How to Keep Your Horse Healthy at a Show


Horse show season is an exciting time. Whether you’re going down the road to a schooling show or across the country for a nationally-rated event, one thing remains the same: lots of strange horses in a small area, and lots of possibility for illness.

While horse show organizers may be rethinking their own biosecurity measures in light of COVID, keeping your horse healthy at a show is largely your responsibility as an owner or rider.

So how do you keep your horse safe and healthy at a show?

Read on to find out.

Understand Show Risks

From spats with strange horses on the wash bay to stress colic or contracting influenza, show horses face plenty of risks and stressors. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to minimize them.

Two of the biggest health concerns for show horses are biological—like contracting Equine Herpesvirus (Rhinopneumonitis)Equine Influenza or strangles—and wellness issues like gut health and stress.

The length of travel and amount of time spent on the show grounds will also impact the level of risk. A lengthy trailer journey and a week stalled away from home are much more taxing on a horse than spending a morning at a strange farm and being home in time for evening turnout.

While longer show runs will require more planning and preparation on your part, the basic guidelines are pretty much the same.

Chestnut horse and rider in show jumper ring

Make Sure Vaccines are Up To Date

Your vet will have the final say on what vaccines your horse needs depending on your area, but it’s safe to assume you’ll want boosters for strangles, equine influenza and Rhinopneumonitis.

Check with your vet at least one month before you plan to show to ensure vaccinations are given in adequate time, and also double check that your worming schedule is up to date.

Monitor Your Horse for Signs of Illness

To keep your horse healthy, monitor him for signs of illness before you leave home for the show, during the event, and after the show.

Get acquainted with your horse’s normal behavior (if you aren’t already) and baseline health indicators.

Such as: 

-respiration rate
-water consumption
-attitude in the stall
-manure production

When a normally perky, friendly horse is standing with his head in the corner, hasn’t pooped for a day and is reluctant to move, you can bet something is up, even if he “looks fine”. 

Be on the lookout for more obvious signs of illness too, like cough and runny nose. 

Heat Stress

If you’re feeling hot in a show coat on a summer day, chances are your horse is feeling hot, too. Add physical exertion in the show ring, stress, and reduced water intake if he’s drinking strange water, and your horse is primed for heat stress. 

Horses that are overweight, in poor condition or not used to strenuous activity are most at risk.

In warm weather, monitor your horse constantly for signs of heat stress, and react accordingly. 

Signs of Heat Stress in Horses 

  • Panting or elevated breathing, over 20 breaths per minute
  • Racing heart rate, over 50 beats per minute 
  • High rectal temperature, over 100°F
  • Dry, hot skin
  • Excessive sweating
  • No sweating, which could be a sign of Anhidrosis, a serious medical condition 
What To Do

If you suspect heat stress, get your horse into the shade as soon as possible and seek veterinary assistance immediately. 

Take off all his tack (except bridle or halter), and offer him cool water – both plain and with electrolytes, if possible.

The best thing you can do is hose or sponge him down with cool water. Focus the water on areas where major blood vessels are closest to the skin, like the head, throat, neck, and legs.

Use a sweat scraper to regularly remove water as you hose or sponge him down. The water closest to his skin will be warmed by his body heat, and warm water won’t help him cool down.

vet examines a sick horse at a show

Continue to monitor his vital signs (breathing, heart rate and temperature) until the vet arrives. If you have a barn fan available, angle it towards the heat stressed horse for a cool breeze.  

After a heat stress episode, your horse may need several days of rest to recover fully.

No Sharing!

Communal watering troughs, hoses and other shared items are the perfect way to carry diseases from one animal to the next. 

Bring your own buckets, brushes, tack, lead ropes, shavings forks, sponges – everything, and clearly label your stuff. 

When using communal hoses, never submerge the hose head in your horse’s water, and do not let your horse drink from a bucket which is not yours. 

If you’re stabling your horse away from home for the show, strip and disinfect the new stall, even if it means the horses have to spend an extra few minutes in the trailer. Focus on areas like stall doors, grates, and areas around food and water buckets where your horse may lick or chew. Spray the floor of the stall as well, as stall floors can harbour parasites from an infected horse’s manure. 

A mixture of 1 cup bleach to 2 quarts water in a sprayer (a garden hand sprayer works very well) makes a safe, inexpensive disinfectant solution. 

showhorses touching noses

Mind Your Spaces

It’s tempting to let your horse “kiss” strange horses at a show, but it’s also a dangerous idea. Other horses may not be as friendly as they seem, and worse, they could be harboring diseases or viruses that are passed easily through mucous membrane contact. 

Avoid letting your horse touch noses with strange horses, and be especially diligent in high traffic areas like gates, holding rings or wash bays. 

If possible, have your horse stabled around other horses that you know the health status of, like horses from your barn or trainer, and avoid stabling beside strange horses. 

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration doesn’t just lead to poor performance, it can have serious implications for your horse’s overall health. He’ll be at increased risk for colic, heat stroke and other problems. 

Make sure that he always has fresh, clean water available that he’ll actually drink. 

The one caveat to this is after extreme exertion, like cross country or a big jumper round. Unlimited water after extreme exertion can cause colic, so offer a few sips of water every few minutes while your horse cools down. 

shiny show jumper at a show

Bring Your Own

You’re already packing your own tack and equipment—make sure to also bring your regular hay, grain, and water from home. If your horse takes supplements, pre-pack these in labeled plastic bags to keep them fresh and make transportation easier. 

Water can be a bit of a challenge to pack, but it’s crucial that your horse stays well hydrated, and many horses will refuse to drink strange water. 

Bring jugs of water from your barn, and consider getting your horse used to the taste of additives like apple juice, powdered drink mix, or electrolytes at home. Adding this to unpalatable showground water may be enough to convince him to drink up. 

Keep it Boring

Horses are creatures of habit, and any deviation from their regular routine can be upsetting (just try feeding an hour late…). 

Keeping your horse’s routine on the show ground as similar to his routine at home can go a long way towards minimizing his stress, which will ultimately help keep him healthy. 

If your horse is accustomed to turnout, taking him for a walk or a bit of hand grazing (ideally in a place not a lot of strange horses have been grazing) can do a lot for his mental health. And yours, too!

Do your best to keep feeding times the same, as well as making sure he can have his regular hay, type of bedding, grain and water. Just like at home, make sure he’s well warmed up before performing, and make sure to cool him out just as well as you would at home, too. 

hunter/jumper show horse in ring

Don’t Forget About Yourself

With all the excitement of show day, it can be easy to forget that YOU need to be kept fed, hydrated and relaxed, too.  

Pack more healthy snacks than you think you’ll need, lunch, and lots of water. Make sure you eat a good breakfast, and avoid caffeine if you have a tendency to get jittery. Instead, sleep well the night before, and keep any regular routines you have, like a morning run or yoga session, if you can. Keeping your own self care routine on point will help you to better weather the stresses of showing. 

Remember too that as humans, we can be a vector for disease just as much as a communal water trough can. Avoid touching strange horses and then touching your horse without washing your hands or using hand sanitizer first.

Ready, Set… Show!

If you plan on showing this year, don't forget the basics of horse show health: vaccinate your horse, bring your own food, water, and supplies, and always be mindful of other animals. And when it comes to showing – always have fun! 

Has your horse ever been sick or injured at a show? How did you handle it? Share your stories with other Equinavia readers below!

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