We can all learn a thing or two from eventers when it comes to managing a horse before, after, and even during a competition. They are the supermen and women who compete in not one but three incredibly demanding sports, and it’s no secret that it takes a village of support to care for their nature-defying, four-legged counterparts. And regardless of discipline or competition level, it’s essential that horses are given the best possible care to ensure that they’re able meet the demands of their work.

On the final day of competition at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington, we caught up with veterinarian Dr. Laura Werner of the Haygard Equine Medical Institute, who specializes in lameness and equine emergency services. Along with her experience as a surgeon, Dr. Werner has also served as an FEI Veterinary Delegate at eventing competitions across the U.S.

Here, she helps us break down some common injuries in equestrian performance sports, and explains how preventative and specialized recovery methods can help.

Let’s go through the disciplines. What kinds of injuries are we typically talking about from sport to sport?

Dressage: A lot of the injuries in dressage are more chronic and repetitive. The horses are asked to collect, flex, and engage themselves, so we do see soft tissue injuries, aggravated arthritis, and neck and back issues. These horses are very fit, so acute injuries don’t usually happen in the dressage phase, unless the horse has a panic and does something silly, which doesn’t occur often.

Cross-Country: With the speed that’s involved, the jumping of the obstacles, and the fatigue that the horses see at the end, we definitely see tendonitis, suspensory injuries, and soft tissue injuries, like a bowed tendon. Sometimes, they will take a bad step, hang a leg over a fence, or chest into the fence and crawl over it, so it’s pretty common to see injuries of [event horses’] knees or their stifles. They gallop for 11 minutes and are jumping 30 obstacles, so we often see these injuries at the end, when they’re tired and fatigued, as they don’t hold themselves up as taught.

Unfortunately, we can see major fractures happen and we sometimes see sudden death, where [they suffer from] some sort of cardiac event. We’ve seen that in show jumping [as well] and it happens at any level and in any discipline. It’s the same syndrome, so we’re doing a lot of research to try and learn more about it and to see if there are ways we can prevent it.

We’re trying to find out if there’s predisposing factors, so at some of these competitions, they’re monitoring the horse’s cardiac enzymes before and after the competition, and they’re monitoring their heart rhythm before, after, and during the competition. We’re trying to see if there’s an arrhythmia that occurs, but it’s a pretty small percentage in the amount of horses that this happens to. I think with the advent of social media, it’s a lot more well known and it’s circulated faster, but it still happens at random, so we don’t have enough numbers.

Show Jumping: The horses are usually tired the next day, so they’re taking bad steps or they’re not jumping as well, but fewer injuries occur during the show jumping phase, much like in dressage.

We know that preventative measures are key—what kinds of strategies should riders be utilizing?

Pre-Competition Exams: It’s important to work with your vet and your farrier to have a team approach to these types of competitions, especially at this level. Know your horse and be aware of their different stages. These riders and their grooms know their horse’s legs inch by inch, and as their veterinarians, we try to as well so that we immediately know when something isn’t right. For a lot of these horses, we’ll examine them serially up until the competitions. We want to prevent an injury and recognize it before it happens, so we’ll do radiographs, flex them, scan them, and do ultrasounds on their tendons and ligaments.

Good Nutrition: You don’t want the horses carrying extra weight around because as they land off these jumps, the extra weight can get them injured. You have to keep them fit, but they also burn a lot of calories, so it’s very important to get enough calories into them [so they can] perform at the high level that they’re working. Event horses are more like racehorses in the nutrition that they require. A lot of times, we’ll go for fat in their diets and give the horses carbohydrates to provide them with calories without making them hot, especially for dressage. These horses are already fit enough, so usually, the fat can provide cool calories for them. With the competition and the international travel that they do, event horses are under a lot of stress, so most of them are on high-fat, high-fiber diet—high-fiber diets help their GI systems and prevent ulcers.

Physical Therapy: We use all sorts of therapies and different forms of massage to help them perform at their best, including acupuncture, chiropractic massage, magnetic blankets, and cold laser therapies. I think all of those things help keep these athletes at their best, and that’s something we use pre- and/or post-injury as well. 

What about during a competition?

Greasing Legs: [In eventing], it used to be pretty popular to grease a horse’s front and hind legs to prevent trauma from the brush jumps, and if they hit an obstacle, they’ll slide off of it a little bit more. It has somewhat fallen out of favor, but some riders will use it depending on the weather; with the [current] heat and humidity, it probably doesn’t hold up very well.

Flare Strips: These strips help to open [a horse’s] nasal passages. As they get tired, everything starts to collapse a little bit, and if they’re fatigued and at the end of the course, a lot of them travel with their heads flexed. We want to help them oxygenate on the course, so the flare strips keep their nostrils pulled out, which helps to optimize their breathing. A lot of times, we leave the strips on for 30-40 minutes after the competition, because it will help them through the recovery phase.

Okay, so what else does that recovery phase consist of? 

The Cool Down: After we take their tack off to let them breathe and relax, we usually use ice water on them and we have a specific way of cooling them off. If the water stays on the horse when they’re hot, it actually acts as an insulator and makes them hotter. We do the water-on, water-off, very quickly, so it doesn’t have time to heat up. You first try to do the big muscle groups—the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, shoulders, triceps, etc.—because that is what’s working hard when they’re galloping.

Cooling/Misting Fans: Prior to the ’96 Olympics, we were worried about cooling the horses off before the competition because it was really hot during the summer in Atlanta, Georgia. A lot of research was done on how to cool the horses off, and it was found that the misting fans do help, and both humans and horses seem to enjoy it.

Icing: Icing is important. With FEI rules, we can’t treat these horses with very many medications, so we use a lot of ice, or things like Ice 5 and the Game Ready, which provides both the cold and the compression. I compete at the lower levels, but I still try to ice my horse after the competition.

IV Fluids: After cross-country the horses are fatigued, so we’ll give them IV fluids. It was really hot and humid [in Kentucky] and some of them aren’t quite used to that this early on in the season. The horses that came from Europe aren’t used to this type of climate, so we do that to help their muscles recover faster and to help them hydrate better if they are dehydrated.

Feet First: Sometimes it’s hard on their feet, so we [will also] try to treat/pack their feet and wrap their legs.

Sources: Hagyard