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Preparing for a Winning Season

Ballinger Equine Ambassador, Katie Branley, with Buntino starting the 2021 dressage competition season

With COVID-19 lockdown restrictions starting to ease, competitions are opening up. Whether you’re competing at a local dressage show, at Pony Club camp, completing a 60cm clear round showjumping, or braving a cross-country course, you and your horse or pony will want to be ready to achieve to your full potential. Here are some quick tips for a winning season.

Saddle, tack and feed

Saddle and tack need to fit properly and be in excellent condition, so start the season by giving everything a really deep clean and polish, checking leather and stitching for wear and frayed ends. Your horse or pony should be well, with feet in excellent condition. Feeding must be appropriate for the type of animal and level of work – the 12 hand first-ridden doesn’t usually need competition mix! And don’t forget that both rider and horse need to be in top mental and physical condition to compete and win.

Some common equine health factors associated with poor performance include lameness, back pain, cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic issues.


It is quite common for owners not to recognise lameness in their own horse. Underlying lameness issues require a vet to undertake an assessment of soundness, involving flexion tests, trotting the horse in hand, on a lunge and ridden. Further diagnostics in the form of nerve blocks to localise any problems and then radiographs (x-rays) and ultrasound scans may also be needed. Sometimes further diagnostic procedures including scintigraphy (bone scans) and MRI scans will be recommended. Once problems are identified they can be treated. A typical comment after treatment is “…the horse is going better than he has for months…”. Low-grade underlying problems are significant performance limiters and once isolated and treated can lead to a sounder, happier animal, with better movement and winning results. 

‘Back’ problems

Often secondary to lameness issues, back problems can occur in their own right. Assessment of the back includes palpation and radiography, as well as examining how the horse moves in hand and under saddle. Thorough investigation is crucial as a top performer at any level needs to have a pain free, flexible core.


Cardiovascular problems often only become apparent under veterinary examination. Tiring easily, not getting to the top of the gallop or a few odd coughs should never be viewed as ‘normal’. The vet will auscultate the heart and lungs to listen for abnormal murmurs and sounds. Blood samples are taken to check general health and can determine underlying problems, for example low white blood cell count from a chronic viral condition or anaemia. If abnormalities of the heart are evident then an ECG or ultrasound scan of the heart may be necessary. Some heart murmurs do not cause any problems, but this would require confirmation with additional diagnostics.


Investigation of respiratory problems may include endoscopy, looking into the trachea (windpipe) and taking a sample, or fitting an endoscope to the horse’s tack to examine the larynx during exercise to observe any abnormalities (dynamic overground endoscopy). These problems can usually be addressed, either medically or surgically, depending on the diagnosis.

Metabolic issues

Metabolic issues inhibiting performance include equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS). This can cause teeth grinding, reluctance to exercise, head shaking and general evasion. Investigation includes gastroscopy, where the lining of the stomach is examined using an endoscope. Treatment and management changes can often resolve EGUS resulting in a much happier, more successful animal. Equine Cushings Syndrome, also known as pars pituitary intermedia dysfunction, may present as what the rider regards to be merely a dull, lethargic horse. Diagnosis via a blood test is straightforward and treatment usually successful. Low grade liver disease and muscle problems are also both likely to lead to under-performance.

To sum up, there are many health issues which can limit achievement of peak performance for your horse and pony. Careful evaluation, including clinical assessment, lameness examinations and blood tests may all help ensure you and your teammate are a winning partnership. Why not contact your vet for a pre-season MOT?