World-class horses have exceptionally demanding jobs, but are their daily routines and health needs that much different from those of average horses? To find out, we interviewed the support teams of four of the country’s current stars: Olympic jumper Coral Reef Via Volo, hunter champion Brunello, dressage champion Legolas 92, and leading four-star eventer, Ballynoe Castle RM. As you’ll learn from these awe-inspiring and uniquely lovable horses’ stories, no two elite athletes are alike—and yet, their daily lives share many common threads.
The primary balancing act of all four teams is to provide the most natural environment possible to maximize their charges’ health and happiness while also protecting them from the inevitable bumps and bruises that so often happen in the paddock, stall, etc. “We treat our horses like princesses,” says Brunello’s rider, Liza Boyd. “But we also try to imitate nature. The more the horses are out of their stalls and moving around, the better.”
Not everybody agrees on the best way to protect horses from themselves. Whereas three of the teams turn out their horses strictly by themselves with protective boots and bandages, Ballynoe Castle’s rider, Buck Davidson, believes that legwear, itself, can be a potential source of injury. He turns out his horses without boots or bandages. He also turns them out together. During their six-week fall layoff, his horses have their shoes pulled and live outside 24 hours a day in two large herds, separated by sex. (However, Ballynoe Castle, his current top mount, now goes out only with a single companion.)
In the hopes of prolonging their superstars’ careers as long as possible, these four support teams utilize a wide range of nutritional strategies and therapeutic techniques. “An ounce of preventative is worth a thousand pounds of cure,” says Via Volo’s trainer, John Madden. Although these measures include many high-tech and often expensive therapies, the essential principles of their programs are the same ones that all horse people strive for: good quality nutrition, routine hoof care, carefully planned fitness schedules and a willingness to modify by-the-book approaches to meet each horse’s individual needs.
Here’s what happens behind the scenes:
Coral Reef Via Volo
Nickname:Via or Shrimp
Hometown: Cazenovia, New York
Breed: Belgian warmblood
Dam: Run Away
Height: 15.2 hands
Owner: Gwendolyn Meyer, Coral Reef Ranch
Rider: Beezie Madden
Trainer: John Madden (Beezie’s husband and trainer)
Exercise riders: Emily Gailis and Becky Huestis
Groom: Sue Schlegel
Major accomplishments: Team gold and individual silver medal winner at the 2011 Pan American Games, member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and winner of last fall’s $100,000 American Gold Cup Qualifier at Old Salem Farm. Via has helped Beezie become the top-ranked American on the FEI Longines Rankings list for jumping.
Background: A twist of good luck brought Via to the Madden stables in early 2010 when her previous owner, Alison Robitaille, took a maternity break from riding. Alison had imported the fiery little mare from Europe as a youngster (at the time, the sellers told her that they left the barn door open whenever anyone rode her, so she could run back into the barn after she bucked her rider off). She managed to overcome the mare’s precociousness and competed the fast, careful little powerhouse successfully through the grand-prix level.
Now an international veteran, Via is still plenty spirited and likes to do things her own way. John says she’s the type of horse who performs better when she’s confident and relaxed. She needs to get her bucks out on the longe line about once a week. “She rarely bucks when I’m on her now,” says Beezie. “Sometimes she may be a little funny about going into a corner of the arena, but she’s pretty easy most of the time.” Beezie trusts the mare so much now that she gives her niece and nephew (age 2 and 4, respectively) pony rides on her.
On the ground, Via is friendly and easy to work with, says Sue, although she sometimes fools people with her trademark ears-back expression. “We call it her ‘affectionate expression,’” says John, “because she does it even when she’s getting treats.”
The Maddens limit Via’s season to 12 to 15 shows a year—less than many other elite jumpers. They give her periodic breaks from showing, but to avoid losing too much of her fitness base, they no longer give her the big chunks of complete down time that their younger horses enjoy. Even during a three-month break from competition, she’s still trail ridden at least every other day.
Daily routine: Maintaining Via’s fitness is fairly easy, says John. “She’s shaped like a pony but has a ton of blood.” Her team mixes up the routine by riding her in the big, hilly grand-prix field and on trails—and by varying the time of day she’s ridden, so that different ride times at shows never throw her off.
Via also exercises on an automatic walker for 45 to 60 minutes each morning and is turned out for at least three hours a day. “She loves to be out eating grass,” says John. “We schedule the day so she can have as much turnout as possible.” In addition to applying galloping boots and bell boots on her front legs and ankle boots on her hind legs for turnout, Sue sometimes wraps duct tape around the heels of her front shoes to ensure that she doesn’t pull them off accidentally.
Via is not a fan of grooming time. This isn’t uncommon among performance horses, says John, because they are handled so frequently. “She likes attention but doesn’t like to be touched on certain parts of her body,” says Sue. So she tries to keep grooming to a minimum and chooses gentler rubber mitts over stiff brushes.
Nutrition:Because Via is a very easy keeper, the bulk of her diet is timothy hay and grass; her grain portions are relatively small. Purina custom designs the Maddens’ feeding program to incorporate a few basic supplements—glucosamine for joints, vitamin E and selenium for hoof growth—in all of their horses’ grain.
In addition, Via snacks on her straw bedding, which John says provides multiple health benefits. He explains, “Horses are meant to graze 24 hours a day. Having something to nibble on helps to prevent stable vices, trigger more salivation, balance stomach pH and stimulate more water intake. In our area, using straw is also better for the environment, because it’s a common byproduct of local farming and it decomposes quickly. I also think it looks nicer and is more natural and comfortable for horses.”
Other care: “Feet are really important,” says John. To avoid the slightest chance of a shoeing issue interfering with Via’s performances, her farrier never shoes her within a week of a major competition. This means planning her shoeing schedule well in advance and being willing to occasionally adjust the usual five-week period between shoeings to as little as three and a half weeks or as much as six weeks.
Sue doesn’t typically bandage Via’s legs at home. At shows, though, she applies a variety of supportive and preventative therapies. The mare wears Back on Track bandages, which contain a ceramic-infused fabric designed to create warmth and decrease swelling, overnight. Immediately after a strenuous competition, Sue cools down her legs with a Game Ready® system to reduce minor inflammation. She also often packs her feet with MagnaPasteTM, an Epsom salt poultice, to make them more comfortable before and after a hard competition.
Leading up to a show, Via often stands on a pulsing magnetic footpad and wears a magnetic blanket, both made by Respond Systems. Using such high-tech therapies, says John, “is just the tiniest icing on the cake. They seem to relax Via.” He adds that using these tools in preparation for shows may help to prepare her mentally, too, by making the routine more predictable.
As part of Via’s preventative joint maintenance, she receives weekly Adequan® injections. Since the injectable form of Regu-Mate® hormone injections has come on the market, John says, “We’ve started experimenting with some of the mares, including Via.” She recently began receiving the injections to smooth out her cycle, which Beezie says tends to influence her temperament.
Nickname: Ike or The Gentle Giant
Hometown: Camden, South CarolinaBasic stats:
Sire: Accord II
Height: 16.3 hands
Owners: Liza Boyd and Janet Peterson
Exercise riders:Jack Towell (Liza’s father and trainer) and Laura McNair
Major accomplishments:Won the 2010 American Hunter-Jumper Foundation Hunter Classic Spectacular of Palm Beach and 15 hunter derbies, including the 2013 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Championship in Lexington, Kentucky.
Background: Brunello started his career as a jumper in Belgium. Even then, the big-bodied, incredibly scopey gelding cantered around the courses in a classically beautiful, rhythmic hunter style. Jack imported him to the United States in 2007 for a client, Caroline Morrison, who rode him in the amateur hunters while Liza showed him in the high-performance classes. Three years ago, Liza, her parents and a sponsor, Janet Peterson, bought out Caroline so they could focus Brunello primarily on hunter derbies.
Under-saddle, Ike is so quiet that he never needs to be longed, “which is unheard of for a hunter,” says Liza. “He has never, ever bucked. He’s never fresh.” To tune him up for big hunter classes, Liza often enters him in a 1.15- to 1.30-meter jumper class. The lack of ground lines encourages him to be more careful, and the turns, bending lines and combinations are good practice for the handy. “I say it’s for him,” Liza says, “but it sharpens me up, as well.”
Ike is equally quiet and gentle on the ground—with humans. “He’s the kindest horse in the world,” Liza says. Around other horses, though, he is extremely aggressive. “He lunges at them, even walking from his stall to the crossties. It’s an ordeal at shows. We have to put a feed stall between him and other horses.” At the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where Brunello and Liza were invited to perform in a hunter demonstration, he body-slammed the wall separating him from another hunter superstar, Jersey Boy, uprooting the wall supports. “We joked that he was trying to take out the competition,” says Liza. “He hasn’t hurt anyone, but he’s so big and strong. We are really careful.”
Brunello never attacks other horses while being ridden. He focuses completely on performing his best, especially at bigger shows. “He’s better under pressure,” says Liza. “He digs deep when you call on him. So we don’t ask him to win every class or to show as much as a typical hunter. He probably does 10 shows at most in a year.” As he gets older, she says, “the most important thing is keeping him fresh and happy.”
Daily routine:To avoid souring Ike on ring work, his riders frequently exercise him in the field and on trails. Their emphasis is on fitness. “Derbies are different from regular hunter classes,” Liza explains. “You need a very fit horse, especially for the Derby Finals.” Using a treadmill with an adjustable incline improves Ike’s strength and fitness and helps to break up his routine. Some horses get nervous on the treadmill, Liza says, “but he seems to enjoy it. He gets right on and marches along.”
Rotating riders helps to keep Ike fresh, too. “I tend to train on him too much,” says Liza. “Laura’s more fun. She works on fitness, galloping around the fields. We save my dad’s rides for when we really need them. He makes him sit down on his hind end and get really obedient off the leg. When he rides him the morning of a show, Ike knows, ‘This ride counts, because the boss is on me.’”
Brunello gets about an hour and a half of turnout each day. One of the biggest benefits, says Liza, is a sandy spot that the horses have created in the middle of his paddock that he likes to roll in. She says, “Rolling is nature’s way of realigning everything in the horse’s body.” She often lets him roll in the sand after a ride, too, when he’s still a little warm and sweaty. “Alberto may not like it because I bring him back really dirty, but I think it’s good for him to flip back and forth.” She adds with a laugh, “Ike gets grumpy when he’s groomed. Alberto gets a bit grumpy, too. I think that’s why they get along so well.”
Because Brunello, like Via, doesn’t enjoy being groomed, Alberto skips doing it whenever he can, such as days when he isn’t ridden. Otherwise, the rest of the team tries to treat him like any other horse in the barn, “so he doesn’t get doted on all day,” says Liza.
Nutrition: In the past, particularly after shipping, Brunello sometimes stood stretched out as if he had to urinate. At a horse show last spring, he suffered a pelvic impaction, a form of colic. Suspecting dehydration as the cause of both this episode and the unusual stance, Ike’s veterinarian encouraged his team to pay close attention to his diet and hydration. Before shipping long distances, his vet now administers intravenous fluids. In the days before a show, Ike also takes probiotics and antiulcer medication, such as GastroGard®.
The vet recommended switching to a low-starch diet, as well. Liza now feeds Ike Nutrena SafeChoice® Perform twice a day, along with a timothy/alfalfa-mix hay. “Before a big class, I’ll add a little more oats, to give him extra energy.”
To encourage Ike to drink more water, Liza recently began giving him an alfalfa-based electrolyte product called Equitea® once a week.
One thing that fame has earned Brunello is first dibs at mealtime. “He gets a little obnoxious at feeding time, so we give him his hay and grain first,” Liza says.
Other care: Quoting the age-old saying, “No foot, no horse,” Liza says that the key to Ike’s soundness is maintaining his foot angles with shoeings every four weeks. “We keep it as simple as we can—normal steel shoes, no bar shoes—but balanced.”
Before classes, Ike’s vet often does bodywork and chiropractic adjustments on him. Liza has learned some adjustments, too—for example, on his neck—so she can do them at shows when the vet can’t be there. Alberto also poultices and bandages Ike’s legs after big classes, as a routine preventative measure.
At home, the vet does routine chiropractic and acupuncture, including arnica injections, every two months. Liza tries to limit use of medications, such as phenylbutazone and Banamine® (flunixin meglumine). She explains, “I don’t believe in medicating unless you really need it.”
Ike’s team is still experimenting with ways to manage his aggression toward other horses, which includes kicking during shipping. Eye-to-eye contact provokes the worst behavior, so they have begun shipping him in racehorse blinkers. The driver, who watches him in transit via video camera, says this doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but it does help.
Nickname:Sometimes Legoland—a nickname adopted by the children of his groom, Eduardo Garcia
Hometown: San Diego, California
Height: 17.3 hands
Owner:Akiko Yamazaki, Four Winds Farm
Exercise riders:Shannon Peters (Steffen’s wife) and Dawn White-O’Connor
Groom:Eduardo (Eddie) Garcia
Major accomplishments:Member of the U.S. team at the 2013 CDIO***** in Aachen, Germany, and winner of both the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Festival of Champions Grand Prix championship. Legolas and Steffen are currently the top-ranked Americans on the FEI World Individual Dressage Ranking list.
Background: Steffen’s sponsor, Akiko Yamazaki, purchased Legolas in 2011 to take the place of Steffen’s retiring Olympic mount, Ravel. Although Legolas had not competed since age 6, renowned German trainer Ullrich Kasselmann had developed him through Grand Prix level. In the short time since then, Steffen and the long-legged bay gelding have formed a remarkably strong bond. “Their relationship is very special,” says Shannon. “When Legolas sees Steffen walking down from the house, he immediately starts calling to him and running back and forth from his stall to his paddock.”
The big horse developed a similarly close relationship with Eddie, who has groomed him since he arrived from Germany. He and the rest of the team enjoy Legolas’s comical sense of humor. “He is an absolute ham!” says Shannon. Steffen often sits in a chair outside his stall, particularly at shows, letting the horse untie his shoelaces or rest his head on his shoulder.
This strong, affectionate partnership has translated into increasingly successful performances in the show ring. Relatively young and inexperienced at this level, Legolas’s mental development needed time to catch up with his physical power and talent. Although his piaffe and passage were superb from the outset, he occasionally tried too hard in the flying changes and worried himself. With calm patience, Steffen helped the horse relax and gain confidence. This spring, they returned to Legolas’ birthplace to compete internationally for the first time. The young horse rose to the challenge, leading the U.S. team to third place in the Aachen FEI Nations Cup.
Steffen hopes for even greater performances in the coming years. In the meantime, he and his team do everything they can to keep Legolas happy and healthy. He has a fairly light show schedule—only six to eight shows a year—and enjoys downtime in the fall and early winter months.
Daily routine: Steffen typically rides Legolas at about 7:30 a.m. When Steffen is out of town, either Shannon rides him in the ring or Dawn takes him out for a hack. Although fitness comes very easily to the horse, his team sprinkles more exercise throughout the daily routine to keep his body loose and supple. He is hand-walked for 30 minutes twice a day and goes out in a grass paddock for an hour. For the rest of the day, he soaks up the sun in his outdoor run, which is attached to his stall. “He loves standing in the sun!” says Shannon.
Legolas enjoys being groomed. Eddie grooms him at least twice a day, bringing out the shine in his coat with a good curry. After each ride, Eddie applies Ice-Vibe boots, which are designed to decrease inflammation and stimulate tissue repair, to all four legs. He also sets him up in regular stable bandages every night.
Nutrition: Keeping weight on Legolas has always been somewhat challenging, especially when he’s traveling. He eats free-choice timothy/grass-mix hay and two meals a day of a high-performance feed called Cavalor® Endurix, which has a relatively high fat content. In addition, he receives several metabolism-supporting supplements: Himalayan salt, flax, SmartGut® Ultra and SmartDigest® Ultra.
Other care:Regular shoeing at five-week intervals keeps Legolas’ feet balanced and healthy. He trains and competes in plain shoes, with no need of special or corrective shoeing techniques. Once a month, he receives acupuncture and physical therapy. His physical therapist accompanies him to every horse show to provide hands-on treatment as well as laser therapy. Legolas also wears a Respond blanket a few times a week.
Like most elite sporthorses, Legolas is accustomed to traveling long distances. “He is a good shipper,” says Shannon, “although he does prefer to go with a pretty girl next to him, if possible!”
Ballynoe Castle RM
Nickname:Reggie, after retired Indiana Pacers basketball player, Reggie Miller
Hometown: Riegelsville, Pennsylvania (summer), and Ocala, Florida (winter)Basic stats:
Breed:Belgian warmblood/Irish Thoroughbred
Dam: Ballyvaldon Natalie
Owners: Carl and Cassie Segal
Rider:Bruce Davidson, Jr. (Buck)
Exercise rider and groom:Kathleen Blauth
Major accomplishments:Member of the U.S. 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games team and highest-placed American at the 2013 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event (fourth overall). Reggie has helped to make Buck the top-ranked American on the FEI/HSBC Eventing Ranking list.
Background: Buck imported Reggie from Ireland as a 6-year-old. Since then, he has cherished his partnership with the horse. “I often say to myself midcourse or midtest, ‘I can’t believe I get to ride this horse!’ Everyone thinks their horse is perfect—but Reggie is nearly perfect. He is beautifully put together, talented, willing, and there’s not a mean bone in his body. If you drop his lead rope on the ground and tell him to stand, he’ll stand there all day long.”
Although Reggie is friendly and affectionate at home and during the off-season (except toward dogs—he pins his ears at any that come near his stall), he is all business at competitions. “He’s a real professional,” says Buck. “He knows when it’s game time and he gets in his zone. He stands in the back of his stall and doesn’t want to be pet.”
Reggie thrives on a slightly heavier-than-average show schedule, says Buck. “He’s the best jumper I’ve ever ridden, but he is not the bravest on cross-country.” Starting each season at a lower level and using horse trials for fitness work (about one every three weeks) helps to get the horse into “his groove” in the lead-up to big three-day events. Buck always pays careful attention to the conditions, letting Reggie pick his own pace on cross-country when the ground is a little firm or scratching altogether if it is too hard.
Once a “roarer” (his vocal cords interfered with his ability to breathe), Reggie has had two wind surgeries. The last surgery improved his ability to breathe significantly, making competing more comfortable for him. “He’s gotten so much braver on cross-country since the surgery,” says Buck. “And he’s even better in dressage, because he’s more relaxed.”
On the downside, the surgery involved removal of so much tissue in the back of Reggie’s throat that he now sometimes has trouble swallowing properly. He also experiences excess saliva buildup if he has to hold his head in a dressage frame for too long. The saliva goes down his windpipe, causing him to cough. To minimize this problem, Buck streamlined his warm-up.
Allowing Reggie to lower his head and lengthen his neck as much as possible throughout the day helps to drain his windpipe and combat his higher risk of pneumonia. Much of his care is dedicated to doing that.
Although Reggie has been a remarkably sound horse throughout his career, he was laid off last summer due to a stifle bruise he experienced in his stall. His vet has since given him the OK to go back to work, and Buck hopes to aim him for the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Daily routine: Reggie’s warmblood genes make it a little harder for him to get four-star fit than a typical Thoroughbred. “My goal is to get him as fit as possible without pounding on him,” says Buck. “He gallops every five days and does a lot of trotting, going 40 to 60 minutes straight, on as many hills as we can find.”
Reggie is turned out all night every night, which, among other benefits, gives him more time to stretch his neck down to graze. He goes out with a buddy—right now, it’s Mar De Amor, another of Buck’s four-star partners—and is always the understood herd leader. “He is a very calm, docile horse, but the other horses seem to know he’s the big man on campus,” Buck says.
Like Legolas, Reggie enjoys being groomed. Kathleen usually grooms him twice a day, first in the morning before his workout, then again to remove any sweat stains before he goes out for the night.
Nutrition: Reggie is a very easy keeper. As Buck says, “One thing he does not seem to miss is a meal.” He eats a beet pulp-based performance feed, Re-Leve Sport®, made by Kentucky Equine Research, three times a day. Close to big competitions, Kathleen adds some of a higher-calorie grain, OvationTM, to give him extra energy. All of Buck’s horses also receive a few basic Finish Line® supplements (electrolytes, hoof growth support, etc.).
Kathleen supplies Reggie’s grain, hay (free-choice grass) and water in containers at or near ground level. He never eats from a hay net. To remove dust and spores from his hay, she steams it in a hay steamer made by Haygain. On the rare occasions when she can’t use the steamer (such as a one-day event with no power access), she soaks his hay in water.
Other care: Reggie is shod every four to five weeks. He always ships in a loose box stall, untied, so he can lower his head. After hard gallops and the cross-country phase of competitions, Kathleen cools his legs with Jack’s Whirlpool Boots or Ice HorseTM boots. She also poultices his legs the night after cross-country.
At big competitions, a professional equine masseuse helps to loosen Reggie up before dressage and after cross country. He also sometimes receives acupuncture, which helps to drain the saliva from his windpipe. On cross country, he often wears a FlairTM nasal strip, which is supposed to improve respiratory capacity.
At home, Kathleen occasionally gives Reggie a little extra massaging with a hand-held massager (Dr. Noble’s EquissagerTM Pro) or a massage pad (Equilibrium Therapy®, made by World Equestrian Brands, LLC). She does not wrap his legs routinely. In general, Reggie’s team’s philosophy is “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.