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Erin is my practice manager and personal technician. She has a ½ hour commute to work. When she got tired of filling the tank on her big SUV, she bought a used VW Passat. For a few months she raved about the stick shift, the quick response, and the $20 she was saving every week. After a while I didn’t hear as much, and asked her how it was running. She said that it just didn’t seem to have the same get up and go, and it was costing more to fill the tank. Erin assumed that it needed a tune up, but had been putting that off. Finally she started to hear a noise from the wheels that she couldn’t identify, and got the brakes checked. It turns out that the calipers on the two front wheels had grabbed the brake drums and never released. As soon as that was fixed, the car, which had literally been held back by its brakes, was back to its economical and zippy self.

There are times that our horses have their brakes on and as a result are giving sub optimal performances. Our tendency is to blame the weather, the feed, or maybe the fact that we haven’t been riding as much lately. The fact is that there are many potential health brakes, and most are correctable.

In New England, a common brake is Lymes disease. In our practice at any given time we are always treating at least one horse for this tick borne disease. A common symptom is increased skin sensitivity. Horses that normally like to be groomed or fussed over tend to back away. They are often grumpy. The Lymes literature talks about a lameness that is in this leg today and that leg tomorrow. We do see that, but early on it’s that sensitivity to touch and the attitude change that is most telling. For sure, they won’t be themselves under harness or saddle. If you suspect Lymes, get your animal tested. The tests are accurate, and treatment is usually successful if started early.

There is an expression used by veterinarians to describe the horse that isn’t obviously sick or lame, but is just “ADR” (ain’t doing right). The ADR horse has brakes partially applied, just like Erin’s VW. When a physical exam doesn’t give us the answer, we often turn to blood tests to try to help figure things out. I’ve already mentioned the Lymes test. There are specific tests for many diseases, but the basic screening blood test that is used most is the CBC and blood chemistry. The CBC checks the number and type of white and red blood cells to see if the horse has anemia, an infection or an allergy. The chemistry part checks the enzymes of the muscles and liver. It also assesses kidney function and gives protein, electrolyte and glucose levels among other things. The screening blood test is never the wrong thing to do when you and your vet are scratching your heads.

Right now I am thinking of a horse that I’ll call Sammy. Sammy is a 14 year old “American Warmblood” gelding, a cross between a Percheron and a Thoroughbred, and one of the sweetest horses I have ever known. Sammy’s brakes are his front feet, which have to be trimmed and shod so that the angles are exactly right. There are some underlying issues that can be seen on his X-rays, but no matter what they show, if everything from the pastern down isn’t in perfect alignment, he will be lame. An extended trial period without shoes was a disaster. When his feet are right, Sammy is sound and stays sound for a few weeks. As his feet start to grow, and the angles change he goes lame again. The current problem is that only one farrier has been able to “fix” Sammy, and he has recently left the profession. Sammy is an extreme example of how important foot care is in keeping horses sound. Good farriers have a great working knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the foot. Great ones know when they should throw away the science and fall back on the art. The old saying, “no foot, no horse” is as true now as when it was first said in some other language hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago. Poorly cared for feet will eventually put on the brakes.

It’s interesting how horse’s mouths can so markedly affect their performance. A horse that has never had his wolf teeth extracted may put on the brakes by throwing his head when contact is made with the bit. The chewing molar teeth invariably develop sharp edges and can lacerate the inside of the cheeks and cause poor performance. As horses age, other dental problems may develop that can have a significant effect on attitude and work. A thorough exam of the mouth should be part of your horse’s annual physical exam. Ask that it be done.

There are an infinite number of brakes can drag your horse down. Things can potentially not work right from the tip of the nose right through the tail. No one really knows a horse as well as an attentive owner. If you suspect a slowdown, it’s time to call in your veterinarian. All problems are easier to deal with in the early stages. In vehicles and in horses, don’t wait until things start to get noisy.


David A. Jefferson, DVM

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