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Endurance Basics: Training your horse to deal with a vet check

They say that practice makes perfect, and in this case it certainly can’t hurt! The more you can do to prepare your horse ahead of time for what they are going to experience at an endurance ride, the better.

There are a lot of great books and websites that cover the basics for endurance riders.  There aren’t a lot of things (that I could find) that deal specifically with the finer points of exposing your horse to a real life simulation in advance of attending a ride. I can easily find a lot of information online that tells me what to expect, and that my horse must pass a pre-ride vet check, ect.

Let’s start with a horse that hasn’t been to an endurance ride before.  What does that horse need to be able to do in order to pass a vet check?  First off, he needs to be able to deal with standing in a line of horses.  Then, he needs to stand quietly and squarely in order to have his pulse and gut sounds taken.  He needs to be able to tolerate a vet opening up his mouth and pressing on his gums, and also doing a skin pinch test on his shoulder. Some vets do a much more thorough physical exam and may feel all four legs and pick up all four feet.  In addition to that, your horse needs to be able to trot out and back, stopping a safe distance from the vet and/or vet secretary.  Finally, if the horse passes he needs to be able to stand still long enough to have a grease number placed on his rump on either one or both sides.

I know it doesn’t sound all that difficult, and for those that have been doing it awhile – it’s second nature.  Yet, for a young, new or excited horse all of those things can be enough to cause the horse to get out of control, kick, bite, rear… name it.  Horse’s that riders can’t control in hand and that exhibit dangerous behavior are not ready to attend a public event.

The best place to start practicing vet check simulation training is after returning from a conditioning ride.  This way the horse learns that after you have finished riding, he is not yet done.  Here are some steps to practice:

1)  Pull tack (unless you ride in a region where that is seldom or never done).

2)  Check pulse rate.  You want your horse to be down to 60.  Some regions use a higher #, like 64.   If you are riding LD then stick with 60.

3)  Listen to gut sounds in more than one quadrant.  This is good to do anyway as you’ll learn what is ‘normal’ for your horse – something you should know about each horse prior to attending an endurance ride.  Here is a video showing how to check for gut sounds.

4)  Open your horse’s mouth and check for capillary refill.  Press your thumb into your horse’s gums and hold for a couple of seconds or until the skin turns pale.  Now count how long it takes for the color to come back.  It should come back quickly, in around 2 seconds or less.

5) Pinch your horse’s skin on the point of the shoulder.  Again, count how long it takes for it to go back.  It should be fairly elastic and snap back within 2 seconds.  If it takes 3, 4 or more seconds that could be a sign of dehydration.  In some older horses it  may take longer and that might be what is ‘normal’ for that horse.

6)  Start the physical exam now – use your hands to feel all four legs.  Pick up each hoof.  Use both hands to palpate your horse’s back and hindquarters.  Check both armpits and the girth area thoroughly.  Feel and look for any dings, rubs or wounds anywhere on the horse’s body paying particularly close attention to where tack goes.  Lift up your horse’s tail dock and check anal tone (or for any signs of rubbing or soreness if you ride with a crupper).  Check the back of the pasterns for signs of scratches of cracking.  This is a good way to get really acquainted with your horse’s body and to learn what is ‘normal’.

7)  Trot your horse out and back.  Work on a signal with your horse so he knows when you tug on the lead rope that it’s time to trot.  Practice stopping and standing quietly when you get back from the trot out.  Here is a previous post I did about teaching a horse how to trot out and back.

8)  Now check your horse’s pulse rate again with a stethoscope.  Even if you have a HRM of some sort, practice this part with a stethoscope.

9)  Use a carrot or something similar to simulate writing a number on both sides of your horse’s rump.

10)  Repeat having a friend do all of the above so your horse is used to being handled by somebody else.

For more details on what to expect at a ride, click here for a copy of the AERC Rider Handbook.

For those that want to cover all of the bases, also check your horse’s temperature.  This is seldom done at rides.  However, in light of the EHV-1 outbreak last summer we were required to log our horse’s temperatures twice a day while on the long XP ride.  While tedious to do that often for two months, it provided us with a good baseline of what ‘normal’ temperatures are pre and post ride both for the horse being ridden and the one being hauled in the trailer.

You can use a spreadsheet to write down all of your horse’s normal parameters.  While in the barn or out on the trail, index cards work really well.

When you are at an actual ride you’ll want to do a quick check over of your horse prior to presenting to the vet.   Remember that you, the rider are the one responsible for your horse.  If there is something wrong or that you notice that is not normal or that concerns you the vet will appreciate having you tell him or her, rather than the other way around.  Most ride vets are very helpful and want to work with you to get you and your horse safely through the ride. They are not the bad guy.

Most horses simply need the repetitiveness of a vet check simulation in order to handle it well when the time comes to do it ‘for real’.  Others may have problems such as trying to kick or bite and in those cases more training is required to work through those issues. Always be firm and consistent when doing this type of work with your horse.  He needs to learn that part of his job of being an endurance horse includes having good ground manners in the vet checks.

The following video was taken at the Tevis Cup one year and is of Suzanne Ford Huff’s horse Chase the Wind.  The vets at Tevis are generally more thorough when vetting horses compared to other rides.   This should give you a good idea though, of what to expect and how to approach the physical vet exam simulation with your own horse.

One other thing that may prove useful for a new horse is to practice what comes next at a vet check – the eating part.  Get together the same buckets and feed pans, crew bag and feed that you plan to use on an actual ride and set it up just like you would at a vet check.  It is best to do this after a ride, or perhaps even during one that way you won’t be feeding your horse more feed than he needs.  This way you and your horse will both get into a routine of sorts.  Learn what your horse’s favorite feeds are – does he like carrots or apples better?  What about mashes – is he a wheat bran kinda guy, or won’t touch it if it’s not rice bran?  My horse’s for example, won’t touch beet pulp at a vet check so I gave up even trying years ago and just pack the feed that I know they’ll eat.  Horse’s are a lot like us in that their preferences change, so prepare to offer an entire smorgasbord of choices.  I like to offer an Omolene 200/wheat bran mash, another feed pan of Strategy Healthy Edge, hay and usually an apple or a couple of carrots.  I add a little salt or electrolyte powder into the mashes as well.  If you choose to provide your electrolytes that way, this pre-practice training will allow your horse to get used to it.  And, if he refuses to eat it you’ll know that ahead of time and won’t be stuck at a vet check with a horse that refuses to eat!  Most horses will learn to eat feed with a little salt or electrolyte powder added if it’s provided that way to them all of the time.

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