"There’s a Key to Happiness for Every Horse": Finding the Management Your Horse Needs 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. Read part 1 here. 

NF.com: Do you think in general, riders do enough recovery care for our horses?

PM: I used to say you can almost never do too much for your horse, but then I’ve seen people in competition venues never giving their horse a chance to rest because they’re always doing stuff. So, I’ve tempered that to say, you can never stop trying to find the right and the best solution to your horse’s management. 

I think you should always be on a quest to understand what works for your horse, but more is not necessarily better. So it’s important to do those things that you can evaluate. Usually, that’s either the rider, groom, or trainer, most of the time the veterinarian is not involved in the day-to-day analyses and decision-making, but an engaged rider who is engaged with their horse’s care after they get off the saddle is definitely the best perspective to have. The care of the horse shouldn’t end when you get out of the saddle. 

I did a pre-purchase exam the other day. The horse was wild and the gal said, “Oh I haven’t ridden him for five days.” These kinds of neglectful things probably lead to as many issues as anything. Make sure your horse has consistency in his training. 

"I think you should always be on a quest to understand what works for your horse, but more is not necessarily better."

What horses need is consistency, patience, and an openness to re-evaluation. If you can accomplish those three things, then the details of whether you’re using a magnetic blanket or a therapeutic ultrasound have less importance. Because you are already looking for those things with your constant reassessment as to what’s bothering him, you’re already seeking advice, you’re already asking the vet, and you’re already doing things and re-evaluating whether that’s helpful. 

I’ve had people say, “I’ve used this magnetic blanket and it didn’t seem to do anything.” Well, then stop doing it. Or they stood them on the shaker vibrating floor and they said, “It really seems like he warms up faster when I do that” or “I put him on the walker beforehand instead of afterwards.” If you can ascertain there’s a benefit, I would stay with that. 

There’s a key to happiness for every horse and it usually lies somewhere in the realm of management. Try to find those little management things; those may be things before your ride or after your ride, and frequently, they’re both. It’s the way the horse gets taken care of in the morning before the saddle goes on, it’s the way he gets managed in the afternoon when the saddle’s been taken off, it’s the way he gets managed on the days when he’s not being ridden. 

NF.com: A lot of us, when thinking about lameness, think about the legs. But the horse’s topline and overall muscle tone affects their performance, too. Why is it important for horses to be equally strong on both sides? 

PM: It’s an interesting thing about equestrian activities that we want to do two gallop sets to the left, two gallop sets to the right, and we expect equality and perfect symmetry. Dressage is all about that, right? Everything is done in both directions for this beautiful symmetry. 

If you take somebody who’s doing archery, they don’t need to shoot archery with one hand and then turn around and shoot archery with their right hand. Same with a golfer. So there are a lot of sports where asymmetry is perfectly fine. But in the horse world, we expect symmetry. And so, we have to condition for symmetry. 

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And there’s also a growing body of evidence to support the fact that what we see very often that tendonitis, sore feet, ringbone, arthritic issues in the lower joints, et cetera, have really been accentuated or accelerated by muscle weakness. One of the jobs of the muscles is shock absorption, so developing muscles and developing them in as much symmetry as we can is a very important and sought-after goal.

Asymmetries in the rider do translate to the horse, too. I was chatting with a bodyworker and his assessment is that 90 percent of riders he worked on have a right-hip bias, so clearly that’s going to affect the horse. Rider symmetry has to go along with horse symmetry. You see a lot of riders at the upper levels that are always going to the gym and maintaining their own strength and their own balance and being very cognizant of being too heavy in one rein or the other or too weak with one leg or the other. 

NF.com: How can we try to identify whether a horse’s asymmetries are just how the horse moves naturally, or a sign of lameness?  

PM: It’s very common for people in my world to say, “You know, he’s just always a little bit stiff." It’s very common when I see a pre-purchase exam, “Yeah the horse goes a little freer one way than the other." The question is, is that lameness or is that just the horse? 

The most common way that horse people have dealt with any observed deficiency in horses is to place them in a role where that is not a hindrance. So, not every horse really truly has the ability to jump 1.50. But a lot of them can jump 1.0m. Most of them can jump a meter, whether they’re left-sided, right-sided, short-footed, whatever. They can almost all jump a meter satisfactorily. 

This is the most common way that people have dealt with it for decades and decades. We find a role for the horse with whatever gait deficiencies or his natural temperament or abilities -- and they’re all tied together, realistically. Finding a position for a horse where he’s not taxed a hundred percent everyday also allows for enjoyable rides that are not difficult for the horse and going to create problems. 

"What horses need is consistency, patience, and an openness to re-evaluation. If you can accomplish those three things, then the details of whether you’re using a magnetic blanket or a therapeutic ultrasound have less importance."

But it’s not easily defined where that line is drawn between the horse’s natural tendencies and a sub-clinical, orthopedic issue that is defining that asymmetry. It’s a very difficult thing to determine. We do bone scans, ultrasounds, radiographs, joint blocks, we look at under saddle evaluations, we do different exercises, we have chiropractors look at them. We have a veterinary chiropractor in our practice, too.

It’s not always easy to determine that that is simply the way the horse goes, and you are wasting your time trying to change that from a medical point of view. In other words, if you look at a horse going a little stiff, are you really going to change that by injecting his neck or injecting his back? That’s not an easy question to answer, and it takes us back to the third thing that I was talking about earlier. It’s the openness to assessing things. If you decide you’re going to change something about his training and see if that helps or you’re going to try some medical treatment and see if that helps, that’s often the only way you get to answer that question. But does that ultimately create problems for a horse when it’s asked to do a lifestyle of competition where symmetry is part of the issue? Yes, probably so, if he can’t do things as well going to the left. Sooner or later that’s going to catch up to him, especially if he’s being used at a level that’s challenging for him. If he doesn’t have to, then he can get through that deficiency pretty well. 

NF.com: What else should NF readers know? 

PM: As we look at the evolution of what our understanding is about horses, and our understanding about horse and rider, the emphasis is becoming more fine-tuned because we’ve reached, in certain aspects of medicine, this sort of apex of understanding what these injuries are all about. I have worked in an era before you had ultrasound, before you had MRI, when you had to palpate everything and make a determination. I lived in an era where every horse had his feet and hocks done and nothing else injected. I was in an era before they ever understood gastric ulcers. We’ve made tremendous advances, medically, in understanding a lot of the common ailments. Where do we go from here?

I think I would try to impress upon your readers that they gain from more engagement. The medical evidence is starting to mount to prove that horse and rider harmony improves not only the satisfaction for both rider and horse, but also the longevity for both. 

Feature photo by Dani Maczynski

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