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Health Problems at Horse Shows

“Warning: This show may be hazardous to your horse’s health”. If you had to pass under that sign on your way into a show, would it make you stop and think about going in? As a veterinarian I see the same problems every year that are directly related to horse shows. Whether or not your animal comes home with a problem largely depends on your preparation.

At least once a season I am called to tranquilize a horse that refuses to load. The frantic owner trying to get to a show has already spent 2 miserable hours trying to get that horse on the trailer. When you consider the horses’ nature, getting into a confined, often dark and unstable space is not part of how they are wired. Initial loading takes time and patience, and should be worked on long before any event. Horses that won’t load can be very aggravating, so professional training is often money well spent. By the way, tranquilized horses don’t necessarily load any better, and most shows don’t want you showing a horse under the influence.

There are also those horses who, on the way to or back from a show, decide to kick out at the trailer walls, partitions, or ramp, injuring their legs, sometimes disastrously. Four full leg wraps, including the coronary band are a good precaution. The first time to put on a set of wraps is not when you are about to leave. Many horses, especially young ones will kick repeatedly the first time wraps are put on. Train them to protective wraps well in advance of the day.

Respiratory disease is likely the biggest potential hazard at shows. First there are all the bugs that may be new to him. Then there is the fact that the stress of showing lowers resistance to disease. If you don’t have to stable overnight, your chances of coming home clean are better. While there, try not to let your horse socialize with others. If your horse does pick up a bug, you probably won’t notice anything until you’ve been back home 2 to 4 days. That’s when your animal may go off feed, run a fever or start with a nasal discharge. Sometimes it means a cough that may persist for weeks. Best prevention is to follow your veterinarian’s recommendation for vaccines. These ideally should be given weeks before the show. No vaccine is 100%, but they help. This is most important in young, unexposed horses.

If you plan to stable your horse at a show, be prepared with tools to correct any stall repairs at the grounds. There are facilities where broken boards, nails sticking into the stall, and uneven floors are common. Look around and correct any problems before leading your horse in.

Most people bring their own feed. This makes good sense. You are going to enjoy yourself, and don’t want to waste time looking for the hay guy with his inflated prices for a product that may be marginal. Even subtle feed changes are a common cause of colic.

While you are packing, don’t forget a first aid kit to handle the common problems. Ask your veterinarian to supply you with what you might need. While it is true that horse show dangers exist, that is no reason not to go and have fun. Calmly think about what you might find or what might happen and be prepared.


– David A. Jefferson, D.V.M.

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