Maintaining Senior Performance Horses

Maintaining Senior Performance Horses

With age comes wisdom, but also extra care for senior performance horses. Experts weigh in on caring for older equine athletes.

buckskin reining horse practices a spin (Credit: AQHA)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Robyn Volkening

What is the best way to achieve long-term soundness in our equine athletes?

Performance horses require years of steady, high-intensity training to achieve the advanced skills we require to compete. Many of these equine athletes aren’t road-worthy and seasoned until they hit their mid-teens. By that age, the nature of extreme athletic training can take its toll on equine anatomy, just like it does on the bodies of NFL football players.

How do we keep our horses sound and happy into their teens and 20s, and enjoy our investment in time, training and the valued experience of our good horses? How do you go about purchasing an older horse and deciding on potential longevity?

AQHA Professional Horsemen Bob Avila and Clay Logan, along with Dr. Frank Fluitt, who specializes in treating performance horses, offer advice to preserve our horses for the long haul.

Environment for Optimal Health

The foundation of a sound horse is its baseline living situation. Both Bob and Clay, AQHA world champion trainers, mention turn-out or daily movement as their No. 1 environmental tip for keeping horses healthy and competitive.

“I try to keep my horses outside in a pasture as much as possible. I only put them in stalls if I have to,” Clay says. “I think constant movement and herd interaction, as well as fresh air, really help keep mine limber and mentally happy to work.”

Bob also likes to keep all his horses moving, mentioning that his horses get turned out or put on a walker every day, even on days off.

 “When we get older ourselves, you know, if you lay around on Sunday watching TV, you’re going to be stiff on Monday morning,” he jokes. “Our horses are the same way. They need to be kept fit and moving before we ask them for hard work. It’s use it or lose it.”

He suggests keeping horses at 75 percent workload at all times instead of asking them to go from “pasture potato” to competition in a short time frame. This lessens the chance of injury.

Nutrition is also important to keeping our horses operating at a high level. Both trainers use oral supplements to fill in specific gaps as needed. Likewise, Dr. Fluitt is a big proponent of supplements, saying that after analyzing the feed quality, generally there will be an area that supplements can address.

Clay concurs, adding, “I don’t rock the boat unless something is needed, but generally when a horse is in hard work or starts to get a little older, I can see a positive impact from feeding a joint supplement, and I also use some combination supplements for specific issues.”  

Another key to keeping horses going strong is hoof health. All three discuss proper shoeing as being extremely important at any age, but preventing injuries in a young horse by keeping a frequent trimming schedule will allow them to continue further into their careers.

With proper hoof angles, as well as using leg boots during strenuous activities, both trainers see fewer injuries that follow a horse into its later years. Dr. Fluitt agrees that prevention is easier than treating problems later on. When the horse is fed well, shod correctly to support athletic training and allowed to move a lot, the training part of the equation has a solid foundation.

Training for Long-Term Goals

While coming from different disciplines, both Bob and Clay have a similar philosophy on riding broke horses.

 “Once they are broke, don’t keep drilling the same maneuvers,” Bob says. “Keep them fit, long trot, keep their muscles working, but don’t wear them out on the tough stuff.”

He likes to ride his horses five days a week, with two days turned out or put on the walker. On his broke horses, most of that riding is just keeping their heart rate up long trotting and loping, not the higher-intensity spins, stops and cattle work that can stress joints and other body structures. Before a show, Bob increases the intensity from a Level 6 to Level 8-9 and fine-tune maneuvers. He thinks this “keeps the horse ready to work” without burning it out mentally or physically.

His plan seems to be successful, as he has had multiple horses in their teens competing and winning at high levels in open and amateur competition in AQHA, National Reining Horse Association and National Reined Cow Horse Association. One example is Not My Day Job, a 14-year-old gelding who has been consistently winning for more than 10 years, has Superiors in amateur reining and amateur working cow horse, performance and halter Registers of Merit, and has even won amateur all-around honors at the Arizona Sun Circuit with Bob’s wife, Dana. Bob and Dana also have another standout – Brother White, better known as “Preacher,” who won in cow horse and reining until he was in his later teens.

Clay agrees, saying, “I could probably win more if I kept riding my great horses every roping, but after they are broke, I don’t turn steers on them all the time. After they know their job, don’t keep hammering on them, or it starts to turn them off of working their best.”

Since Clay starts a lot of young rope horses, he likes to break them as 2-year-olds and then send them home to mature or to do ranch work until they are older. He thinks letting them be horses and cover some open country help them to be stronger when they come back for more intense training in the roping pen.

One of Clay’s success stories is Replay Blue Boon, a 2002 gelding who has nearly 1,200 open and amateur performance points in heeling. In addition to open and amateur heeling Superiors, the gelding has two AQHA world championships and one reserve world title in heeling, and has earned nearly $75,000. Clay’s program has also produced many other successful roping athletes, including Uno Cheetah, who won with numerous ropers and competed at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

AQHA Professional Horseman Clay Logan says a good warm-up routine and keeping heavy practice at a minimum is key with senior athletes. That’s the recipe he uses with multiple world champion Replay Blue Boon. (Credit: Robyn Volkening)

Maintenance for Prevention

With the advances in medical and therapeutic treatments in recent years, all three experts agree that there is more available now than ever before to help our athletes excel for longer periods of time.

Bob uses a Theraplate at his barn, along with icing machines and alternative therapies such as chiropractic. He gets all his horses thoroughly vet-checked twice a year or more often if something suspicious pops up. He mentions it’s easier to treat things in the beginning, and he particularly uses the ice machine when he intensifies workouts before a show.

Similarly, Clay also uses chiropractic with great success in his rope horse program where horses may sustain hard jerks from cattle.

Dr. Fluitt suggests that using some alternative and preventive therapies regularly may stave off more invasive veterinary interventions later down the line. He is a proponent of injections only when needed, and uses IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein) and injections of hyaluronic acid, Adequan® i.m. (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan) and steroids, depending on the situation. In North Texas, where Dr. Fluitt practices, hydrotherapy is available on a haul-in basis at many facilities, helping horses stay fit without impact on joints. This is especially helpful for older equines. While not available in all areas, he says hydrotherapy is a great option for those who can find a pool for their horses.

Purchasing Experienced Horses

Whether your budget or your riding level mandates buying an older, more-experienced horse, how do you analyze the risk of buying a horse that has some miles? Both trainers agree that doing thorough pre-purchase exams on any horse is the best plan of action. While conformation is certainly an indicator of potential issues, being able to “see inside” will allow the buyer and their vet to make informed decisions based on expected use and future longevity of the prospect.

Dr. Fluitt says he often does up to 40 films on a higher-level performance horse, as well as ultrasounding tendons and scoping airways. His standard is multiple views of the feet, as well as ankles, hocks and stifles. In addition, he has recently been doing more X-rays of the lumbar spine to check for kissing spine. He says he looks harder at different areas depending on the discipline, with stifles and hocks being an area of more use in cutting and reining, for instance. He cautions that a pre-purchase exam goal isn’t a pass/fail, or even clean X-rays, which are exceptionally rare on an older horse, but to decide what you can live with based on the future use and goals for the horse.

Dr. Fluitt suggests regular exams and the use of alternative and preventive therapies, especially for horses with strenuous careers, like Shesouttayourleague, the 2015 NRHA Futurity and 2017 NRHA Derby open champion. Credit: Robyn Volkening


With the right environment, some preventive maintenance and a proactive training regimen, it’s possible to keep our equine athletes at the top of their game well into their teenage years, maximizing and enjoying their training and experience.

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