Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2024

Keeping The Older Horse Performance-Ready

Our columnist discusses how she manages her teenaged mounts so they’re sound, happy and still in the show ring.



High performance hunter and high performance conformation divisions are my favorite to ride in or watch. Any accomplished horseman knows it takes years to develop a great high performance show hunter, and I have been lucky enough to have a few that have made it to this level. I enjoy bringing a young talented horse along, but riding one that is capable of jumping around over 3’9″ or 4′ with light contact and great style is so fun. This winter in Ocala, Florida, I had two at this level, ages 12 and 16, as well as a super 2’6″- 3’3″ horse that is 17, and the youngest, my off-the-track-Thoroughbred at age 11. 

Six weeks before leaving for Ocala, my veterinarian, John Nolan, DVM, did a thorough soundness check, along with his new associate, Kathryn Surasky, DVM, who would be taking care of his clients in Ocala for the winter. The horses were jogged, flexed and longed. After carefully going over all of them, he determined that they were all in excellent shape and did not need any injections or any other therapies. Dr. Surasky asked me, “What do you do to keep them in such great shape?” The short answer was keeping the horses properly conditioned and looked after, which requires a great team. This article provides a more comprehensive answer. 

To ride and train a horse well, you need to understand their nature, and this is also necessary to keep a horse sound and happy. Horses are herd animals, and so are very social. They prefer to be with other horses, walking and grazing, moving to find roughage, water and shelter and to play. I have developed my training program based on keeping horses in their natural state as much as possible. 

High performance conformation hunters All In One and Executive Privilege enjoy plenty of time in the paddock together. Photo Courtesy Of Sue Lyman

The Benefits Of Turnout

Grass turnout is good for a horse’s nutrition and puts weight on hard keepers. Horses with access to good turnout are less stressed, less prone to colic and ulcers. Young Thoroughbreds that have had access to pasture turnout have better aerobic capacity. A 2021 study published in the “Journal of Equine Veterinary Science” showed that horses are less prone to soft tissue injury if they have at least 12 hours of turnout a day. 

Whenever possible I prefer nighttime turnout with company to ensure they get enough.

Nighttime turnout is preferable in Virginia, where I live in the warmer months, because the flies are too active during the day. I put my horses out all night in colder months as well, with appropriate blankets, but will leave them in during heavy rain, thunderstorms or excessive wind. When horses get enough turnout, they are relaxed and much easier to ride and train. 

Managing Stress When Stabling

Confinement can be difficult for horses. My horses have big box stalls at home with bars between stalls so they can see and touch their neighbor and with Dutch doors that open so they can put their heads out. In 2015 a British study published in “Physiology & Behavior” looked at the effects of keeping horses in stalls. They studied four groups of horses: 

• Horses in groups turned out in a paddock with a shed. 

• Horses stalled in pairs, with each pair in visual and auditory contact with nearby stalled horses. 


• Horses that were not turned out together but were stabled with walls low enough so they could see and hear other horses. 

• Horses with individual box stalls with solid walls that did not allow contact with other horses. 

This study found that the horses adapted to all situations, but that the stress levels were highest in the last group, and lowest in the first two groups. Stress levels are detrimental to a horse’s immune, digestive and respiratory systems, as well as their mental well-being. No wonder the majority of performance horses have ulcers, some have behavioral issues and breathing difficulty or allergies. 

Proper Conditioning For Healthy Horses

I try to get my horses as fit as possible to do the job at hand. We do a lot of long hacks, walking and trotting hills, cantering to stretch. Long straight lines are best for older horses, and grass footing is optimal. I am fortunate to have access to several fields with good grass footing around the farm, making it easy to accomplish this. Long quiet trail rides build up bone, strengthen soft tissue, keep the horses fresh and prepare the horses for life after showing. I have two semi-retired older horses that still enjoy a productive life hacking out with their owners. They help train the younger ones about going out cross-country. The younger horses learn by example how to behave in groups as well as how to cross streams and ditches. 

My horses usually hack out two days a week, do flatwork one day, and work with cavaletti poles and have a small jump school one or two days a week. I design several different exercises with cavaletti. Whatever happens over the poles will happen over jumps. By practicing straightness, rhythm and lengthening and shortening over cavaletti, I can prepare for a good jump school without as much wear and tear on their feet, legs and bodies. I will jump bigger one day a week if getting ready to show, but I try to limit this as much as possible. A horse only has so many jumps. 

Correct Flatwork To Build Strength

The purpose of good flatwork is to establish a language with the horse as well as build strength in its core and back. Connected transitions and lateral work are key in developing self-carriage and strength. I think all of my hunters would be proficient in a first level dressage test. Especially with the older horses, I try to limit the time doing small circles and am careful not to over-drill them in the ring. Once they know their jobs, I just try to keep them fit and happy. I like to do a long hack for a warm-up, go through some pole exercises, and, if they are responsive, leave them be, because less is more. 

Prepping Properly

Prepping the horses properly for a successful hunter round is key. If my older horses had not shown in a while or are stabled where they may not be completely at ease, they sometimes need a longe to express themselves, play, stretch and work on transitions. I try to keep longeing to a minimum, and if they are longed, I make sure to do it properly. I hate to see horses galloping and chased on the longe, or chased when disunited, or on the wrong lead. My horses don’t have a timed recipe, such as a 20-minute longe before showing. If they act a bit fresh when riding, they can go on the longe for a few minutes to play or relax. 

When there is no turnout available at the shows, my horses will get at least 30 minutes of hand grazing a day, sometimes twice a day. 

Older horses that are well schooled, sound and happy don’t need to show as much. They can have a few months off during the competition year and still be competitive when they return to shows. Breaks from competition may give them extra years to compete. 


Having A Great Team

I’m grateful to all the members of my team that contribute to my horses’ health and welfare. Dr. Nolan is extremely knowledgeable and observes the horses carefully. He only recommends joint injections when necessary and takes into account not only how the horses appear on a soundness exam but also how they are going when competing. He listens carefully to observations of my grooms and riders and thinks outside the box. 

Joyce Harman does acupuncture and chiropractic treatments at least four times a year. She is an expert in holistic treatments and good saddle fit, which is essential in keeping the horses comfortable. Holistic treatments have become the first thing I try before conventional medication, which I think can mask a more serious issue. I limit using NSAIDs, use shockwave only for injuries, and only inject joints when absolutely necessary. 

I also have a brilliant farrier who keeps horses balanced, a great massage therapist to keep my horses feeling good in their body, as well as a great group of grooms and owners who always put the horses first. 

I am so blessed to have such a wonderful group of older horses. They get ample turnout and need little to no prep or longeing to get to the ring. There is plenty of room to go on long hacks. They are happy, sound and carefree. Life is good. 

Sue Lyman has been riding, training and showing hunters in the Middleburg, Virginia, area since 1985. 

During this time she broke, started, retrained and competed many successful horses including Simbalu, Rox Dene, Irregardless, Townsend and All In One. She served on the USHJA Professionals Committee from 2008-2012. She has served on the USHJA Horse And Rider Advocates Committee since 2013 and became chair of that committee in 2021. 

This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our May 8 & 15, 2023, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked. 

If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.



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