Reining horses hardly stand a chance

“A lot of reining horses eliminate themselves early on, even if they have the ability and the try, because they can’t hold up.“ – Timothy Bartlett, DVM, of Vincennes, Ind., has been actively involved in the sport as a president of NRHA and an NRHA judge.

An interesting view that it is the horses problem Dr Bartlett, not the trainers or the futurity system.

Half a century ago, when Robert M Miller, DVM was cowboying, he says “colts were started at four years of age or older

. Once in a while, one might be started as a three-year-old. Despite some very hard work, barring accidents, those ranch horses were still sound and working into their 20’s.”

Today, more and more, with big money for futurities, these horses MUST be started as two-year-olds; and some are starting them as young as 18 months, thinking more riding will make them more competitive.

Because of this, many of these horses end up with bowed tendons, navicular disease, bone spavins, bone chips, stifle injuries, blown-out hocks, hairline fractures, arthritis, severe back problems, sprained necks and a myriad of other problems and conditions associated with the strain and stress to young developing bodies. Many horses break down in the first year and those that make their 3yo or 4yo end up with debilitating problems at only four or five years of age and live on anti-inflammatory medications and/or painkillers in their feed or through injections.

The sad fact is that of the tens of thousands of reining horses bred each year, only one hundred or so make it to the Futurity. [see footnote] The others are lost in the system, and many end up slaughtered as they are damaged beyond repair and have no value to this futurity driven industry.

The vets are now recognizing that reining horses have one of the highest incidents of breaking down next to race horses; and sadly the same fate.

Dr. Grant Miller, DVM says “we have established that repetitive trauma on the joint from the athletic performance can cause degenerative changes to the cartilage and bones. Race horses and futurity Quarter Horses that train heavily in the juvenile stage of their lives often show early signs of hock-related pain. Reiners commonly have hock issues.”

It seems this futurity driven industry that starts out knowing the pain they will inflict on these young animals actively deny the veterinarians research and evidence and continue their practices. Is this respect and compassion as promoted on the NRHA website?

The management of the reining horses can further exacerbate their health issues as most futurity horses are weaned at three months of age then placed on a high growth diet. They are kept in stables 22-23 hours per day as they are prepped for sales and/or go into trainer barns. Extended stabling time would be similar to you going into your coat closet and spending most of your time standing there. There are mental issues and physical suffering that comes with this confinement. Their joints stiffen at an early age, and they suffer similar pain and stress that we would suffer standing still for hours on end cooped up in a confined space. A life of standing in a barn and then being worked hard for half or a full hour – is that respectful? There are some trainers that provide pasture time for horses each days, but many don’t. They don’t have the room, the time nor the desire to have horses away from the barn taking longer to catch and increasing the work load.

Raise any issue of abuse or mistreatment with reining horse people, and you will be sprayed with comments attempting to justify they are treated like kings being stabled, rugged, fed, washed. They do not think of the horse’s mental welfare and the pain he/she suffers standing in an unnatural environment 24/7. They walk away to their comfortable homes, while the horse stands still.

The horse skeleton and muscle are structured for continual movement through grazing. They are designed to walk many miles each day.

Living in this abnormal stall environment conflicting with their structural make-up and being worked hard, too early, finds many reining horses live on a cocktail of drugs every day of their life to keep them going. The focus has shifted from producing physically and mentally sound horses to being knowledgeable in drugs to keep them seemingly sound enough to ride. The rule book is now saturated with drug testing commentary but little evidence of testing, and only randomly, at some large events. Like any drug testing, the providers are able to keep ahead of the tests much like you see in professional sports people.

Managing young bodies

Trainers rarely x-ray the horses they are entrusted with, and owners rarely demand x-rays until something has gone wrong. The use of blood tests to identify abnormalities or issues even rarer. If the horse looks in good condition and can be ridden, with or without drugs, all’s good to go, and the focus is set hard on the futurity. It has become a custom that horses are injected in the hocks and receive daily medications; never questioning why or changing their program. Many trainers believe they have knowledge beyond science and can just ‘know it’s ok.’ Often drugs are administered based on observational symptoms without validation of underlying causes. Some trainers inject horses without the owners even knowing as they attempt to keep horses in their barns.

The pressure, stress, and suffering of the horses all in pursuit of winning the big money at the futurity. Imagine if the horses were not allowed to be ridden for just one more year, how many more entries would there be? Imagine how those horses would be if they were kept and worked in a program that was more in line with their skeletal requirements. Imagine if the owners all started to demand x-rays and blood tests and were pro-active in their horse management.

Some may say only the best make it, but with the refined breeding programs and the number that breakdown early, you would have to question the program more than the breeding, wouldn’t you?

Winning no matter what?

Robert M Miller, DVM cites the story “One of my clients was a prosperous, educated couple. They were very congenial, and they owned three Quarter Horses. One day, they called me to come to their home to worm their horses and check them over and booster their vaccinations. When I arrived, I found only two horses, so I asked where the third one was. “Oh, he is in training as a reining horse, with ____________” (a successful and notoriously brutal trainer who also happened to be one of my clients). Then the wife said, “We know how cruel he is to the horses, but he wins!”

Do you believe the NRHA is standing behind their statement “We expect our members to consider the welfare of their horses paramount and to always treat them with dignity, respect and passion”?

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