you may have noticed, I’m a pretty big fan of the Back on Track products, and I truly believe in the ceramic technologies abilities to reduce inflammation and pain, and as such will wrap my horse’s legs with the no bows Back on Track wraps over night. It is very important to remember to not keep standing bandages on for longer than 8-12 hours as it could cause impairments to circulation.
Another factor in keeping your horse happy and content at horse shows is ensuring that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need. If you are stabling on dirt and your horse is digging up the stall with as much gusto as if they were trying to dig their way to China… there is probably an essential mineral missing from their diet that they are able to get at home but not at the horse show. During the summer time, this is a huge factor, especially if your horse is not able to get a significant amount of grass. Try adding a mineral mix to you horse’s diet, and keep in mind that horses instinctively know what they need, and are probably trying to tell you something if they are acting in an unusual manner. The drug debate in the equestrian world is a subject that I won’t touch on, however I think that herbal, all natural substances are interesting and can be very useful, in the same way that drinking chamomile tea to calm down or coffee to gain a little extra energy is useful. Your horse may need calming herbs if it is continuously stressed or unfocused at horse shows, or alternatively you may need to add a scoop of oats to your horses diet if you feel you don’t have enough horse underneath you. Your best resource is always a well respected trainer or stable manager, most show barns have staff extremely well educated in the proper nutrients that your horse needs to perform at its peak. If your trainer isn’t knowledgeable in this area, your veterinarian would be your next best resource.
As I have mentioned, every single horse is different–some may need more, some may need less and some may need something entirely different. If your trainer is experienced and well educated, they will always be your best resource. I am lucky enough to have one of those amazing trainers and I am forever grateful for her knowledge. However, I’ve been on the other side of that in the past, working for trainers who aren’t as knowledgeable and as such I hope maybe my tips might be able to be a starting point for those looking to help their horses perform at their peak during the show season.
— Justine Tainsh