When it comes to managing competition horses, is it too risky to “let horses be horses”? Advanced-level eventer Kate Samuels weighs in.
Top photo: Ella running to the gate in the morning.
My life the past two weeks has been filled with epsom salt soaks, multi-diaper bandaging and lots of vetwrap and too much duct tape to even mention. Can you guess why? Yes, it was due to the ever irritating presence of a hoof bruise on my Advanced horse. “Thank goodness it is just a bruise!” you say to yourself, and then, after two weeks of bubble wrapping, pulse monitoring, and trips to CVS for more duct tape, you start to think back to how you could have prevented this whole shebang. I could have only ridden him on good surfaces. I could have gone through his whole field with a rake and pulled out every rock I found. I could have not walked him on the gravel. I could have decided not to do trot sets on that one day where the ground was hard.
The fact is, logistically, it would have been impossible for me to fully insure myself against a silly minor injury like this. After all, he’s a horse, and I can’t expect him to live in a padded cell and only walk on perfectly fluffy soft footing all day and all night. I pulled his shoe last week after getting an x-ray done to make sure there was nothing serious, and the poor guy was stuck in the stall. Luckily, he is the king of the castle and obviously therefore has a double sized stall, so he got to move around a tiny bit. As the week wore on, he got grumpier and grumpier, he started to kick and bang the walls, tried to bite a small student of mine, and was ultimately a bit of a terror (irony: his name is Nyls du Terroir, which sounds like terror).
This Monday, he got a shoe on, and promptly went out all that night with his pony friend. Tuesday morning? Total sweetheart. His demeanor changed 100%. I am a huge believer in ample turnout, for all horses. My horses go out in big fields, always with at least one buddy, and they can romp around all night. In the winter, they go out when it’s warm in the day, and the summer they are out from 6pm until 7am. They have hills in their fields, and it’s their job to figure out how to navigate up and down.
God bless the person who wants to go out on Cross Country when their horse doesn’t even know how to balance on hills by itself, but I am not in that category. It is vital that event horses have the body awareness, and the muscle sets to know how to change gears across terrain. When they spend all night outside walking around, they unconsciously teach themselves this skill, and build muscles to help. The Virginia Horse Trials are this weekend, and certainly their cross country courses are a true test of a horse and rider’s ability to ride on some serious terrain.
After a bout with preventable lameness like this one, I appreciate the outlook of the bubble-wrappers. Having something silly like this ruin a big event is a HUGE pain in my butt. It has been costly, obnoxious, and embarrassing. I know there are successful riders out there who completely subscribe to the bubble wrap way of life. Their upper level horses only go out in small, controlled paddocks under supervision for a few hours during the day. If they start acting anxious, or, God forbid, start to run, they are immediately brought inside. From a soundness point of view, this is the human reaction to the possibility of pasture injury. However, I just don’t agree. Horses are meant to graze for hours, they are meant to meander around and socialize with other horses. My horse goes out with a crabby 30 year old german pony mare, who can’t possibly hurt him but provides him with equine contact. In my opinion, a horse that uses its muscles, hooves, ligaments, bones etc every day or every night on a very low level through walking and grazing is less likely to have a freak injury when you are exercising it more intensely.
When I got my horse when he was three, he had been bubble wrapped his whole life. I turned him out in a four acre field with a big hill, and he didn’t know how to start at the top and not end up snowballing and galloping at the bottom. He went through the fence at the bottom twice, and finally worked out how to balance himself. I had a pony when I was seven who had a stifle disorder when she was young, and the prescription from the vet was walking up and down hills. She recovered and never had a lame day in her life after a year in the fields. Even the horses that I get off the track are completely rehabilitated by some time outside. Their whole demeanor changes, they are less edgy, more attentive and relaxed about life. When you ride a horse that walked around all night, it is much less likely to pull some silly antics while you are aboard and endanger the both of you. Ride a nervous horse right after it comes in from 12 hours outside, it will change your interactions.
For all horses, but for eventers in particular, the turnout issue is huge. There are lots of riders who subscribe to the bubble wrap way of life, and lots of riders who are like me, and chuck those ponies out for long periods of time. Yes, you increase your possibilities of pasture injury, but let’s be real here folks, horses are trying to injure themselves 24/7, and even if you lock them up all day and all night and never ride them on anything other than perfect footing, they will find a way. So I say, let them wander all night. Let them stuff their faces on grass and come inside in the morning and take a long nap in their plush stalls. What do you say, Eventing Nation?