Monitor Your Horse’s Physical Fitness
“In only a few minutes… he has methodically examined his horse’s body for injury or muscle soreness, he’s compared stride length and hoof print pattern to the horse’s average, he’s noted any changes from the animal’s normal response to palpation and he’s performed flexion tests on each leg’s major joints…” Just as a careful pilot inspects his airplane’s structural integrity before take-off, World Champion horseman Les Vogt examines his horses before each ride with a Pre-Flight Check. In less than five minutes a day, Vogt’s checking sequence lets him quickly and conveniently monitor his horse’s physical well-being and attitude and compare any changes to an established range of normal response for that horse.
Vogt encourages every horseman to conduct a pre-ride evaluation, and explains here in detail how his own system works. “I do my Pre-Flight Check before every ride so I know exactly how my horse’s body is responding to my training program- I can tell each day if I need to modify that day’s goals before the training session instead of after it,” states Vogt. “Also, it’s a great time to connect with my horse mentally- all in a few minutes and with no special tools or complicated evaluation.” And, Vogt adds, his checking process keeps him from loading up a sore horse and hauling it to an event.
“Everybody has a sore horse now and then, but it’s best not to display them in public!” he commented. In Vogt’s Pre-Flight Check, the first step is a quick but thorough visual and physical examination of the horse from head to tail.
Vogt starts with the horse fresh out of the stall or pen with no warm-up. “I stand my horse on hard level ground, then inspect him in the same order every day: near side head, neck, body, hip, legs, and then the same on his off side. I’ll walk around the horse and often stop to feel a tendon or take a closer look at a bump or scratch, while I also evaluate his overall muscle tone and condition,” Vogt says.
“Because I check my horses daily, I know each one like a book and could probably tell them apart blindfolded. I know what’s normal, down to the temperature in each leg and hoof, so I can tell by daily comparison if a problem is brewing, and can consult with the vet right away,” explains the popular trainer.
The second check, gait evaluation, is perhaps the most important on a day-to-day basis. Vogt simply asks the horse to jog a small circle on the end of the lead rope, and carefully observes. “With just a glance, I can see if my horse is favoring a shoulder or nodding his head because of a hoof or leg related lameness. I also check his tail position, because his tail is the end of his spine and a change in the way he carries his tail is like a crystal ball indicating to me that something is making him travel differently,” Vogt claims. “I want to see how he moves compared to yesterday, and even if he looks OK, I always check his hoof prints to see if his stride is normal.”
Vogt explains that every horse has a characteristic tracking pattern of his hoof prints when jogged in a circle, as unique to each horse as a thumb print is to a human. While some long strided horses’ inside hind hoof print will pass their inside front hoof print with each stride, most horses will have between one and 12 inches of clearance between the toe of a hind foot and the heel of a front foot in the small circle. “It doesn’t matter for this check what the horse’s hoof pattern is, only that I can recognize what is normal for each horse in both directions.
Then, I look for major and then minor changes in the pattern,” Vogt explained. He added that some horses’ hoof patterns will not be identical in both left and right circles, so ‘normal’ hoof print patterns for each horse are determined by daily observation over a period of a week or two. “If a horse is starting to be bothered by pain anywhere in his body, it often shows up as a change in his hoof pattern first,” stated Vogt. “Then,” he added, “I can explore my suspicions further with flexion tests and palpation. I can’t evaluate a horse’s gait as accurately as a vet can, but I can sure read the handwriting on the wall- or in this case, the hoof prints in the dirt.”
Vogt’s third check is a careful palpation alongside the horse’s spine which may reveal chronic tender spots, often in the loin and heavy muscles along the croup. Placing his fingertips a couple inches to the side of the horse’s spine, Vogt starts at the horse’s poll on the left side and presses his fingertips firmly but gently in a slow, continuous sweep from the top of the horse’s head along the spine’s length through the neck, withers, back, and croup to the base of the tail. Vogt comments “Some reaction to this test is common in high performance horses in stressful training. I compare my horse’s ‘normal’ reactions against what I find as I increase the intensity of his training sessions.” The horseman also adds “It’s uncomfortable for the horse if I press directly on his spine, so I use my fingers to probe gently alongside the spine to find trouble spots.”
Vogt emphasizes that horses often react to this palpation more strongly on one side than the other, and he recommends massaging tender spots to relax bunched muscles and promote a physically balanced horse. “I have a big vibrating horse massage machine called a Thumper that the horses love- it’s like their own masseur- but you can give your horse an enjoyable massage with a tennis ball too; just roll it under the palm of your hand around the sore areas to ease the muscles,” Les advises. He adds that there are many useful massage programs, and recommends asking your veterinarian to demonstrate a suitable routine.
The fourth check consists of leg flexions of the knees, ankles, shoulders, stifles, and hocks. At this point, Vogt cautions “I don’t tie my horse up for the flexions. It’s safer to have a helper hold him or to hold the end of the lead myself, being careful to keep it away from the horse’s feet. These flexions are somewhat awkward for the horse, so I don’t do them on a reluctant or agitated horse, and I always use good horsemanship to think ahead.
“For knee flexions, Vogt begins by facing his horse’s tail and picks up the left front hoof as if he were going to clean it. Then he folds the horse’s leg up, bracing the horse’s knee just above his own locked knees. With both hands around the horse’s ankle, he exerts pressure on the knee joint by pulling the cannon bone and fetlock towards the horse’s elbow, checking for flexibility and possible flinching response by the horse.
To check the ankle or fetlock, Vogt moves his hands down to the horse’s toe and pulls the toe firmly towards his waist, putting flex on the ankle joint and again checking for sensitivity and flexibility. Next, Vogt unfolds the horse’s knee joint and carefully pulls the horse’s foreleg first back towards the tail and finally straight out in front of the horse to check the shoulder for soreness and range of motion and flexibility.
To complete his front leg evaluation, Les repeats the flexions on the horse’s right side, always looking for change from the previous day and comparing reactions with the horse’s normal response.
To check hocks and stifles on hind legs, Les does a standard hock flexion. Like a veterinarian, he’ll face forward and hold the horse’s hoof up high for at least 60 seconds to compress the hock, then have an assistant immediately trot the horse forward. “This flexion requires a helper, so I don’t do it every day unless I suspect the horse is developing hock problems” said Vogt. “Also, it won’t work if I don’t send the horse right out,” he says. “I really need to know what a horse’s normal reaction is to this test, as many of them will take at least a few soft steps on their cranked-up leg. I know I would!” he adds.
In only a few minutes, Les Vogt completes the four steps of his Pre-Flight Check. He has methodically examined his horse’s body for injury or muscle soreness, he’s compared stride length and hoof print pattern to the horse’s average, he’s noted any changes from the animal’s normal response to palpation and he’s performed flexion tests on each leg’s major joints. If any disturbing changes are detected, Vogt will further evaluate the possible problem and consult with his veterinarian. If all systems check out, Vogt is now confident that his horse is ready for action in the show arena, training pen, or along a favorite trail.
Les Vogt believes that “The Pre-Flight Check is one of the most important things I do with my horses, because it’s so easy to discover not only how my horse feels physically, but it gives me a moment to check his mental state too. It’s affordable horsemen’s insurance: I’ve avoided a lot of injuries using my Pre-Flight Check and skirted some deep equine mind games as well,” the legendary horseman added with his characteristic grin.
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 8, Issue 9-10