On any given morning, Richard Wheeler, DVM, can be found making the rounds, checking up on his four-legged patients at Palm Beach Equine Clinic and around Wellington.
Dr. Wheeler, whose veterinary interests are in Sport Horse Medicine and Performance Lameness Evaluations, finds himself especially busy in the winter season. When he’s not treating a pressing medical issue, he’s performing a pre-purchase exam, consulting with his fellow veterinarians, or, especially in the lead-up to the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival, conducting extensive performance examinations.
“Generally, what we try to do during this time of year, is go through all the horses that come in from all over the world, both in terms of both general health and wellness and through to the lameness or performance issues,” Wheeler said. “There are a lot of performance evaluations and examinations to try to get them so that they’re going to peak in performance level when they’re ready to go during season.”
At PBEC, Wheeler has access to some of the best resources in the country—both human knowledge and technological advances. The clinic boasts more than 60 support staff and 30 veterinarians, including three Board Certified surgeons, a Board Certified internist, a Board Certified ophthalmologist, and a Board Certified radiologist. On the equipment side, an ongoing expansion will include, among other features: a real-time CT scanner, climate-controlled isolation stalls, and the ability to conduct standing condylar fracture repair surgeries in a surgical pit. All this in addition to the clinic’s already operating Nuclear Scintigraphy scan lab, standing MRI and Ultrasonography, and Digital Radiology services.
“We have the best clients in the world, and we work on some of the best horses in the world, and that permits us to do cutting-edge procedures,” said PBEC President Scott Swerdlin, DVM. “We’re looking at new and better ways to put horses back to work sooner, faster, and with less complications. It’s built from the ground up with a lot of foundation and a lot of thought.”
While many of the veterinarians travel with their patients in the summer, in the winter, the group reconvenes at home base in Wellington, and throughout the season, there’s rarely a day when at least one of their 24 hospital stalls aren’t occupied. The practice’s aim is to see their horses succeed and perform at their best throughout circuit, which now spans far beyond the borders of the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center to other grounds in Wellington, Ocala, and even Thermal for lucrative show jumping purses.
“We [treat] everything from grand prix sport horses, Kentucky Derby winners, prized barrel horses, to family pets, and more,” said Swerdlin. “We may do 30,000 radiographs in a season, but we only do one at a time, and each horse gets our undivided attention.
“When the horses are successful, it’s really fulfilling,” he added. “It’s the greatest thing in the world.”
What goes into producing the results? Wheeler sat down with NF Style to shed some light on how to best prepare a horse for the winter season.
Take care of the basics first.
“The very basics are making sure their teeth are done and that they’ve been vaccinated and dewormed,” Wheeler explained. “Sometimes we get caught up in all the fancy stuff and forget about the basics, so those are very important things.”
Have a general evaluation conducted by your veterinarian.
“This time of year, a lot of our time is spent going over horses,” Wheeler said. “We each take care of a group of horses that we get to know very well, so we’ll have notes and memories of how the horse was the last time we saw it, and a lot of us will travel the whole summer with the horse, so we’ll have seen it wherever it’s been in the world. It’s really a time to work up some problems that maybe we’ve been managing and try to get them fixed and prepared for the winter.
“We do a physical exam—looking at the teeth, looking at the eyes, palpating the neck, looking at motion, talking with the farriers—all those little relationships,” he added. “Often, riders have other trainers and people that they’re working with, and everybody sort of puts the little pieces of the puzzle together. You get to know their legs, and what’s normal for one might not be normal for another. A lot of it is that hands-on feeling.
“It depends on the animals. A lot of times we’ll use the ultrasound machine just to go over and look at things if something has come up and has changed a little bit. We’ll look at how the horse moves, typically on a lead line with flexion tests—hard circles and soft circles. It’s quite a time-consuming endeavor, and we’ll break it up a little bit. We’ll look at them on a lead line one day and under saddle the next day. It’s a puzzle, really, and you’re looking for little bits of information [to put together].”
Listen to what your horse is telling you both in and out of the saddle.
“The first thing is talking to the rider and the trainer, and you get a lot of feedback from them,” Wheeler said. “A lot of these riders are very experienced and have great feel, so we spend a good amount of time trying to look for key things that maybe they’re feeling that might fit with what we’re going to see.
“They say horses can’t talk to you, but there’s so many things that they give you leads on—if they’re jumping one way, or the rider feels them very strong on one rein,” he added. “There might be things that aren’t normal with the horse, and even the normal things maybe you can make better.”
Utilize the tools available to you if necessary, depending on the scope of the operation or the level of concern about the horse’s present condition.
“I think, what we specifically do [at PBEC], is offer a very broad range of services,” Wheeler said. “We have veterinarians that specialize in performance and sports medicine, we have veterinarians that specialize in acupuncture and alternative therapies, we have surgeons, we have Board Certified internal medicine veterinarians. What I really like about being a part of this team is that, when I have a horse that doesn’t seem right and, from an internal medicine point of view, the horse doesn’t look like he’s shipped in looking as good as we left him at the end of last season, we might look at things like gastroscopy, blood work, and internal medicine treatments. With other horses, we might have axial skeletal problems—necks, backs, and things like that. The nuclear scintigraphy is really useful in looking at those things. And with more definitive injuries, we have MRI and the more specific advanced diagnostic [tools] to look for problems.
“We have some clients that do pre-season bone scans just as a matter of course,” Wheeler continued. “Some people do blood tests. No barn is really the same. There’s a menu of services that people offer, but really, for me, the most important thing is the more traditional talking and feeling the legs. I think you get a load of information from that.”
Monitor your horse’s fitness, and make sure they are also properly rested before winter season begins.
“It’s a lot easier to keep horses good and going than it is to try to fix them when they have problems,” Wheeler detailed. “Going into a season like this, you don’t want a horse that’s really sort of skinny and super fit. You want him in good, general condition but with some meat to get him through the circuit. On the other hand, you don’t want them jumping when they’re not fit and ready. It’s sort of a [cycle] of build up to performance and let down for rest periods.
“Horses have got to be fit,” he added. “The best way to prevent injuries is to have fit, strong, healthy horses. If you have areas, for example, where a horse is losing topline and things like that, it’s often a sign that something else is wrong. If they’re in pain, they’re not going to develop muscle well in that area.”
What is the most important element that leads to success? Relationships. Wheeler strongly encourages riders to keep their trainer, veterinarian, and farrier in constant communication.
“Make sure everyone is working together,” he said. “If everyone is on the same page and communicating and sharing information with each other, then your team is better, and the better teams you work with are the most successful.”
Photos by Shannon Brinkman.
Written by Catie Staszak
Catie Staszak can typically be found doing one of three things: talking about horses, writing about horses, or riding horses. A broadcast analyst and journalist at FEI competitions, she spends her time traveling to shows and getting behind the microphone to break down courses and get people excited about equestrian sport. Normally spotted with her dog Omaha nearby, she's grateful to be able to combine her greatest passions into a career she loves.