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Poor Performance in The Sport Horse

By: Dr. Melissa Mazan

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Within the animal kingdom, horses are considered to be elite athletes because of their unique physiology. Since they perform at such a phenomenally high level, even the smallest change in their health can knock down their performance. These minute, often subtle effects on their health that effect performance are really challenging to detect, sometimes requiring special diagnostic tests. It is important to investigate a decline in performance right away, since it will only get worse with further athletic activities.

Common causes of poor performance are usually categorized by the body system they effect:

  • The musculoskeletal system (bones, joints, and muscle)
  • The respiratory system (nose, upper airways, trachea, lungs)
  • The cardiovascular system (heart, blood vessels, blood)
  • The nervous system (brain, spinal cord, nerves)
  • The gastrointestinal system (stomach, intestines)

    Clear visible symptoms that can be pinpointed to a specific body system are frequently not evident during the early stages of diseases that effect performance. Diagnosis during the early stages rests on taking a careful and precise history, detailed physical examination, and a "high-tech" evaluation of suspicious body systems.

    What to Watch For

    The symptoms that clue you into poor performance depend on the horse's discipline. For example:

  • Dressage horses may have trouble coming onto the bit, or may refuse to perform a maneuver that they have had no trouble with in the past.

  • Racehorses may suddenly quit during the race, slow down at the 3/4 pole, or have a general loss of form.

  • Jumpers may start to refuse, or may take down, rails.

  • Event horses may show poor recovery – such as prolonged high heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature – from the more strenuous phases of the event, or may have trouble making times.

  • Pleasure horses may stumble or show signs of irritation (tail swishing, head bobbing).

  • Endurance horses, like event horses, may show poor recovery or inability to finish the ride.

  • Overt signs of disease, such as lameness or difficulty in breathing may arise in any type of horse.

  • Other signs may develop, such as going off feed, decreased manure production, 'crabby attitudes', or general loss of bloom.


    Veterinary care should include diagnostic tests so that the specific cause(s) of poor performance can be identified and treated successfully. Because there are so many possible causes of poor performance, it is important to be logical and methodical in choosing the following examinations or diagnostic tests.

    A complete physical examination and history is crucial. This may include watching the horse performing his accustomed sport, so that the veterinarian can appreciate what the owner has noted. Other tests may include:

  • Musculoskeletal / lameness examination
  • Respiratory examination
  • Cardiovascular examination
  • Neurological examination
  • Gastrointestinal and dental examinations
  • Routine blood tests (complete blood count and serum chemistry panel)

    The results of these tests will determine which of many other, more extensive diagnostic tests should be done.


    Treatment of poor performance is completely dependent upon the underlying cause. Much time and money can often be saved by pursuing the cause of poor performance aggressively and early. The problems generally worsen, so watching and waiting is not a good policy. Early detection is important.

    Trial or empirical treatments given without diagnostic support, often fail and costs more money in the long run.

    Home Care

    Home care is dependent upon the cause of poor performance.

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