Is your hunter prepared for the rough and tumble of the months ahead? Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS offers advice on surviving the season
Hunters are traditionally turned away at the end of a hard season for a long summer break, to regain body condition and to recover from any minor injuries.
Although some specific health issues may justify giving a horse a prolonged period of time off, with a gradual reintroduction to exercise, it is debatable whether three full months out of work is beneficial. Fitness has been shown to drop from two weeks onwards, with a small amount still present after week six and almost nothing by weeks 10 to 12.
Preparation for the season can then be a battle, especially if the horse becomes overweight and risk of injury is high. But there is individual variation in how quickly fitness is lost and regained. Thoroughbred types are more likely to maintain condition and less inclined to gain excess weight.
In West Percy hunt country, in Northumberland, many owners turn their hunters out on hilly land for the summer to help them retain fitness and some of the sure-footedness they’ll need. At the neighbouring Percy Hunt, most horses have a long break before coming back into work at the beginning of July. However, hunt staff will select individuals prone to gaining weight throughout summer and keep them ticking over with exercise.
The Percy horses are walked for three weeks before starting trot work, with the aim of having them fully fit for autumn hunting. Hound exercise starts mid-August and involves 75 minutes of fittening roadwork. As they approach full fitness, the horses spend an hour a day on the horse walker and 40–50 minutes in trot and canter across varied terrain.
The Hon Diana Beaumont, who has hunted with the Tynedale in Northumberland for 50 years, gives her horses just three to four weeks off at the end of the season. She then keeps them in reduced work for the summer, to minimise injury risk and facilitate their return to peak hunting fitness.
Diana uses good-quality, well-fitting tack, to prevent rubs. Saddle fit is reviewed regularly before and during the season, as the horses change shape, to maintain a supple back and shoulder muscles.
Using raised poles or simply laying poles out in the field can help strengthen front and hindlimb muscles before horses tackle rougher terrain. Ridden work across varied ground is vital to help develop joint stability, by increasing muscle support and proprioception (awareness of limb placement). This should reduce the risk of joint or ligament injury during the season.
A horse walker saves time, but must not be overused as a substitute for ridden work. Like a human athlete who trains solely on a treadmill and then attempts a hill race across country, says Diana, a horse prepared largely on a walker will be totally unprepared for tackling rough ground.
Pre-season preparation is especially important for a horse carrying old injuries, which have been rested, treated and managed appropriately. Good foot balancing by the farrier is essential for maintaining soundness in the case of injuries to the collateral ligaments of the pedal bone, the suspensory branches, check ligaments and tendons.
Arthritis in the hunter is quite common, and management will depend on the budget available. Treatment options include joint injections, an oral joint supplement, remedial farriery and a modified training or hunting plan. Post-diagnosis, intermittent use of phenylbutazone can also help to keep these horses hunting and having fun.
Feeding practices vary widely, with many proven long-standing methods. Because of the huge physical demands placed on hunters as athletes, a correct, balanced diet is essential – providing not only enough energy for the day, but also protein and micronutrients to help keep lungs healthy and aid in tissue healing and muscle recovery.
Horses prone to the muscle condition exertional rhabdomyolysis (known as tying up, or azoturia) will need sufficient fibre, oil-based energy and electrolytes, to try to prevent muscle fatigue. The Percy Hunt team use a specific feed designed for exertional rhabdomyolysis, along with selenium and vitamin E supplements and electrolytes, from the time the horses resume work and throughout the season.
Such horses will need a strict feeding regime and either exercise or turnout every day, with rugging in cold weather. Ideally, hack a short distance to the meet to warm the horse’s muscles up, but take care not to stand him around for too long in the cold.
Home and dry
After hunting, the Percy horses are hot-clothed with dilute Hibiscrub to remove mud and sweat. Any dry mud is brushed off.
Some horses are too tender and tired after a long day to tolerate much skin cleaning, but they must be checked for cuts and puncture wounds. Urgent vet treatment should be sought if there is any risk that a wound has penetrated a vital structure such as a joint or tendon sheath.
The horses are given plenty of fresh, slightly warmed drinking water, then rugged and allowed time to settle down with a haynet. They are fed later, to encourage a more consistent appetite and to reduce the risk of colic due to any residual excitement.
The hunt staff thoroughly recheck the horses the day after. Local conditions will pose different risks, such as injury from blackthorns or flints or skin infections from different types of wet ground. Tea tree oil applied to the skin before hunting can reduce mud contamination.
Any deeper cuts must be washed off and poulticed, and may require vet treatment and possibly antibiotics if infection develops. If any shoes are lost, the hoof is poulticed as a precaution, in case the sole is punctured or sore after the hack back to the lorry.
Should hunt staff report that a horse was not going well or “switched off”, perhaps dropping back to trot or jumping badly, he will be checked over by the physiotherapist and given treatment or massage as appropriate to improve his way of going.
“He’s as hard as nails”
Craig Anderson, a former event rider and current joint-master of the West Percy, has field mastered from his now 17-year-old Irish-bred gelding Robbie for eight seasons, and hunted him for 10 years in total.
“He has never missed a day’s hunting through illness or lameness,” says Craig, who describes Robbie as the toughest horse he has ever known. “After the season, he is turned out 24/7 and he goes quite feral. Because he is active and grazing all summer, it doesn’t take much work to bring him back to fitness.
“Once back hunting, Robbie has plenty of turnout and a basic diet of cool mix, sugar beet, flaked barley and Dengie Alfa A, with a Selenavite E supplement we give to all the horses. He’s not the greatest mover, but being short-coupled helps to keep him right; he doesn’t over-exert himself and he is very careful over wet ground and mud. I could count on one hand the shoes he has lost.
“Robbie is quirky, but he’s as hard as nails and he never gets tired or gives up. As soon as he sees hounds, he puts his game face on.”
The vet: Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS, from Alnorthumbria Veterinary Group, Northumberland, is the senior vet at Newcastle Racecourse, and attended the London and Rio Olympics and World Equestrian Games as an FEI treating vet. alnorthumbriavets.co.uk 01670 897597.
Ref Horse & Hound; 1 October 2020