Friday, April 24, 2015

Maintaining Perspective on Maintenance

In my youth (my youthier youth, I still maintain illusions that I am youthful..) I held fairly strong, and righteous opinions about "regular" maintenance for sport horses.  My thoughts could be summed up by the philosophy that owners should not be taping their horses together to perform at a level that their bodies couldn't handle otherwise. 

Of course, I said this from the back of a 25 year old pony that was still capable of jumping 3'6" and never went lame until she was in her 40's.  Easy to think that all "performance" horses should operate well with the same (limited) regimen. 

and by limited I mean a handful of sweetfeed and one scoop of vitamins a couple times a week.

Of course the field of proactive sports medicine for horses has exploded over the last several decades, and with it a notion of what is "normal." 

Hand Grazing is good medicine too


When I was competing as a junior, plenty of people were busy injecting hocks, but not much else.  I suppose toward the end of my junior career it seemed like vets had suddenly discovered the stifle so maybe they were injecting stifles too...  it was the weirdest trend ever.

I'm sure that observation is more certainly an oversimplification, but even for my friends who were competing at higher levels - the only real therapeutic treatments I saw were hock injections, stall rest and "nerving" (for navicular horses).  My adolescent brain just didn't love the notion that without pokes and drugs and whatever else, horses weren't comfortable doing their job.

Then my focus shifted from my horses to the volleyball court and I quickly found myself in my orthopedic's office getting regular cortisone injections in order to keep my swinging arm, well, swinging.  I was astounded how those handy little injections nixed the inflammation and pain and let me continue to enjoy doing what I did without causing myself harm.

I suppose that was the turning point for me.  Realizing that somehow I was okay with maintenance for me, but not my horses.  The cognitive dissonance didn't last long and, obviously I sing a different tune now.

What's interesting is that every time Prair has a treatment (injection, shockwave, whatever) I still hear that tiny voice in the back of my head going "you shouldn't have to work this hard for sound..." and I toss and turn a bit wondering if I'm pushing Prair's body to hard or too far and if really she needs a drastically different job description.

I usually tamp down these nagging worries with wine and the repetition that we're jumping 2'6" which is approximately 3" higher than her canter stride when we're working on the flat...  And then - 5 days pass and we're clear to start work again and I get rides like this week where the mare is just Rock effing Solid.  No teeth grinding, no spook, no anxiety, supple in her back, a canter like a metronome and brilliant, adjustable work over cavaletti and small fences.

It's then that I realize, that yes, the injections are worth it.  Not so much for a more competitive performance, but for a happier, healthier horse capable of using her body correctly and freely - which ultimately is the most responsible thing I can do to protect her long term soundness.

So that is my new perspective on maintenance.  It should be a tool that allows Prair to be comfortable while working correctly .  Maintaining good, even muscling is what will keep her back healthy and supported for as long as possible.  Preventing any odd compensations that invite atrophy or overuse is what I'm avoiding with her "maintenance." 

But it most certainly is not a free pass to a higher level.

It's a fine line for sure - and maybe not always an easy one to see, but as long as I'm filtering my choices through what makes Prair stable, and not what gets me ribbons - I am doing right by her.

19 comments:

  1. But it most certainly is not a free pass to a higher level. <-- That right there speaks volumes to me.

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  2. You know, I've been tossing and turning about this a lot myself, so your post, as ever, is resonating with me. I injected Tucker's hocks on the advice of a trainer two years ago. IWhen we got them done the vet had this "eh, it won't hurt," attitude about it, but at the time I wanted to do what the trainer thought was best. He hasn't been injected since, and in fact isn't even on a joint supplement (injectible or feed through) at the moment. And I don't know if that means I'm a bad horse owner or not... On the one hand he's sound, but this work certainly isn't easy for him and maybe it would be easier with maintenance? I'm pretty sure a vet would be happy to inject him, because last time even though he wasn't "lame" after flexion, he recommended it anyway ($$$). So I just keep having the same conversation with myself, over and over....

    And in response to your post, you definitely seem like you're doing a really good job with Prairie, and making responsible choices for her. I wish I had the same clarity about my own horse though!

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    1. For sure it is easier to have clarity when there is a specific issue to address (cough cough, we have a couple). I would have a much harder time with trying to determine the "right" amount of maintenance when there's nothing diagnosable to treat... murky waters indeed. But even in the gray (which Prair's back often is), it's crazy the difference it makes in her self carriage, and in turn her topline/muscling. So I just always have to remind myself that even if it's a 5% improvement, that 5% (for her) allows her to protect her own body and strengthen all her support systems.

      But man is it a tricky question - and rarely with an obvious "right" answer :)

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  3. Thanks for providing another perspective. My sport has always been riding and I've not had any experiences with needing injections for myself.

    In general I am very unsure how I feel about injections. My most recent experience with Phoenix and the fact that I still can't ride him a full month later due to a reaction when he was sound but in my mind uncomfortable before the injections has left me with a lot of guilt and the feeling that I was pushing for something. I just want him to be comfortable while he does what he likes doing.
    Stampede on the other hand may be a different case. Even with injections I'm not sure he's very comfortable but he's a hard read. I may still try the new injection and rehab plan I attempted to start so many months ago, but I do have my doubts.
    Injections are certainly a very personal decision and not something to take lightly for sure. The risks and the rewards are both very real.

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    1. Good point, I should say that I won't let just anyone near Prair for her tune ups. I had a good friend with a *horror* story of an experience where a simple injection ended up infecting the tendon sheath and she was about 2 hours from having to put the horse down when she finally started responding to antibiotics... Mind you the vet in that instance is not someone I would trust, but there is definitely always a risk. (and that is not always discussed...)

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    2. In my case it's a big name lameness vet in the area that I trust and he has been great about coming back and looking at Phoenix (and not charging for farm calls so far). He just said it was bad luck to have such a bad inflammatory reaction, especially when he has injected my horse before with the same meds. He doesn't believe infection is involved but did send off joint fluid for testing. Still waiting on the results, which will hopefully be good news.

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  4. I've gone through a similar mental cycle about maintenance over the last few years. It's certainly a fine line and a slippery slope, but I 100% agree that as long as you are always making decisions where the bottom line is the welfare and care of the horse, then that's the most important thing.

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  5. I really love this post. I have adopted a similar philosophy to you, and have a horse that needs a little more help than most at his age. To me, the best thing for him is to keep him fit, happy and pain free so he can work as long as possible. It is a fine line and I don't know where I draw it yet. So long as he enjoys his job and can do it without pain, I'm happy.

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  6. Well said. I traveled a similar road in my head, and now keeping my horses healthy and pain-free is the best thing. Where that line is will be different for everyone.

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  7. Even just maintenance for pain free in everyday life as a horse. A horse may not jump 3'6" on its own in the wild but to walk, trot and canter, freely, properly and without pain, that's gotta be key.

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  8. nice thought-provoking post! i agree completely with the idea protecting against the general little things that make a horse less comfortable in its work. tho perhaps it's worth adding that evidence suggests regular maintenance can also help protect against catastrophic breakdowns - definitely something i can get behind!

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  9. I, too,use my own body and reactions to treatments as a gauge to whether or not to try something on my horse. Since they can't talk to us, we need to research things as best we can.

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  10. I kind of love this post, lady. You hit it right on when you talked about the change when you considered your own "soundness." As a runner, I know intimately all the aches and pains and little injuries that happen with regular activity. It's life.
    When I apply that to my horse, an active guy who loves having a job and is stoic beyond belief, I can't imagine not giving him the same care I give myself. He gets injections for the joints with problems, because they help. He gets bute on days when the rainy weather makes him creaky. His workload is varied so he doesn't work the same muscles, and I allow him plenty of time to decompress. It's important. He's an athlete, why not treat him like one?

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  11. Wow is this timely. I have this irrational deal with my horse where I feel like if he can't do the lower level ammy stuff I want without medical help he should just go live in a field forever unridden. Thank you for talking about this, it helped me take a deep breath. Now, a couple years ago where I could barely go 2 months without him needing hock and coffin injections just to barely be at 1st level...that was when some serious evaluation and soul searching was required. Ummmm...fortunately?!...he broke his pastern where his layup diffused those issues entirely once we started back under saddle and he hasn't needed anything other than a little chiro here and there.

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  12. I. Love. This.

    The first pony I ever really competed on and leased for 4 years was similar to your Star, in that he got a pound maybe of sweet feed twice a day and that was it. He lived out, didn't get a single supplement, never got injected, didn't have a fancy half pad, saddle wasn't fit specifically for him. I just got on, rode and we kicked butt. He's still rocking it around jumper courses (saw pictures of him, at 13.3hh mind you, and his kid jumping 4 foot last summer!!) and is probably in his early 20s with zero maintenance. He doesn't even have shoes on. And he LOVES his job.

    Now, my own personal horse is the polar opposite. He gets special shoeing, supplements, Adequan, has been injected, has a BOT mesh sheet, gets chiro work when necessary, needs specific low starch/high fat grain otherwise he's a hot mess, the list goes on... I often wonder if I should retire him and let him be a horse somewhere warm for the rest of his life. But I remind myself that no two horses are alike and naughty ponies are very different than opinionated OTTBs. My horse likes a job. He can't keep his job unless I do some maintenance. If it keeps him comfortable, happy and is safe to administer, then I'll give it a go. :)

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  13. I have my first horse that has ever had injections. It was a really hard decision for me (and I totally cried afterwards). They actually didn't help him a lot but they didn't really do any harm either. I'm learning to have a more open mind about the whole idea. Great post!

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  14. Excellent post--Courage is a tough, though definitely not stoic, horse who hasn't needed that sort of maintenance yet. That said, his body has A LOT of miles on it, and I know it's coming. He takes good care of himself and isn't hard on himself, so fingers crossed it will be a much lighter regime than last time around.

    I really don't have a problem with maintenance, as long as it serves to keep the horse sound and happy in appropriate work.

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  15. I struggled with the same thing with Spirit for years, and then with Yankee when he had slight pain when he turned 11..I was devastated at ELEVEN he was showing signs. BUt injections kept him free and clear for a few years. I just know that if it becomes too routine, its time to throw in the towel. Not worth pushing it for human gain.

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