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  • Writer's pictureDr. Keaton Massie

Soundness Checks for Performance Horses and Trail Horses Before Competition & Trail Riding Season

Competition and trail riding season is upon us, and you’re probably excited to get into the show pen or head to the mountains. As you gear up for the upcoming events and adventures, it’s time to focus on getting your horses in peak condition. You might believe your horse is sound as long as they're moving smoothly and showing no obvious health issues, but that’s not always true. Soundness is more than just movement; it is the optimal state of health and function of your horse’s body and mind.  Sometimes, the only way to tell that something is wrong is through comprehensive soundness checks.


by Dr. Keaton Massie, DVM

Massie Equine Veterinary Clinic & Healing Center



A pre-season soundness check can help you identify and address any potential issues before they worsen. Many horse owners pay attention to feeding, grooming, and training their horses for competition season, and rightly so. But, overlooking their internal health can be detrimental.

Before heading to any major competition or out on the trails, schedule an appointment with us to check the whole horse. It’s like inspecting your car before a long trip. It’s a preventive measure that will save you a lot of trouble down the road. If you’ve been wondering just what spring conditioning entails, you’ll be glad to read this article.


Why Pre-season Soundness Checks? 


A soundness check involves a thorough evaluation of your horse's conformation, musculoskeletal system, joints, hooves, and gait. “Little” issues like weak joints, sore muscles, and other internal vulnerabilities are often the causes of severe injuries during intense training or competition. Soundness checks help you detect these weaknesses early. It also helps you track your horse’s response to any treatments or therapies you have implemented.


In order to provide a comprehensive and thorough analysis we offer a soundness exam and gait analysis. This may be different than lameness exams or joint injection appointments you may have experienced from other clinics in the following ways:



During our investigation our team (veterinarian, equine physiotherapist and farrier) will evaluate:

• every limb and hoof (please see video above for the detailed hoof analysis)

• photograph postural imbalances

• palpate and record findings for muscle groups and joints

• film your horse's movement and pinpoint issues in hoof break over, muscular tension, and overall ease of movement

• utilize our Equinosis software to read and identify subtle deviations in gait


Andria palpating and relieving muscular tension on a 4 year old reining stallion

This exam takes anywhere from 1-3 hours depending on complexity. We ask that you reserve enough time in your schedule for this evaluation if you would like to be present. You may also drop off your horse here at the clinic and we will conduct the evaluation in your absence. Please make sure that your horse is within 2 weeks of trimming/shoeing before we conduct our analysis. Please make sure that ALL prior medical records are sent to our clinic before your soundness exam and gait analysis appointment.


It is very possible that during the initial evaluation we may not have an immediate diagnosis and will need additional diagnostics and possibly an additional appointment. 


At an additional cost, and reviewed with you first, we may also request additional diagnostics. These may include:

• Nerve blocks

• Ultrasound

• X-Ray

• Farrier consultation

• Board certified radiology review

• a ridden evaluation with horse/rider biomechanics evaluation


Dr. Massie assessing range of motion in flexion for an older trail horse

We will take all of our data from the initial evaluation and assess further after your appointment. Our team devotes several hours to review and scale our findings for a detailed report and thorough plan of care. If your horse is experiencing pain that needs managed immediately we will recommend and prescribe medications to alleviate discomfort.


If imaging is conducted during the evaluation, we may need more time to review and may send off to a board certified radiologist for an additional opinion.


After your appointment we will invite you to a post evaluation discussion, either in person or over the phone, where we will review findings and our plan forward. The evaluation medical record, video analysis, gait analysis and plan will also be emailed to you as part of the soundness exam and gait analysis fee.


In the plan will be a 2 week, 4 week and 6 week recovery plan. 


Dr. Massie palpating the hock on flexion while keeping eye contact with a sensitive mare

One other underrated benefit of soundness exams is that our team develops a baseline for your horse’s normal condition. Thus, it’s easier to detect subtle changes in the future and address them promptly. 


Finally, a soundness check gives you peace of mind. It allows you to approach training and competition with confidence, knowing your horse can well handle the physical demands of competition.


What Soundness Checks Should Your Horse Undergo?


I’ve always advocated for taking a holistic approach to examining horses - i.e., considering the Whole Horse. I ensure the following general steps are included in my soundness exams:


Health Checks

A health soundness check involves checking the horse's overall health and well-being. This includes vital signs such as temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. I also assess the horse's hydration status, skin condition, coat quality, all bodily systems, dental health

and overall demeanor. 


Conformation Soundness

The conformation assessment evaluates your horse's overall body structure to determine how built they are for the competition season. I examine a horse's body proportions, angles, limb alignment, and symmetry to identify any conformation faults that could predispose them to hoof defects, soft tissue injuries, or joint disease.


For example, horses with a roach back, straight shoulder, or steep croup may be more prone to back problems, shoulder strain, or hind-end lameness. Other common conformation abnormalities are “Back at the knee," straight hocks, and upright pasterns.


Musculoskeletal Palpation (Static & Dynamic)

Next, Andria and I palpate the joints, tendons, ligaments, and back muscles with my hands. This is done when the horse is stationary (static palpitation) or in motion (dynamic palpitation). We are checking for areas of slight swelling, increased temperature, soreness, stiffness, or asymmetry in movement. The goal is to ensure the range of motion on all their limbs is normal.


Static palpation of a young cutting horse mare on extension of the left front leg

Dynamic Motion Examination

I observe your horse’s movement at different gaits and on different surfaces to examine their stride length, rhythm, symmetry, and balance. Watching the horse work in circles or under the saddle often reveals less obvious gait abnormalities. I also use an objective gait analysis tool, such as the Lameness Locator, to measure and quantify any subtle asymmetries in your horse’s motion that could signal underlying musculoskeletal concerns.


Flexions

Flexion tests, hoof testers, and nerve blocks help to isolate and identify the source of any lameness or discomfort in the horse. During a flexion test, I carefully flex the horse's limb for a brief period, then release it and observe the horse as it trots away.  Flexion tests are commonly performed on the fetlocks, hocks, and stifles. Any significant change in the horse's gait after a flexion test could suggest underlying joint problems, like arthritis, or soft tissue injuries.


Performing ultrasound on the sacroiliac joint of a pleasure horse

Diagnostic imaging 

Based on my clinical findings thus far, I may use radiographs, ultrasounds, or MRIs to get a clearer view of your horse’s internal structures and confirm or rule out any suspected lesions or abnormalities. The decision on which parts of the limb to image depends on various factors.

I choose parts of the horse to radiograph based on the outcomes of the clinical exam, the horse's intended use, breed, age, and resale considerations.


Andria explaining the physiotherapy and rehabilitation needs for this mare post evaluation

What Comes After Equine Soundness Checks?

The primary goal of the soundness check process is to identify the best approach to treating any existing problems and preventing future ones. I develop a personalized care plan that involves medications and targeted physiotherapy to enhance your horse's flexibility and strength. I also employ regenerative therapies like Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP), mesotherapy, acupuncture, and other modalities. You can check out the full suite of our regenerative therapies here. Together, we then develop a comprehensive plan for exercise, nutrition, and hoof care to optimize your horse's health and performance levels.


Conclusion 

A soundness check is an essential part of your horse’s healthcare routine and should be done at least once a year. Adopting this proactive approach is the surest way to guarantee your horses enter the competition season in peak form. Remember, a sound horse is more likely to be a successful horse. Any edge you can take into the show pen is a win!


Here at Massie Equine Veterinary Clinic & Healing Center we offer comprehensive pre-season soundness exams to confirm your horse’s readiness for competition. To schedule an appointment or for further inquiries, please contact me. We look forward to assisting you and your horse.



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