By Natalie DeFee Mendik
Keeping school horses happy and healthy
A good lesson horse is a valuable member of any riding program, safely carrying and patiently teaching newbies of all ages. To keep these schoolmasters happy and healthy, we must take into account factors unique to their situation, from carrying different riders to sharing saddlery.
Harry Werner, VMD, founder of Werner Equine, in North Granby, Connecticut, has been honored with International Equine Veterinarian Hall of Fame induction and the American Association of Equine Practitioners Distinguished Life Member Award for his work, and has seen a lot of lesson horses over the years among his patient population. He says not all riding programs are equal in terms of horse welfare.
“In my experience, there’s a tremendous amount of variability in lesson horse life and care. There are programs in which you look at the lesson horses and think they lucked out; unfortunately, that’s not universal,” he says, explaining that much of this is due to school horses tending to be more of a commodity than privately owned horses. “It doesn’t mean that they aren’t still animals that people love and care for, but they have to go to work or there is income loss.”
No Cutting Corners
While economics might be a driver, avoiding the “penny-wise, pound-foolish” temptation is key to school horse health and your bottom line, explains Paula Pierce, MBA, equestrian center director at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. This operation houses nearly 60 horses, 40 of which are school horses either owned or leased by the college. The students ride these horses in Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA), Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA), and Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA, for area middle and secondary school riders) events.
“We are of the mindset if you put an investment in up front, it will pay for itself in the long run, which has served us well,” she says. “For example, while not standard to many riding schools, we will do joint injections once or twice a year for a horse that needs it, going with the theory that it’s less expensive to put money into the current employee than to find a new one.”
Investing in school horse health also involves time, in the form of daily wellness checks and rest days as needed, says Carolien Munsters, MSc, PhD, owner of Moxie Sport Analysis and Coaching and researcher at Utrecht University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in the Netherlands. She says findings from her team’s 2009 research in Holland indicated many riding schools fail to check their school horses’ health daily the way owners of privately owned sport horses do.
In addition, Munsters’ team found sport horses were more likely to receive veterinary treatment and time off than lesson horses. “We found that riding school owners considered their horses fit enough to ‘work’ in a riding lesson, although veterinarian advice suggested that horses needed a resting period,” Munsters says. “These observations may suggest that riding school owners have a different perception of the welfare of horses and how to handle and treat injuries. This was also supported by the fact that horses requiring a resting period for a longer time due to injury were in many cases (almost 55% of them) already in the preceding weeks diagnosed with a small injury with no training break. This suggests if horses are not treated/rested well for seemingly minor injuries, a greater chance for injuries occurs later.”
TLC Goes a Long Way
Riding school managers can overcome those economic forces, however, with careful management, says Pierce. “We try to be very precise with treatments and certainly don’t do them on a blanket basis; we’ll invest in the diagnosis of a problem before just throwing medication or supplements in a wild guess,” she says. “That said, if a horse needs something in particular, we will do it: We maintain the horses that need it on a joint supplement, or B vitamins for a horse that needs to chill out. We have two exceptional farriers and, if necessary, we’ll do corrective shoeing on a horse—it all pays for itself in the long run.”
Corinne Lettau, founder and CEO of Denver Equestrians, in Littleton, Colorado, says the school’s 25 hunt seat and Western lesson horses receive corticosteroid joint injections, Adequan (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan), and Legend (hyaluronate sodium)—all used to help alleviate joint pain and lameness—as needed. Lettau’s horse-care protocol might also include Regu-Mate (altrenogest, to suppress estrus in mares) and chiropractic.
By employing appropriate veterinary diagnostics and therapy, Werner says riding schools can avoid the tendency to turn to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to mask an issue. “While this is financially driven, in the long run it’s not in the best interest of the horse,” he says.
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