Like everyone I know, I was glued to the Olympics – great job Team GB, especially our first Dressage and Show Jumping medals for a long time!
However, I wonder how many people think about the infrastructure and planning that go into keeping the horses fit, safe and healthy when they compete?
I’ve been a treating vet at a lot of competitions over the years, including Endurance events, local, regional and National Championship Pony Club events (where the standard is often as high as at many BE competitions!) and the International Show Jumping at Sheffield Hallam Arena. I was also on the vet team as a student at Badminton back when they still had roads and tracks before the cross country.
The vets that people most often seen are those on the Ground Jury at competitions – the notorious “Trot Up” before the competition starts, and again (in eventing) before the horses go forwards to the show jumping phase. At Badminton and most other big events, there are two vets – one on the Ground Jury, along with two or three other worthies – and one in the Hold Box. If there is a question over a horse’s fitness to compete, they get sent to the hold box, where the second vet examines them to see if there is a medical problem rendering the horse unfit. This is a very contentious area – I’ve never yet been at an event where the Ground Jury and the vets didn’t come in for a barrage of criticism over their decisions. However, it’s important to realise that they have to balance several factors:
Firstly, if a horse is unlevel on the trot up, it may be truly lame, or it may have a “mechanical lameness” – in other words, an abnormal gait that is non painful, and does not render it unfit (on welfare grounds) or unsafe to compete. To help them decide, they trot the horse up before the competition, and then note down any anomalies of gait or stride.
Secondly, there are some horses with minor injuries who can appear far more badly injured than they actually are. This is the reason for the Hold Box – a horse with a mild lameness due to a stone in it’s hoof (yes, it does happen, I’ve seen it!) will probably trot up sound once the offending pebble has been removed; likewise, I once saw a hopping lame (7/10 at trot, for anyone interested) horse go 100% sound after a misfitting stud was removed.
Thirdly, of course, the Ground Jury and the vets have to watch the riders or grooms who are trotting up the horse. It’s an old joke in the profession that the shorter the skirt and tighter the top of a woman competitor, the more carefully you have to check the horse, because she’s trying to distract your attention from something!
The role of the vet as a judge of fitness is of course expanded in Endurance competitions, where every horse has to be checked at various points along the track to ensure it is fit to continue, and that its heart rate drops enough to be permitted to go on. Different events have different requirements for judging, but as a general rule, the horse has to trot up sound and well hydrated, and have a heart rate below a certain value (e.g. 80 beats per minute). I was at one big competition once where there was a dispute over whether the (leading, international competitor’s) horse was sound or not. The decision was passed to a panel of 3 vets, none of us having seen the horse before that day, and its soundness or otherwise put to a secret ballot.
This used to be standard practice at two- and three day events, when there was a roads and tracks phase before the cross country. In these competitions (and there are still a few ongoing, regional Two Day Events in various corners of the country), the vet is present simply to determine whether the horse is fit and safe to continue. I once had to pull a horse because it was obviously “not right” – not an easy decision for a vet student at a CCI 3*! The rider appealed the decision – and while we were waiting, it tied up completely, and had to be recovered by the horse ambulance. I still shudder to think how badly it might have been injured if we had allowed it to run cross country.
At these events, riders, trainers etc can be very keen for the vet to pass a suspect horse as sound (although strangely, it doesn’t seem to be such a problem at Pony Club) – however, we’re really not trying to ruin your day (honest, and no, we don’t get paid to “fail” some competitors horses either), we’re just trying to make sure that an injury doesn’t ruin your horse’s week, month or season!
Of course, that brings me on to the treating vets at an event. Any equestrian competition will have a vet either on call or – especially at big events – on site. Some events (like the Pony Club Championships, Badminton or the International Show Jumping) will have the horses stabled on site. At these, there will usually be some vets assigned to the stables area, and others out on the course or at the arena.
Nowadays, we also have access to Equine Ambulances and their fantastic staff. They may look like normal horse trailers, but inside they have slings, winches, padded walls and often lowering floors – everything you need, in fact, to quickly and safely evacuate an injured horse.
The job of the course/arena vets is to be first on the scene and assess the state of the injured horse. They will give first aid, stabilise any strained tendons or suspicious fractures, and then decide where to send the horse. The big decision to make is whether it’s best to send the horse back to the stables (and if so, on foot or in the ambulance?), or refer them directly to a hospital facility. Fortunately, injuries that need immediate referral are rare; and most cases will be sent back to the stables. While assessing the horse, I like to have screens available – it doesn’t mean I’m preparing to put the horse down, but it does mean I can examine them in a calmer, more private environment. If we do need to put a horse down, we’ll usually try and move it off the track or away from the arena in the ambulance, to get some privacy.
While the course vets have to perform in the blaze of publicity, the stables vets are equally important. During the competition, the stables vets will keep in touch with their colleagues on the course, either by phone or (usually) radio. Quite often we’ll listen in on official channels as well so we can be leaning the right way if there is an incident! It’s the stables vets who will deal with most injuries and accidents during the competition, and it can get pretty hectic, stitching up rows of horses in succession…
At many competitions, there will only be a couple of us, looking after several hundred horses, 24 hours a day. I remember one memorable competition several years back where the night after the cross country phase, I got about an hour’s sleep – the rest of the night I was up treating the colicing, the sprained and strained, and the just “not quite right”. Most of my patients that week were mildly dehydrated – it’s amazing how much more horses need to drink after competing in hot weather! That’s the only time I can remember when I had to ring up a local practice to borrow more electrolyte salts, because I’d used up everything I took with me… (And the next year, when I took boxes and boxes of the stuff, they competed in gales and torrential rain, and I actually had cases of rain scald to treat… Well, that’s the English summer for you!).
If you are concerned about your horse, talk to your vet or try our Interactive Horse Symptom Guide to see how urgent it might be.