Does being a vet make you a better horse owner? *H&H VIP*

  • Gemma Carman MRCVS

    Gemma, the senior vet at Spring Paddocks Equine Clinic in Warwickshire, was elementary silver champion at last year’s British Dressage summer regionals with her nine-year-old gelding Ekko Falkenfürst. The pair also finished in the top 10 in the novice silver nationals.

    Gemma says: “We bought ‘Mylo’ in 2014 as a just-backed four-year-old. We realised that he was too tricky to be my mum’s all-rounder, so I took him over and soon caught the dressage bug.”

    Now I’m a vet… “I’m very fussy about arena surfaces; anything deep or inconsistent that could put strain on joints and soft tissue structures is a no-go. I only lunge occasionally, in walk or trot. You can’t give a horse proper breaks when he must remain on a circle, and if he’s feeling fresh it’s impossible to keep him calm until he is fully warmed up.

    “I also realise the importance of a creating a varied fitness and strength programme for an individual horse. I plan Mylo’s daily activity over the eight weeks before a big show, incorporating a range of activities for his physical and mental wellbeing.”

    I always… “keep Mylo outdoors 24/7, year-round. He has a simple diet of high-quality balancer, fibre mashes and hay. He’s shod every five to six weeks and I work closely with a qualified therapist to identify any muscular tightness, weakness or asymmetry that may affect his performance.”

    I never… “feed dry hay in the stable or lorry, no matter the quality, as it doesn’t take much to aggravate the airways and start a cough. I also never use exercise boots or bandages in hot weather, because of the risks of overheating the tendons and ligaments.

    “And I never skip insurance for vets’ fees — I’m aware how quickly costs can add up, and being able to choose the ‘gold standard’ treatment without concern over finances brings peace of mind.”

    I’ve learned… “to stay true to what I believe is best for Mylo. The dressage world can be quite daunting, but his health and welfare are more important to me than anyone else’s opinions.”

    As a vet… “I’m the most paranoid owner I know, but it does pay to catch a problem early when it is usually easier to treat.

    I proactively monitor Mylo’s health through methods such as blood sampling, back, dental and saddle checks, weight monitoring and dietary analysis.”

    Dr Liz Barr MRCVS

    Liz has showjumped Diego VI up to newcomers level. The 11-year-old Dutch warmblood is the latest in a long line of showjumpers for Liz, who enjoyed childhood success with 14.2hh JA pony Sergeant Dibbles and later competed in senior Foxhunters.

    After nearly a decade at Bell Equine Veterinary Clinic in Kent, Liz recently set up Barr Equine Veterinary Ltd. She says:

    “I’m enjoying the challenge of running my own business while doing what I love: investigating and treating poor performance and lameness in sport horses.”

    Now I’m a vet… “I appreciate how our knowledge of sport horse injuries has expanded since the 1990s, when I was starting out. Back then, many horses not obviously lame would have gone undiagnosed or, worse still, were treated as being ‘naughty’.

    “Advanced diagnostic imaging techniques mean that we no longer work in the dark with back problems, or conditions such as bilateral forelimb foot pain.

    “I definitely lunge less than I used to. While it can be useful for horses with back pain or youngsters that need to strengthen up, I worry about the increased stresses it puts on the distal limb structures.

    “I also know that there’s a connection between mediolateral foot balance and where you put your studs. Until I went to vet school, I would just put a stud ‘in each corner’ — laterally, on front and hind feet. When you understand foot balance, you realise that this is a bad idea.”

    I always… “insist on good trimming and shoeing. So many injuries can be prevented by a really good farrier; in my opinion this is key to keeping horses sound.”

    I never… “jump on unsuitable ground. When the ground was bottomless, we just used to put in bigger studs behind and get on with it. I pretty much only jump on surfaces now, and only on grass when the going is good.”

    I’ve learned… “to trust my instincts. If something feels wrong it probably is, so get off your horse and ask someone to trot him up. It’s also worth investigating any abnormal respiratory noises. Racing and eventing people seem much more in tune with this than many of us showjumpers.”

    As a vet… “it can be difficult to maintain perspective if your own horse has a problem. When Diego’s performance took a nosedive, I realised that our training programme needed as much attention as his health — however busy life becomes.”

    Hattie Barnes MRCVS

    Hattie headed the British Eventing intermediate novice at Frickley Park last July with Brooklyn Four Point (Pod), the nine-year-old Irish Sport Horse she imported as a green youngster and has since brought on to intermediate level.

    Now an equine vet at Oakhill Veterinary Centre in Lancashire, Hattie worked on a competition yard while studying for her degree. She says: “I progressed my last main horse to CIC2* [now CCI3*-S], before he was lost to colic surgery complications, and I enjoy producing youngsters alongside mature horses.”

    Now I’m a vet… “I have a greater understanding of how leg care after fast work contributes to a horse’s longevity. A tendon micro-strain increases the chance of partial or complete breakdown over time, so I cool Pod’s legs rapidly with ice or cool boots/wraps and use gentle mobilisation over the next hour to encourage blood flow to the extremities. Clay was commonly used, but is now thought to have an insulating effect the longer it is left on.

    “I’m also a lot more particular about regular dental care now, having been less informed in my Pony Club years.”

    I always… “turn my horses out daily, as the health benefits range from maintaining fitness to encouraging digestion and mental wellbeing. Not only is an unhappy horse unlikely to perform to his full potential, but stress has many harmful effects including increased risk of equine gastric ulcer syndrome.

    “I feed electrolytes, especially in summer, to replenish vital minerals and prevent dehydration. I also use faecal egg counts and tapeworm tests, rather than deworming by the calendar.”

    I never… “fail to give my horses at least one rest day every week, for their mental and physical health. I try not to over rug them — horses have a natural internal heater by way of the fermentation vat known as the caecum.”

    I’ve learned… “that our understanding of equine orthopaedics is constantly evolving. Fitness requirements increase as the eventing levels get higher, as does the strain a horse is put under. I vary work intensity, perhaps using interval training one week and hillwork the next, with a combination of gallops, water treadmills and good old turf to reduce impact on the legs while building fitness and muscle tone.

    “Varying the surface also reduces the risk of repetitive strain injuries, at the same time conditioning different structures of the musculoskeletal system.”

    As a vet… “I probably over-analyse Pod’s every step because of my awareness of subtle signs or potential problems. I encourage friends to take this preventative approach to horse health, however, rather than ignoring issues and continuing regardless.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 28 February 2019