For this year’s Thoroughbred Makeover, the Retired Racehorse Project implemented an arrival exam to ensure that each horse was fit to compete. Here’s how it went.
For the first time this year, the Retired Racehorse Project instituted an arrival exam at the 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium, presented by Thoroughbred Charities of America, in order to make sure that all the horses competing were fit to do so. The exam emphasized soundness, body condition and microchipping.
I was fortunate to be present for a number of arrival exams, and I was impressed with what I observed.
In previous years, horses with a Henneke Body Condition Score of 3.0 or less (out of 9) would not be allowed to compete, but enforcing that policy was based on staff observation throughout the event. The flaw in that system is that not each horse is examined in a controlled manner and much can be hidden by tack.
This year, the Retired Racehorse Project raised the bar for its minimum requirement to compete in the Thoroughbred Makeover by requiring all horses to have a Body Condition Score of at least 4.0 and the standard was fairly and methodically enforced.
Under the direction of Dr. Shannon Reed, DVM, MS, DACVS-LA and Associate Professor of Equine Surgery at the Ohio State University, a core team of seven veterinarians and nine veterinary students from Hagyard Equine Medical Institute examined over 400 horses in the days leading into competition. Each horse was assessed not only based on its Body Condition Score, but also on soundness, vital signs, microchipping and health records.
Each horse checked in at the arrival tent and when a veterinarian or intern was available, the horse was taken to the examination corral. Once there, its vital signs and body condition were evaluated.
Following the initial check, horses were led to a flat area to be assessed for soundness walking in a straight line and in a circle in each direction. Barefoot horses were allowed to wear boots if necessary so that sole tenderness could not be mistaken for a larger soundness concern.
One of the aspects of the exam that stood out to me was the thoroughness with which each exam was approached. The veterinarians and their interns not only evaluated each horse, but also talked to each competitor about his her her horse. If a horse had a known issue and it was being addressed, the competitors were given a chance to explain the issue and how it was being treated. In more than one instance, the consulting veterinarians called the competitors’ personal vets to discuss the horse’s history.
If a horse did not meet one of the standards in the arrival exam, it was moved onto a second veterinarian to be reassessed. The second veterinarian did not see the first veterinarian’s score and rescored it completely independently. If both veterinarians determined that a horse was unfit to compete, the owner or trainer was given the option to have the horse placed on hold and re-present in 24 hours.
This allowed the horses to eat, drink, hand walk, relax from the trailer ride and settle in before re-presenting. After 24 hours, the horse re-presented to the head steward and a third veterinarian who would evaluate the horse completely independently of the first two veterinarians (again, without seeing the scorecards of the first two vets). It was only after this rigorous process that a horse was determined unfit to compete.
Further, the veterinarians made sure to talk to trainers and owners about their horses. “We had a lot of conversations with people,” said Dr. Reed. “We didn’t just look at a horse and say, ‘Your horse doesn’t go through.’ We ask the people questions, we say, ‘What’s going on with your horse? How do you feel about how it’s been going?’ If we saw a blemish or a bump, we didn’t just note it. We said, ‘Have you had this looked at by a veterinarian? What did they say?'”
Steps such as these ensured that horses were evaluated fairly and set up for success and the opportunity to compete.
Once the horses went through the exam, the owners or trainers were asked to sign off on the score card and, if the horse passed, it was issued two blue stickers — one for its bridle tag and one for the rider’s back number. No horse could enter a competition venue without a blue sticker.
When asked her opinion of the overall condition of the horses that arrived at the Kentucky Horse Park to compete, Dr. Reed said, “You know, every year that I come, it keeps getting better. There were a lot of horses out there that were shiny, turned out well, in great condition.”
As a proponent of arrival exams and someone who would like to see more shows institute them, I wondered whether or not it is realistic to implement them across the board. Dr. Reed acknowledged that a large amount of manpower is required to make the process feasible. Even with the seven veterinarians, nine students and additional veterinarians who came when necessary, it still took 18 hours to assess all the horses.
Dr. Reed also pointed out that before implementing an arrival exam, shows need to evaluate their population and see if the opportunity for education exists among their competitors. “That’s where this exam came from,” added Reed. “It wasn’t about saying we’re not doing it right, it was how can we do it better.”
Dr. Reed noted that the Thoroughbred Makeover really is a show like no other: “This is such a different type of show than other shows. I don’t know of any other show where you bring 10 disciplines together with amateurs and professionals and juniors, and then show at all different levels. You have amateurs going FEI, but we have amateurs doing two-foot Hunters and juniors doing Competitive Trail. So we have this massive population of horse owners and trainers and disciplines that we have to bring together. So I don’t know if other horse shows are going to have the same experience and needs as this one. I’m not aware of anything like it.”
Having been both a competitor and a steward at the Thoroughbred Makeover, I can attest that the show is different from most others. Therefore, how one approaches it needs to be considered carefully.
Fortunately, Dr. Reed is an excellent choice to oversee this process. Not only is she a board certified surgeon with numerous publications under her name, but also she is a huge proponent of the Retired Racehorse Project and competed in the 2017 and 2018 Thoroughbred Makeover. Thus, she is very aware of the mission of the organization and worked to maintain the spirit of the Thoroughbred Makeover in her capacity as the Retired Racehorse Project’s consulting veterinarian.