By Dana Hokana
Showing older horses is something I value and work toward. I believe all horses deserve to have long term careers. It takes the Spanish riding school years to develop their horses, and the highest level horses are in their teens before performing the difficult maneuvers. They take incredible time layering and building a solid foundation. This is one of my many secrets to a long term horse. Another important aspect of the long term show horse is keeping the horse’s mind fresh and allowing them to enjoy their jobs.
1. The first tip includes layering and building a solid foundation. I carefully evaluate the horses reactions to my cues. Are they stiff, resistant or cranky? Do they need reminders on how to say yes to these cues? Are they angry at my leg? If so, maybe I need some exercises to remind my horse to be supple, soft and accepting. Are they tough in the face? I may need to bend them around or back them off the bridle. During every ride I practice basic exercises to keep my horses willing and supple. As I work on these exercises I evaluate and read my horses response. Where are they stiff or resistant? Where are they saying “no” to the cues? Developing and maintaining a horse who is accepting and willing is very important.
How they present themselves in the show arena is directly related to how this foundational work is maintained in the practice pen. If I am working with a pleasure horse, I do most of my warm-up work in the middle of the arena. I supple, strengthen and lengthen the stride through different exercises as I am evaluating their responses and eliminating resistance. I work on the quality of each gait to enhance the horses movements. If I am riding horsemanship, reining, or trail horses I rarely work on the entire pattern, I separate each maneuver. Varying the horses workout makes it more fun and challenging, not only for the horse but for the rider as well.
2. The next important tip to keeping a long term show horse is to maintain or school him in the show ring. I do this carefully as I want to keep the experience a good one. In order to have a successful older horse they must enjoy their job. People and horses will have good and bad days, I try to make the overall experience enjoyable.
Another problem associated with older horses is cheating. Horses who have the opportunity to cheat usually become cheaters. I try to eliminate these opportunities by preventing the horse’s anticipation of my cues. One principle I keep in my mind is the average horse needs correction or schooling in approximately one out of every three goes in the show arena. This may vary horse to horse but it is a good average. I rarely punish a horse severely in the show pen, people who punish harshly while showing develop horses who hate or dread classes. I use subtle corrections like, making the horse wait after the announcer calls for a lope, picking the horse up for collection and bridling, or waiting to reverse. In reining classes I may not change leads where the horse is expecting it or I may run them to the fence to stop. If your horse is cheating in the show arena watch for signs in the warm-up pen, they are often lacking in some of their foundational training. It important to not be disrespectful to judges or to other exhibitors as you are schooling your horse. Judges do get upset if you delay or slow down a class as they are on a time schedule and have other classes to run. Also remember do not stop in front of or mess-up someone else’s go, it is an excellent way to upset other exhibitors. I often pick smaller shows or classes to school for this reason.
3. The third tip is, I work and perform maintenance to keep my horses sound. A sound comfortable horse will be much happier than a hurting or uncomfortable horse. Most older horses have soundness issues. I seek the help of top veterinarian and working in conjunction with them I come up with individual programs for my older horses. The most important part of the program is regular exercise. Hoof soreness and navicular are directly related to blood flow, standing in the stall without exercise can make these conditions worse. Arthritis can also worsen if a horse stands in a stall for too long. Some older horses need corrective shoeing so seek the help of a top farrier as shoeing is important to soundness. When I am not riding these older horses, I make sure they are longed daily. I start with a good warm-up such as walking 5 to 10 minutes, jogging 5 to 10 minutes, then loping 5 to 10 minutes, and finally cooling down for 5 minutes. Turnout can be good as long as the long horse does not play so hard they injure themselves. When riding these horses I also warm them up and cool them down carefully. I also do a lot of medium trotting and stretching. A great vet once told me that starting every workout with 10 minutes of medium trotting will keep horses sound Many older horses get shorter in their stride so I will encourage them to drive, reach, and lengthen their strides. I also spend time driving my horses to their face at the walk, trot, and lope. I practice driving at an arc and reverse acre to supple and strengthen. A physically fit horse is a strong horse who is better able to resist strains, tears, and many lameness problems.
I use many services and techniques to keep my horses in top showing conditions. I keep their teeth maintained by using an equine dentist. Some horses benefit from the services an equine chiropractor. There are many feed supplements that are valuable depending on the problem. MSM, glucosamine, ester C and chondroitin can be vital for keeping these athletes joints in top showing condition. Also top quality hay and grain products are vital for maintaining weight and coat appearance.
Dana’s personal experience with maintaining the older horse
I have many great success stories with older, ring sour, and/or lame horses. Zip My Bluejeans, is a 17year old AQHA mare. My veterinarian told me she has the the second worse case of navicular he has ever seen, but by applying all of these tips she has stayed sound for the last 6 years. She was used up and lame when I bought her and she use to run off in the show pen. With the help of the techniques I have shared with you she has won the All American Quarter Horse Congress three times, was the All Around Champion one year, and Reserve the next. She has gone on to become an AQHA Youth performance champion. She has become one of our long term success stories. I believe all horses young and old need a proper foundation, proper exercise, nutrition and a lot of love.