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Al Dunning

Performance Horse Care & Handling by Al Dunning



To make a horse a champion, he must first be happy and healthy. A person may be an inspired rider & have a great deal of training knowledge, but to be successful he must first take care of the horse that carries him.

I don’t like to leave any stone unturned. I make sure that a horse is fed properly, that he is well-groomed, that his feet are cared for, and that his stall and trailer are right. With today’s high-pressure performance expectations, one of the problems that is growing ever more common in horses is stress. If you have been working with a horse that has been doing fine but suddenly can’t do things he’s already mastered, this can be an indication of stress.

We are finding today that the performance pressures put on horses are causing them to develop gastric ulcers. This can come from a combination of the feed they are receiving, the stress of competition, and undue pressure put on the horse by the trainer.

Other physical symptoms that a horse is under too much stress are changes in their hair coat (the hair may stand up, become dull, or show discoloration), lethargy, loss of appetite, and signs of nervousness or irritation such as swishing the tail. If you determine no other cause for any of these symptoms, back off of the pressure you are putting on the horse to perform. Put him on medication if needed, and give him a rest.

Before you get back to training, step back and try to remember what may have caused the stress.

Unlike performance, which is arguably a team effort, care is entirely our responsibility. The horse can’t say to us, “I haven’t really felt very well since I woke up this morning. I’m tired and I’m achy and I just don’t feel like working.” Since the horse can’t tell us these things, a good horseman must be able to feel when your horse is on and when he’s off. Many times I’ve ridden a horse I know well and felt a little shortness in his step that isn’t usually there, and I knew that horse wasn’t sound. If you’re working with a horse that has always been a try-er and suddenly he quits trying, it is an indication that something is wrong, and you must explore all possibilities.

In his natural state, a horse is free to graze and find water to get away from stressful situation and dirty conditions, and to avoid overtaxing himself. Since he can no longer do those things freely, he must rely on us. He can’t choose his own food and water, clean his own stall, or establish his own workload: therefore, it is entirely up to us to see that he is well fed, clean, and well cared for.

[Written by Al Dunning & published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 5, Issue 6.]

How do you know when your horse isn’t feeling well?

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