Every high-performance equine sport comes with injuries. The explanations/excuses for this are multiple. Horses are starting training and/or competing too young. Fences are too challenging. Surfaces are too hard, too soft, too deep. Turns are too sharp. Shoes have too much grab. Poor nutrition. Money or ego is the real driving force. Conditioning is inadequate.
Depending upon which of these you choose to believe, blame comes to rest on owners, trainers, riders, organizers, regulatory bodies, judges, veterinarians or blacksmiths. Of course, there’s also the ?accidents happen? excuse that lets everybody off the hook.
Accidents do happen, but not with the frequency many would like us to believe. Occasionally, the cause is obvious. If half of the horses are crashing through an obstacle, a problem with footing or design is the likely problem. For most things, its a bit more complex, but complex isn’t the same thing as excusable.
Lets take a seasonally timely example, like heat stroke. Yes, this is a weather problem. Hot and humid weather to be exact. That doesn’t mean you can blame the weather. Horses don’t develop heat stroke standing in a field or on a leisurely hack. Strenuous exercise plus weather puts the horse at risk. This is compounded by pre-existing dehydration, inadequate salt/electrolyte intake, failure to acclimate the horse to work in heat, and poor conditioning, which means the horse won’t fuel as efficiently or be able to regulate body temperature as well. Complex’ Yes. Unavoidable’ No.
With as much as is known about hydration, electrolyte balance and heat stroke, there’s no excuse for a horse collapsing from it in any discipline, but it still happens. Then comes the blame game. Is it the fault of organizers for allowing competitions to proceed under extreme conditions’ Vets for not screening entries well enough to pull out horses at risk’ Riders and trainers for not being sure their horses are well-hydrated at the start’ There are reasonable arguments for any of these.
Unfortunately, finger pointing does nothing to correct problems. Whether its devastating fractures in racehorses or heat stroke on endurance or three-day courses, the solution is the same. The welfare of the horse needs to be made an integral part of all sports. The information is out there. Horse welfare does not become an upfront concern until some disaster happens, if then. Governing bodies and involved veterinarians need to do troubleshooting before a horse gets into trouble, not after.
The solution is prevention in my book, and that may well mean a concerted effort to inform everyone involved with a sport, at all levels, regarding dangers and how to avoid them. This will take real education, not just lip service. With concrete, useful advice for riders and trainers and screening guidelines for officials and veterinarians, it can be done.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD