Footing, Flatwork, and Over-Jumping: A Must-Read Soundness Q&A with Dr. Paul McClellan

Footing, Flatwork, and Over-Jumping: A Must-Read Soundness Q&A with Dr. Paul McClellan

Dr. Paul McClellan, DVM of San Dieguito Equine Group has dedicated his career to performance horse medicine. In his Equestrian Masterclass, Dr. Paul outlines his buyer’s guide to the pre-purchase exam. In this 2-part Q&A, he shares his insights developing the program that keeps your horse happy and healthy. Dr. Paul covers how to approach jumping, footing, and aftercare in order to promote your horse’s soundness. How often do you think a horse should jump to prevent lameness? 

Dr. Paul McClellan: I don’t make recommendations on how much a horse should jump because it is highly individualized. However, I think if you’re jumping three times a week, that’s probably too much. I think you should spend more of your time conditioning the horse on the ground. But it depends on, again, how many jumps and how accurate the jumping is. Some people need a lot of practice learning how to find distances and how to maintain the pace of a horse.

The only time I make recommendations on training is in that period of time when horses are in rehabilitation; then it becomes a little bit more under my purview. But people don’t come to me asking how often they should jump their horse. I feel that should be a discussion with their trainer, because it may not be the jumping only. Again, the assumption is that the jumping is what’s creating the lameness. But is it the jumping or is it the bad jumping? Is it continually missing distances? Is it the failure to warm the horse up properly? I haven’t researched this exhaustively, but I don’t know of any studies that correlate in any sort of quantitative term the amount of jumping as it relates to increased lameness issues. So it’s a presumption, right?

NF: You mentioned repeatedly missing distances. Could you speak to how a less-than-ideal distance can affect the horse’s body?

PM: I can speak to it qualitatively. I was just officiating at an eventing show last weekend, and I would say 75% of the people in the lower levels missed the distance to multiple jumps. It’s really nice to watch someone do the distance the way the course designed it, with the right pace and the right momentum and a beautiful distance, it works great. 

So what does it do to a horse when he has to jump long? Is that more stress on his lower back and gluteal muscles? I would say in my experience, yes. 

And I would say the same thing about not having enough momentum to carry you over the jump so that you land hard is jolting to the body and to all of the joints. Is chipping to the jump hard on the neck? Is it hard on the front feet when the horse has to all the sudden take a short step and then launch itself over? 

All of these imbalances lead to excessive wear. This is a prevailing opinion because there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that most lameness issues are not single-incident issues. It’s not usually that the horse stepped in a hole or slipped on the footing. Most of it is repetitive insult to the joints, tendons, suspensories, feet, and back where the horse hasn’t had enough recovery time, or the issue is not addressed through better riding and training⸺including improving the accuracy of distances.  

Listen: 3 of Your Biggest Flatwork Issues with Silva Martin

NF: Can the repetition of riding around in circles without a plan while warming up or schooling on the flat negatively impact your horse?

PM: I think you can extrapolate from many other sports. It’s essential for good performance to have a plan and to stick by the plan. Riding around without a plan doesn’t develop the horse’s balance and muscles, stamina, training, or reaction time. All of those things are improved by having a training plan. 

I think it’s important to recognize that the satisfaction that comes through the relationship and the activity with the horse will be maintained at a much more gratifying level if they approach it with some sort of plan, training, and benchmarks.  

NF: What should we look for in good, safe footing?

PM: What’s important is the general feeling that bouncier footing in a sense is easier on both the joints and the soft tissues. But too deep a footing, in my experience, creates excessive strain on soft tissues. And too firm a footing can certainly make the joints and the bones achey. There’s a very strong consensus that that basic information is understood by most people.

NF: How should we approach riding on different surfaces and different types of footing? 

PM: The thing that I always go back to with footing is: if you take a horse that has a big flat foot, and then you have a horse with a very narrow upright foot that’s nicely cupped, those two horses and the way they move are going to react to the footing differently. And one may prefer or benefit from one kind of footing more than another. And trying to make that determination is up to the rider’s interpretation. 

If the horse is a competition horse, then it should remain in competition footing. There’s enough variability from going from one competition footing in one state to another competition footing in another state and the time of year, but at least there’s a minimum consideration for dragging it, watering it, keeping it level, keeping rocks out of it and these kinds of things. Why on earth would you want to settle for anything less? There are few horses and trainers that are sharp enough to be able to make their horses completely versatile and sound at the same time. 

Trail rides are more for getting the horse out of the ring. That’s more a mental change for the horse than it is building their ability to tune their fine sensors and improve their legs. Their legs take enough beating without submitting them to so much variation and training in their footing.

NF: What about when it comes to riding on grass? 

PM: Most of the time because grass can be more slippery, especially if it’s wet, people are going to use caulks in their feet. And one of the things that I find about grass and caulks, or caulks in general even if you’re not on grass, if you have a horse with weak heels, you’ve got to be very careful about that because those horses are likely to show obvious heel pain if you’re using those caulks too long.

NF: Why is recovery from high performance important?

PM: We know two things: we know that blood flow is the carrier of the nutrients and is also the garbage man that takes away the waste products of metabolism. So if you warm the horse up properly, you’re going to get the blood flow to get the oxygen so that things function well. If you do those things after the fact, after the exercise, then you have the same issue of generating circulation in order to keep those joints from getting stiff. Everybody recognizes that, football players realize that, marathon runner... so you can extrapolate and triangulate to all other aspects of athletic activity that blood flow, motion, reducing inflammation are keys to the longevity of these physical structures: tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, et cetera. There’s a lot of good, sound medical basis behind doing those things before and after the exercise to support the integrity of the body.

In part 2, Dr. Paul will dive further into recovery methods and conditioning horses symmetrically for injury prevention. 

Feature photo by Dani Maczynski