How should high-level horses be cared for?

11 August 2020

The "Question of the Month" looks at the issues behind the care for high-level horses. How can an adapted care program from the moment of birth form the keystone of a high-level career? We spoke to two experts: Sylvie Baldeck, breeder, osteopath, manager of a balneotherapy center, and Aurélien Leonard, veterinarian in CSI5*.

Sylvie Baldeck: "When we talk about care, we have to be careful to clearly define what we are talking about. I will focus here on the optimal care pathway that I believe a high-level horse needs, if its career is to last as long as possible. I will break it down into key stages, starting with the conception of the foal and the care the mother received during gestation, and ending with the maintenance of a high-level horse. Indeed, I consider care as a whole. Nutrition, in particular, must be at the heart of it. A horse that has suffered from nutritional deficiencies during its youth will retain physical after-effects throughout its life and nothing will be able to make up for the conditions developed during this period. It is therefore necessary to take care of the quality broodmares' pastures and the quantity of food given to them so that the fetuses do not lack anything. One can also favor certain foods, such as parsnip for example, which prevents fetal defects.

The first key step in the care pathway happens between zero and three years. Special emphasis must be placed on healthy and balanced nutrition. It’s vital to ensure that the diet is not too rich because too much is the enemy of good. At home, I place a lot of importance on the quality of my pastures. I prefer phytotherapy and nutrients without fertilizers because I have already seen horses die from grasses saturated with chemical fertilizers. I leave a certain number of plants in the pastures, such as willow (aspirin) or hazelnut (which facilitates blood flow) so that my horses can go and help themselves when they feel the need. Instinctively, they will go to what they need. Up to the age of three, I leave them in pasture as much as possible. This can show a fifty percent improvement in growth, bone and muscle, if the horses are put outdoors in optimal conditions. By this I mean fields with stable soil to avoid sprains or muscle engorgement, and feed that is adapted to the effort provided. It has been calculated that they walk a lot. At night alone, they travel about seventeen kilometers. Horses have a prey instinct and are constantly active. Therefore, they must be fed accordingly. I have found that my horses almost never get sick when they grow up outside in these conditions. In particular, I have halved my veterinarian fees since I have been practicing this way. The horse is an animal that has to fight the winter, walk to develop and allow its blood system to do its work. This method avoids all the conditions of horses that have a bad blood flow, especially bone and muscle micro-trauma. It is important to know that a horse is made up of eighty percent of liquid, which is the same amount of soft tissue in the body. Therefore, it must move around a lot. This method, which respects its growth, is in my opinion a lifesaver for its health.

Before the age of three, about thirty-five percent of horses are no longer straight due to slips or falls that often occurred in the winter before. Dislocations are often the cause of this chronic asymmetry. In my stables in Normandy, we have a considerable asset, and which is something that motivated our choice to settle here, namely the seaside with the meadows nestled in the dunes. The horses can’t slip and can thus walk and gallop as much as they wish. We are lucky to be able to enjoy the swamps in our meadows for part of the year; they play an essential role because they make the grass rich in trace elements. This environment is the folk remedy of the great Norman breeders because it ensures longevity and good health to the horses. If you take the time, you can achieve exceptional results with these conditions. Well-bred horses will not have any deficiency; the quality of their bones will be much higher than those of horses with accelerated growth. Unfortunately, there are a number of breeders who rush to prepare their horses from the age of three, which explains the high rate of horses who fail the vet check. Growth disruption in a young horse can be very expensive (terrible organic problems and poor balance). I really believe that breeding is a real know-how which requires solid skills. It is essential to ensure the harmonious growth of the horse if we want the bases to be healthy.

A new milestone starts from the age of three to six. This is the phase of the detection of an athletic horse. To do so, three essential parameters are studied: health, mental and physical. The first focus is on health, in particular whether the horse has good blood flow. As an athlete, the horse will experience multiple traumas in its career. If he has good blood flow, it will be much easier to repair both bones and soft tissues. If his health is poor, his career is over before it even begins. We then look at responsiveness, tone and dynamism. Then we study the mind, and the will to see if the horse has the energy to make the effort. The breeding conditions will play an essential role here. If the horse has suffered various traumas during this period, he will be afraid of hurting himself and will anticipate. He will therefore never give himself completely. However, the current system requires riders to have mounts with the consequent resources.

If the horse has all the required qualities, we will then determine how it behaves when faced with the unknown. Sensitivity in a horse is a handicap to a career. When you’re an athlete you are constantly confronted with external elements that you can’t control, and which are not always known in advance. Between the ages of three and seven, we will also test the horse's reaction to failure. The periods of growth, which are very strong between four and six years, must be respected. We prefer to work in freedom, so that the horse can walk at pace. We strengthen the back by working the abdominals because, at this age, there is a lot of tension in the back. We focus on this until the age of five years without taking care of the balance, which will come afterwards. We take care not to strain the hips until five years old because they are unable to do so mechanically. Five years is the crucial age. It is period when growth is the most exacerbated, the most painful. Therefore, managing this period is paramount. You can't work intensively in that year if you want to do something good. Moreover, if the back has not been worked between three and six years it is very difficult to recover afterwards. So we check regularly to make sure that everything is fine. If not, we pre-check, we put the horse back in the field for two or three weeks in order to let it grow quietly. At the end of this break, we do a new assessment and we start work again only if all the lights are green. At this age, the horse often has violent bone growth, so we prefer abdominal work to lengthen the back and thus relieve the horse. Work on muscle spasms, which are a safety valve to protect the muscles, is avoided as this would create a chain of injuries (sciatica) that the horse would have to live with for the rest of its life. In order to avoid this at the end of the work, I systematically leave my horses in a sand-filled circle so that they can roll around. The spasms disappear with the rolling. You must bear in mind that if you force the horse, you break it. You have to be constantly listening. As an osteopath, I systematically do a monthly follow-up of all the horses in the stable. It’s important to do a regular organic and mechanical check-up because an athlete is more likely to face issues. I place the same importance on other specialists such as the dentist, the farrier, the veterinarian, or the nutritionist. If I have a doubt, I will seek answers from qualified people.

Finally, the last milestone is from seven to ten. From this seventh year on, I also begin to work on the mind. Now that his growth is over, I will focus on the horse’s self-confidence and the confidence in his rider. This work is essential. I will study how he recovers from trips and stressful situations. It requires a mind of steel to achieve the high level. Seven years is a pivotal period because we are dealing with a teenager, he is mentally unstable. We must therefore manage him intellectually, not pulling him, or forcing him. We want to prevent him having a bad experience that could have negative consequences for his future career. At the age of eight, we will be able to start asking more of the horse, he will be able to start jumping higher, turning, playing. However, we must be careful not to ask him for everything until his tenth year. From this age on, it is enough to work on the horse's physique and morale between two competitions and give him the necessary rest when he needs it. With my horses, I favor phytotherapy, algotherapy, balneotherapy, sequential sea work (fetlock, knee, chest) and cardio work on the beach. This muscular maintenance allows me to avoid premature wear and tear because ten minutes walking in the water is equivalent to two hours of work in the riding arena.

The three phases I have just described correspond in my opinion to the most appropriate method to build a high-level horse to allow him to ride five stars until eighteen years old. It is obvious to me that a suitable care program is a highly discriminating factor in a horse's life, health and career. It is important to know that such horse care costs time and money. Nowadays, time and money are the sinews of war. Taking one's time costs money. When you do it, you’re betting on the future. So you have to focus on what you want to do with a horse and act accordingly."

Aurélien Leonard, veterinarian: "Establishing a work and care protocol in line with a very regular pre-established veterinary check-up is, in my opinion, the best way to raise and mature a horse aimed at great sport. It is important to carry out regular check-ups to manage the health capital of a horse from the moment of birth. Indeed, the health of a horse can be compromised from its first weeks of life. We therefore have to be vigilant. In terms of care protocol, I focus on three major themes. The first is the management of the legs and the farriery. I begin with this one because farriery is a term that today conveys certain images that are not very representative of reality. A well-adapted shoe presents interesting bio-mechanical properties that can help manage certain pathologies of the horse in the best possible way and above all limit their evolution and improve clinical tolerance. In particular, it can be very useful in young horses when the bone segments are not aligned, and held prevent or limit the development of early osteoarthritis. A good quality shoe can also bring a certain comfort to the horse or be used in a more preventive role. I would like to point out that you have to do a case by case assessment based on clinical examination, as the use of shoes is not beneficial to all horses.

The second theme I place great importance on is food. It must be healthy, reasoned and adapted to the needs of each horses. This avoids the pitfalls of deficiency or excess, both of which are harmful to the growth of the latter. You need to take care to attain the phosphocalcic balance necessary for the good development of the skeleton and muscles by providing a cocktail of trace elements adapted to needs. I insist on this point because it’s difficult to recover from developmental defects generated by dietary deficiencies or excesses. We can only rarely intervene once ossification is complete.

Finally, the third and last major theme concerns growth. Growth must be allowed to take place at a natural pace. Poorly controlled, it can be the cause of diseases such as apophysitis (an inflammatory condition linked to the rapid growth of bones), Wobbler's syndrome (compression of the spinal cord which leads to neurological disorders) or osteochondrosis (abnormal growth of bone and cartilage with a dietary component involved). I would say that time is the main keystone of a good care program. The rate of a horse’s muscle and joint growth must be respected. If we rush it, we risk generating abnormalities that could last for a long time. As a veterinarian, I have seen racehorses with many pathologies related to accelerated growth and early activity. By giving priority to the short term, we compromise their health capital in the medium and long term. Since sport horses start work later, this type of problem is less common. However, I have already noticed similarities with horses that have participated intensively in Young Horse cycles. This wonderful tool is interesting when it is used wisely, i.e. sparingly. When this is not the case, the horse’s osteo-articular capital is prematurely worn out, which, in the medium term, leads to various conditions.

The three themes mentioned above constitute, in my opinion, the backbone of a good care program. They must all be considered according to one and the same leitmotif: anticipate, foresee and plan. It is a question of management and dosage. We manage the horse's health capital in order to avoid too many conditions, the worst being the management of tendon and ligament injuries. These cases are the most problematic because they imply a restriction of activity or even complete rest which is, in general, not very conducive to a horse's career. Today, however, we can see that these cases are much more numerous. The search for performance generates many ligament and tendon issues, particularly in the fetlock’s suspensory apparatus which is under great strain. The firmness and reactivity of competition grounds is one of the reasons for this phenomenon. Unlike joint injuries, which can be managed with anti-inflammatory drugs or cellular therapies, tendon injuries are often multiple and more difficult to treat.

Bad or late management will make the horse more prone to pain and he will tend to anticipate the it and thus give less of himself on the courses. Because of their frequency of repetition, certain injuries present a real challenge in horse management. In certain situations, they can be amplified by the presence of other conditions, the most complicated to treat being those that are considered contradictory. They require, in fact, opposing care protocols. These delicate situations require a particular approach. One must often assess how horses react and adapt the care, because there is no single solution. Each horse has its own way of reacting and must constantly adapt. This more empirical medicine allows us to turn towards tailor-made treatments in order to help the horse to return to its best level.

To conclude, I would say that the implementation of a care program today consists of many factors. You have to focus on prevention and screening upstream by carrying out regular check-ups, possibly including medical imaging, and combine this with adapted management by combining the choice of shoes, the choice of flooring or the development of an adapted work program. It is obvious that a high-quality technical platform is available to help the horses age better. For economic reasons, we sometimes see aberrations, both within the stables and also in competitions, where the objective is sometimes clearly to alleviate a problem temporarily rather than solving it. The veterinarian must sometimes adapt to put the horse in a pseudo transitory comfort stage during the time of the tests. For obvious ethical reasons, this sort of management of a horse's health is not satisfactory because it shows weaknesses upstream."

Interview by Manon LE COROLLER. Featured photo: © Sportfot.com