What Is “Serviceably Sound”?

You've likely heard the term, but what does it mean? A veterinarian--who's also an event rider--explains.

“Serviceably sound”: It’s a term commonly applied to horses, yet it can raise a lot of questions. After all, isn’t soundness a black-or-white concept? Either a horse is or he isn’t?

Not necessarily. For many horses, there’s a large gray zone in which workload influences soundness. As veterinarian for two-time Olympic gold-medal event rider Phillip Dutton, and as an eventer myself, I’ve seen lots of horses that had soundness issues at the upper levels remain serviceably sound at the lower ones. In fact, such a horse can prove an ideal schoolmaster for you, should you be new to the sport and desire to be competitive or gain confidence at Novice or Training Level.

In this article, I’ll demystify this “soundness” term for you. I’ll tell you what it means, why it’s used, and how it could affect your buying decision when shopping for a horse. I’ll also help you sort through some health issues that can kick a horse into the “serviceably sound” category, and what you might expect in the way of management and cost to maintain him.

What’s in a Word?
You know what the word “sound” means when applied to horses. Tack on the adverb “serviceably” and you have this definition: The horse is sound for the service intended by the owner or rider. By sound, I mean the horse is comfortable: He’s not going lame from performing his job (barring accident or acute injury).

Wait a second, you say. That seems like the definition for plain old soundness! Yes . . . but serviceability varies from horse to horse, performance level to performance level. Galloping speeds in eventing strongly influence the soundness of many horses. For instance, at Novice level, we’re talking a cross-country galloping pace of 350 meters per minute (mpm). That speed is attainable for a large number of horses. At the Advanced level, the galloping pace shoots to 570 mpm. That’s a fairly impressive increase?more than 60 percent. (If you’ve ever galloped at Advanced speeds, you’ll know what I mean!)

Most soft-tissue, supporting-leg injuries in horses, such as a bowed tendon or suspensory desmitis (inflammation of the suspensory ligament), are brought out at the higher levels’ greater speeds. Speed is what can lead to tissue tearing.

That’s why the eventing world can be visualized as a pyramid. The pyramid’s base is widest at the bottom, representing the introductory levels of the sport, Novice and Training, where the speeds and jumps are lowest and, as a result, attainability is the highest. The pyramid narrows as it rises, as the higher levels bring with them higher speeds and higher jumps. From a purely physical standpoint, far fewer horses can sustain the soundness necessary to compete here than at the lower levels.

The same can be said of the show ring. Many horses that jump in the 3-foot divisions can do so because it doesn’t require the step and scope of the 4-foot divisions. Ditto with dressage: Far more horses can participate at Training Level than at Grand Prix.

That’s where the term “serviceably sound” comes into play. There are a lot of horses that may have had a supporting-leg injury or orthopedic wear and tear in a previous career, such as racing or high-level eventing. When that injury heals to its maximum point, such a horse may not remain serviceable for the upper levels. However, he may be serviceable and consequently very useful for the lower ones: Speeds are slower. Scope at the jumps is less demanding. Courses are shorter, there’s less pounding. The horse may be competing beneath his talent level, but it’s a level at which he can remain comfortable.

Shopping for “Serviceably Sound”
How do you know if a serviceably sound horse is right for you? If you and your trainer think he meets two key criteria he suits you mentally and physically, and he has the athletic ability to perform the job safely, plus he’s currently performing the job you have in mind for him. That’s right: I strongly suggest you select for a horse that’s already eventing at your current level (or above) AND is staying sound doing it.

For instance, say you find a thirteen-year-old, ex Intermediate/Advanced horse that has been going around Training Level courses for two years. The fact that he has been and is currently doing exactly what you’ll be asking him to do is an enormous endorsement to me as a veterinarian. That’s what we call “soundness history,” and it tells you a lot about the horse.

Let’s say someone tells you, “This horse did three two-stars and never had a soundness problem. Once he moved up to Advanced, though, we started having a little trouble maintaining comfort in his hocks, and one fetlock started acting up.” Such a horse could be extremely appropriate and require little health management at lower levels. He’ll be working well under his serviceable-soundness suitability.

The horse you take the greatest risk on is the beautiful-moving, talented, super-athletic four-year-old that’s never evented. Whether that horse can move up the ranks remains to be seen. His body and mind have yet to be tested.

Naturally, you’ll put any horse you choose through a thorough prepurchase exam with an experienced performance-horse veterinarian. This will help uncover any insidious problems that could ultimately tank an athletic career; it also nets you the veterinarian’s opinion on pre-existing conditions that could ultimately affect the horse’s serviceability.

Here’s my input on a sampling of physical issues you might encounter. (For information on others you may run across, consult your veterinarian.)

Soft-Tissue Support Injuries
The two most common soft-tissue support injuries you’ll likely see are:

  • Bowed tendon. A tendon bow occurs when a horse sprains or tears the large, cordlike tendons running down the back of his cannon bone. When the tendons add fibrous tissue in the healing process, they tend to take on a “bow” shape; hence the moniker. In general, horses with a bowed tendon that has healed extremely well (it’s been cleared by a veterinarian) can be serviceable at the lower eventing levels, without risk of a reinjury or chronic problem. That’s because we don’t generally see a lot of these injuries at the low levels; they occur in greater numbers as speed and distance increase. In fact, there are horses with healed bows that have gone on to compete and excel at the upper levels; I can immediately think of six that have won major international events. So to me, it’s reasonably safe to think a bow may not be something to necessarily select against on a horse going from a higher level to a lower one, if everything else about the horse is right.
  • Suspensory desmitis. Like tendons, suspensory ligaments can become strained and torn. Unfortunately, in many cases ligaments don’t heal as well as tendons, so you can have chronic problems with them. This is particularly an issue when the ligament’s insertion point to a bone is diseased. The horse can have flare-ups, depending on speed and footing. Still, some suspensories heal well. So I wouldn’t necessarily steer you away from a horse with such an injury?if he’s been proven to hold up performing the same job you’ll be asking him to do.

Orthopedic Injuries
Wear-and-tear injuries, such as arthritis, are unfortunately endemic in seasoned performance horses (just as they are in seasoned human athletes). Fortunately, we can now do a lot to manage arthritis. We have an enormous armory of products, such as the joint-health-maintenance drugs Legend and Adequan, which are well endorsed by veterinarians, and which you can give under the direction of your veterinarian.

Still more products can be instilled into the affected joint through intra-articular injection by your vet. These all help reduce inflammation and improve quality of joint fluid, which in turn improves your horse’s comfort and his performance quality. Judicious use of anti-inflammatory medications can also be helpful in managing certain types of arthritis under your veterinarian’s direction. (Be sure to check with your competition’s governing body for laws regarding drug use.)

So how do you know a “manageable” arthritis from an “unmanageable” one? Use these guidelines:

  • Listen up. You want to hear these words from your veterinarian during the prepurchase exam: “Minimal arthritic changes commensurate with the horse’s age and competitive experience.” Such changes, especially if the horse is currently performing his job at your desired level, can be reasonably assumed to be manageable.
  • Walk away. What can’t you manage? End-stage (advanced) arthritis, which is most commonly seen in racehorses. Generally such horses can have aggressive treatment for the disease, and their response to it will be either minimal or short-term. If your vet identifies end-stage arthritis, say in an ankle, during a prepurchase exam, that’s not a horse who’ll be serviceably sound even at a lower level. (If a prospect suffers from a form of arthritis that’s less-than-manageable, chances are he’s not out there performing a job. That’s why I suggest you select for a horse that’s already remaining serviceably sound at your chosen level.)
  • Location, location … Different forces affect your ability to manage arthritis in joints, which makes the condition’s location key. Some joints, such as the fetlock, are ball-and-socket configurations. Others are like bricks stacked upon each other which is how lower hock joints are built: Stacked joints slide across each other (in what’s known as a “shearing force”) when a stride is taken, so they exert lower-magnitude forces on the joint surfaces than do ball-and-socket joints. That makes these joints more forgiving to repeated joint injections. In many cases, a hock’s lower joints can be managed with the use of Legend, Adequan, and repeated intra-articular injection of cortisone and/or hyaluronic acid (HA), which soothe inflammation and cushion joint surfaces. Ball-and-socket joints undergo higher magnitude forces along the joint surface, have larger weight-bearing surfaces, and are higher-motion than stacked joints. (Picture the fetlock of an eventer landing after a drop fence and you’ll know what I mean about a high-motion joint!) Such significant forces make ball-and-socket joints more difficult to manage. They’re unable to take certain medications in them as repeatedly as, say, the hock.
  • The “dirty words.” Discussion of arthritis and orthopedic problems in all parts of a horse’s body is beyond the scope of this article. However, I’ll mention two more fairly common conditions that you may run across: ringbone and navicular disease (or navicular bone changes on an X-ray). These are somewhat dirty words to most prospective buyers because the conditions are often seen as progressive and can sometimes prove unmanageable. However, some horses with lower-magnitude forms of these lesions are able to perform comfortably in low-level eventing. In these cases, changes are visible on X-rays but the horse doesn’t display the clinical signs of the condition. My advice? Listen to your veterinarian! Let his or her advice be your guide.

The Maintenance Issue
When you buy a horse with “maintenance issues,” how can you maximize career longevity and what can you expect to pay for the medications and veterinary procedures you may need to keep him serviceably sound? Here are some tips, based on my experience.

  • Joint-health medications: Every vet has his or her own program for managing arthritis with Legend and Adequan. First, a bit about these drugs: Legend is hyaluronic acid (HA), which is the viscous substance that keeps a joint well cushioned. Adequan is PSGAG (polysulfated glycosaminoglycan), a substance we think basically interferes with chemicals in the joint that spark inflammation. Which one should you use? Both work well in combination with each other. Most horse owners administer these drugs (under direction of their vets) as budget allows, or as required by the horse. For instance, I often use them prior to stressful galloping episodes or a big event or horse trial. I’ll administer both products in the couple of days leading up to the event, to ensure enough time for uptake. If your budget doesn’t permit using them together (more about cost in a minute), consult your veterinarian about which would be best for your horse’s specific maintenance issues. Plan to pay between $50 and $100 per vial (dose). Note: There are a number of offshoots of these drugs that are not the exact same products and haven’t had the same quality control and efficacy tests. For my clients’ horses, I restrict my use to the brand names mentioned above. That way I know the quality control and efficacy testing are of the highest level.
  • Joint injections: There is some expense and some risk to injecting joints, so it should be done only in situations where the benefits clearly outweigh any risk. Let your veterinarian be your guide in determining whether your horse needs injections to make him serviceable, and if so, how often. Cost will depend on what goes into the joint. For injecting HA in multiple joints of each hock, plan to spend around $600 for both the procedure and medication.
  • Fitness: Event horses don’t canter around a two-minute hunter course in the show ring. Rather, they’re required to gallop and jump cross-country. So having your horse fit for your level is essential to keeping him serviceably sound. Best of all, fitness is one part of maintenance that costs you nothing but time and saves you in vet bills: Tissues tend to get torn and broken if a horse’s body isn’t adequately conditioned to do his job. If you’re unsure of a proper conditioning program for your horse, consult a reputable trainer or performance-horse veterinarian. (Tip: If you buy a horse that’s evented at a high level or has raced, keeping him fit may be fairly easy. Because such horses were made fit at an early age, physiologically, their hearts and lungs have adapted to long periods of galloping, so they have good adaptation already.)
  • Shoeing: Healthy, well-balanced feet can help your horse avoid injury. Have a reputable farrier attend to your horse at appropriate intervals, based on his hoof growth, to maintain proper balance.

All in all, even if some of these maintenance tools hurt a bit when you write the check, they’ll pay off in helping your horse remain comfortable in his job. As I like to tell my clients, good management to maintain serviceable soundness is a whole lot cheaper than having to buy a new horse.

Kevin Keane, DVM, knows a thing or two about serviceable soundness in eventers. A 1979 graduate of the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine, since 1982 he’s been a principal doctor at Delaware Equine Center in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, with an interest in sports medicine. He serves as veterinarian to two-time Olympic gold-medal event rider Phillip Dutton at Phillip’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, as well as for the Australian national equestrian team at international competitions. An avid eventer, Dr. Keane has competed at all levels up to Advanced.

This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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