They work hard, rarely complain, and for many barns, are the primary source of income. With so much riding on their well-being, school horses must be kept both physically and mentally fit.
With so many different riders, are school horses under an unusual amount of stress? No, says Frank Andrews DVM MS, DACVIM of the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine. A scientific paper on the “Prevalence of non-glandular gastric ulcers in horses involved in a university riding program,” published in 2006, looked at 70 horses used in the University of Connecticut’s lesson program. The study showed a surprisingly small number of gastric ulcers. Since stress is a major contributor to ulcers (as well as traveling, poor nutrition, and other factors), the study concluded that these stay-at-home lesson horses were actually under less stress, and less prone to ulcers, than show horses or racehorses.
Still, notes Dr. Andrews, there are several things you can do to keep your school horses in peak condition. Many school horses, he says, are kept in stalls much of the day and bolus fed (intermittent/twice a day). This is “very unnatural, and such horses have a greater prevalence of gastric ulcers. Ideally, horses should have hay all day. But with the alfalfa mix that many barns feed, horses eat it quickly and then have nothing to do. I’d suggest a mixture of alfalfa with a grass hay that will take them longer to eat.“Also, alfalfa is high in protein and energy. You don’t want horses who work with all levels of kids hyped up, so mixing with a lower energy grass hay helps.”
Pasture turnout is another key to keeping school horses fit. The school horses in the above-quoted study, Dr. Andrews notes, had a low incidence of ulcers in part because they were kept out on pasture when not in use. “A lot of pasture turnout,” he notes, “will keep school horses mentally happy and better able to perform.”
Unfortunately, it happens. Horses used in a repetitive way can get sour. What do you do? Several instructors suggest rotating horses through both beginner and advanced lessons. “With a steady diet of nothing but beginners, horses can get sour and develop some pretty rotten habits,” says Rachel Robinson of Huntermark Farm in Coal Valley, Ill. “The more advanced riders keep them tuned up.”
What if a horse does get ring sour? Robinson says, “I’d look at what kind of load they have; are they getting used a lot? Have the number of beginner riders seriously outweighed the number of advanced riders? Do they have a right to be sour? If I think they’re burned out I give them a little pasture time. Sometimes sour can just mean a horse has been allowed to be the boss and needs a bit of an attitude adjustment. We don’t use a horse if there seems to be some kind of physical problem.”
At Chrislar Farm in Rowley, Mass., all horses are reviewed on a regular basis for attitude problems. “We will rotate out horses that are not happy,” says owner Chris Cassenti. “If we see a horse who goes to the back of the stall when students arrive, gets anxious on the cross ties, or doesn’t want to be girthed up, then we remove it from the program.”