Equine Health Library

Performance Horse

Wellness & Prevention

Immunology | Parasitology | Nutrition | Dental Care | Hoof Care

Preventing Disease

Strenuous exercise, performance, long-distance transportation, and steroid administration can suppress the immune system, increasing the horse’s susceptibility to infectious disease and potentially decreasing response to vaccination. Discuss a disease risk-analysis plan with your veterinarian for vaccinating against core diseases, as well as at-risk diseases.

Vaccination is good

Preventing disease through proper vaccination is far safer, easier and more economical than treating the disease after the horse is already sick. Many diseases horses encounter are preventable and vaccination is solid insurance, not to mention an important biosecurity measure to help prevent mass outbreak of disease. In addition, some diseases such as rabies carry zoonotic risk (meaning they can be passed between animals and humans), requiring us to remain diligent with vaccination. In fact, many of the equine diseases we vaccinate against are deadly and treatment after the disease is present is often unsuccessful.

Don’t let infectious disease sideline your performance horse.

  • Ensure your horse is protected against the right diseases by reviewing the AAEP Vaccination Guidelines and talking with your veterinarian. AAEP recommends equine athletes be vaccinated against equine herpesvirus types 1 & 4 (EHV-1&4) and equine influenza virus (EIV) at six-month intervals. Performance horses of all ages are at increased risk of exposure to infectious respiratory diseases, most importantly EHV and EIV.
  • Make sure your horse is healthy prior to receiving any vaccines.
  • Horses receiving steroids (systemic and/or intra-articular) may be immunocompromised to varying degrees and should not be vaccinated until the systemic effects have subsided.
  • With highly contagious diseases such as strangles, EHV and EIV, vaccination alone will not prevent disease transmission. Good biosecurity protocols are mandatory.
  • The newly formed Equine Disease Communication Center (EDCC) provides several great biosecurity tips.
  • Download the The ABC and D’s of Biosecurity.
  • The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) now mandates that all horses be current (within six months) on their EIV and EHV vaccines prior to entering a USEF show.

Action Items

  • Discuss a disease risk-analysis plan with your veterinarian for vaccinating against essential diseases as well as at-risk diseases.
  • Vaccinate performance horses two to three times per year depending on region and risk factors.
  • Click the link to download a vaccination record for your performance horse. Equine Health Library Performance Horse Vaccination Record

Deworming the Performance Horse

There are several components to a successful deworming program. The key is to work with your veterinarian to conduct fecal tests to determine your horse’s shedding status (how much and which parasites he is shedding), then customize the deworming protocol. Low egg shedders typically require only two dewormings a year, whereas high shedders may require up to six treatments.

Horses that spend most of their time in stalls generally are at reduced risk of exposure to most parasites, particularly strongyle-type parasites and potentially tapeworms. If stalls are cleaned daily, then the risk of re-exposure to infective parasite eggs and larvae is greatly reduced (also, horse urine is toxic to developing strongyle larvae).

Because tapeworm transmission requires ingestion of infected mites on pasture, this parasite also presents less of a risk to horses that spend little time on pasture. Stall-confined horses, or those turned out in their own paddocks, are also less likely to encounter parasite eggs in the manure of other horses. Pinworms and ascarids, on the other hand, are parasites that can be transmitted in stalls as well as on pasture.

Deworming tips

  • Most deworming treatments should be administered during periods of parasite transmission and not during cold winters or hot, dry seasons. In most regions of the country, spring and fall remain important times of parasite transmission. In southern climates, mild winters also are conducive to parasite transmission. Periods of drought help control certain parasite populations (e.g., small strongyles) on pastures. In contrast, periods of unusually wet, warm weather are optimal conditions for parasite development.
  • Quarantine new horses to the farm and check fecal egg counts. Use a larvicidal treatment to help limit the number and variety of parasites being introduced by the newcomer. This can be accomplished with larvicidal fenbendazole (PANACUR® (fenbendazole) POWERPAC) or moxidectin. Also, hold new arrivals in their stall for at least 72 hours after deworming before turning them out on pastures.
  • Quarantine is important to reduce internal and external parasite exposure to the resident population, and limit contamination of grazing areas.
  • Use a weight tape (or scale) to avoid under-dosing. Horses are generally heavier than you think.

Remember, elements of a successful deworming program include chemical and non-chemical parasite control strategies. Ask your veterinarian for a parasite control visit to assess non-chemical parasite control strategies that could be employed on the farm.

Click the link to download a deworming record.

Important Safety Information

PANACUR® (fenbendazole) POWERPAC: NOT FOR USE IN HUMANS. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. Do not use in horses intended for human consumption.

Feeding a high-performance machine

Feeding a performance horse requires finding the right balance. Too little, and your horse won’t have the energy to perform. Too much, and, well, that’s when things can get interesting. The goal is to feed for controlled energy: sufficient fuel (calories) to support performance without becoming a hothead.

Understanding energy

Simply put, energy is the fuel used by the horse for all functions, including maintaining body tissue, growth and performance. The horse gets his energy from calories supplied by carbohydrates (including simple sugars, starch and fiber), fats and protein in the diet. Both carbohydrates and fats are very important calorie sources in the performance horse’s diet, and both are usually needed to meet the energy demands of a top-level performance horse.

The energy requirements of a performance horse may be extremely large – up to 36,000 kcal per day for an intensely exercising horse.

Plus, the type of work your horse does determines the type of energy he needs. Some horses need quick bursts of energy (fueled primarily by sugars and starch), while others require steady, sustained energy (mostly fueled by fat and fiber). Some horses need a combination of both, and all horses need energy that allows them to remain calm and focused and to maintain a competitive condition over the course of the athletic season. One factor to consider in meeting these requirements is the source of energy supplied in the horse’s diet. Research conducted by Purina equine nutritionists indicates that feed containing a blend of energy sources – soluble carbohydrates, fermentable fiber and fats – provides a steady level of “cool” energy. The digestion of fats in the upper gut and fermentable fiber (such as beet pulp) in the horse’s hindgut does not affect blood sugar to the same extent as digestion of starch and sugar. Compared to conventional grain-based diets, diets with a blend of energy sources help smooth out the horse’s energy level, which may also provide a calming effect. Many horses eating such diets appear to be more controllable and manageable, have more mental focus, have the right mindset and, therefore, have the best chance of optimal performance.

Protein and amino acids

Protein is not an efficient source of energy for a horse. Protein is only used as energy when more is fed than is needed to meet the horse’s nutrient requirement and the process of converting excess amino acids to an energy source actually requires more energy expenditure. Therefore, providing more protein in the diet when a performance horse actually needs more energy is not beneficial.

However, even though it is not a metabolically efficient calorie source, protein is very important to the horse’s diet because it provides the essential amino acids that are not manufactured in the body. These essential amino acids are utilized for tissues such as muscle, hair, hooves and skin. They are also vital components of transport proteins, digestive enzymes and hormones. So, in addition to the large need for calories from carbohydrates and fats, equine athletes also require high-quality protein to supply adequate levels of essential amino acids. The total amount of protein in the diet isn’t nearly as important as the amino acid profile of that protein.

Purina equine nutritionists have determined that a specific essential amino acid balance helps the hard-working horse exhibit faster recovery. The horse is then able to maintain peak competition condition for a longer period of time.

Look for balance

Just like horses, nutrients must be balanced to perform. If some nutrients are over-supplemented, the absorption and activity of other nutrients can be impacted which can ultimately hinder performance. That’s why a completely balanced feed designed specifically for the stresses and demands of elite equine competitors is the easiest and most accurate method to deliver nutrition.

Tips for a hard keeper

Some performance horse just can’t keep weight on no matter how hard you try. Here are some tips for managing the hard keeper.

Tips for maintaining weight

  • Work with your veterinarian to rule out medical reasons first. Ulcers, medications, poor dental condition, decreased digestive efficiency due to old age or parasite infestation can reduce feed intake and nutrient absorption/utilization.
  • Hay quality is especially important when feeding a hard-keeping horse. Feed the highest quality hay you can afford, in appropriate amounts. Excellent quality grass hay, good quality alfalfa or grass/alfalfa mixtures are suitable choices for working horses. Consider hay replacement with a complete feed if hay in your region is of poor quality or unavailable. Using a complete feed to replace even a portion of lower quality hay will help improve condition in a performance horse that is a hard keeper.
  • Look for a balanced feed that is nutrient dense and formulated for working horses with high caloric requirements such as Omolene #200 or Omolene #500. This type of feed will meet calorie needs in a lower amount of feed than lower calorie feeds.
  • Tailor the diet to the horse’s job in order to supply the calorie sources needed for optimal performance. High-intensity, short-duration type of work (e.g., short sprint races) may benefit from higher starch in more grain-based diets, whereas more moderate-intensity, longer-duration type of work (e.g., dressage) may be better supported with higher fat and fiber calorie sources. Individual horses within disciplines may also benefit from alterations in calorie sources due to behavioral responses.

Horses showing loss of condition without an obvious cause should be seen by a veterinarian, who likely will perform a physical exam and do blood work (CBC/chemistry).

Incorporate regular dental check ups

Every performance horse should be seen at least once per year by an equine dentist. With regular dental exams, it’s easier to make small corrections that help prevent major problems later.

Signs your horse needs a dental check

  • Fussing with the bit
  • Resistance to give to the bit
  • General unhappiness while being worked
  • Abnormal movement and positioning of head and mouth while eating
  • Unusual or foul odor to breath
  • Dropping partially chewed hay or grass

Click the link to download a dental record. Equine Health Library Performance Horse Dental Record

Farrier care for the performance horse

At high levels of competition, you’ll find farriers may specialize in one specific discipline, as a reining horse is not shod like a saddle seat horse or a jumper. Length of toe, point of break-over and length and weight of shoe can dramatically impact the mechanics of the gait.

Regardless of what the horse does for a living, performance horses all need quality care and careful, balanced shoeing. You may want to have your show horse reset more frequently than a pleasure horse so how he moves doesn’t change as the hoof grows over time.

Here are some common problems of performance horse hooves:

  • Losing shoes. If your horse has trouble keeping shoes on or easily develops cracks or crumbling walls, look to nutrition first. Your horse may not be absorbing all of the nutrients of his diet correctly or could benefit from a supplement to support hoof growth
  • Thrush. Foul-smelling thrush can escalate from a nuisance to a lameness issue. Make sure to treat with a topical product as soon as you or your farrier see the first signs
  • Navicular. Heel pain can hobble a performance horse. If your horse has the conformation to predispose him to navicular disease, talk to both your veterinarian and farrier about preventive measures you can take now. If your horse is already in pain, digital x-rays may be needed in order to determine a shoeing plan

The best thing you can do for your performance horse is to have a team approach to his hoof care – you, your veterinarian and your farrier.

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