There are a number of reasons why your horse may not be performing up to expectations. The first thing to decide is whether your expectations are realistic.
Has the horse performed to a high standard previously? Has sufficient training been given? Is the horse fit enough? If you’ve ruled out unrealistic expectations, then some of the most common problems are listed below:
Although lameness is often obvious, certain types of lameness can be difficult to detect. If a horse is equally lame in both front legs, it will have a pottery, short-striding gait, but it may be hard to pick which leg is sore. Subtle hind-limb lamenesses can also be difficult to recognise and may be first recognised as a decline in performance.
2. Respiratory problems
Problems in the respiratory system may present with abnormal noises during work. Roaring, whistling or gurgling noises may indicate obstructions to the upper respiratory tract (URT). These can easily be investigated by endoscopy, although in some cases treadmill endoscopy at Massey may be required to see a problem that only occurs during exercise.
Horses that are easily tired or slow to recover after exercise, despite adequate fitness, may have problems in the lower respiratory tract, i.e. within the lungs. Possible causes are Recurrent Airway Obstruction (RAO, aka “heaves”) or Inflammatory Airway Disease (IAD). These conditions are further investigated by taking samples of fluid from the trachea (windpipe) or from inside the lungs. These procedures can be done at the same time as URT endoscopy, so a full assessment of the whole respiratory tract is possible at the same time.
3. Heart problems
Heart problems are uncommon, but can be a cause of poor performance. Listening to the heart with a stethoscope at rest and straight after exercise can tell us a lot; further investigation may involve an ECG to measure the electrical activity of the heart, and/or an ultrasound scan to visualise the structures of the heart.
4. Gastric ulcers
Horses fed high-concentrate diets are at risk of developing stomach ulcers. The risk increases with travel and stress, so racehorses and competition horses are particularly susceptible. Stomach ulcers can be diagnosed by gastro-endoscopy or a trial treatment period can be used for diagnosis. Management changes can also be beneficial.
5. Ryegrass staggers
During the late summer and autumn, fungal spores growing on ryegrass may cause vestibular disease, which causes dizziness. Severe ryegrass staggers is quite easy to recognise, but in some cases subclinical disease may be present and cause poor performance without obvious signs. There is a blood test for one of the toxins, Lolitrem B, but a negative test can’t rule it out because other toxins are also implicated. Subtle signs of vestibular disease may be present, and can help to confirm a diagnosis.
Please give us a call if you are worried that your horse is not performing up to scratch, and we will be happy to investigate the problem.