Horses don’t make it to the top of the sport by chance. Although luck plays a part, larger factors contribute to success at the elite level: partnership with the rider, strategic training, an ample dose of talent, a knowledgeable team of professionals and a program of meticulous management and care. While thoughtful care might not bring every horse to the top levels, you can bet that each of the horses competing at the Olympics or topping national leaderboards has a personalized program to bring out the best in his or her health and performance.
In this series, we’ll take a glimpse into the daily management and care of leading sporthorses, the first of which is Lynn Symansky’s partner Donner, the agile off-the-track Thoroughbred eventer. While each program is tailored to the specific demands of these icons, one common strategy is clear: There is no magic pill that these horses thrive on. It’s simply attentive care by professionals who listen closely to their needs.
Nicknames: The Deer, John Deer, Rhonda Jane, Jane
Hometowns: Middleburg, Virginia and Ocala, Florida
Basic Stats: 16-year-old, 17.1-hand off-the-track Thoroughbred
Sire: Gorky Park
Dam: Smart Jane
Breeder: Dresden Farm
Owner: The Donner Syndicate
Rider: Lynn Symansky
Grooms: Kendyl Tracy and Shelby Crowley
BACKGROUND: Lynn Symansky found Donner through a friend’s recommendation in 2008 when this now world-class athlete was 5 years old. “When I first tried him, he was very flighty and kind of deerlike with these long legs going a million different directions,” Symansky says. But what drew her to Donner was his quick-footed nature.
Symansky needed a project, so their journey together began. “I just got him because I thought he was a nice horse and I thought I could turn him around to either sell him down the road or he would be something that could go along to the upper levels.” Turn him around she did. Now, at 16, he is a horse with appearances at Badminton, Burghley, CHIO Aachen, the Kentucky Three-Day Event, Pau, the Pan American Games and the World Equestrian Games. And Symansky says that he’s just gotten better and stronger each year. “He’s really come into his own,” she explains.
Much of Donner’s management is aimed at striking a balance between accommodating his unique personality and keeping him fit while minimizing wear and tear. As a Thoroughbred, keeping him physically fit isn’t difficult. More of a challenge has been finding ways to help him feel more secure in his surroundings. Donner finds confidence in his work, but he isn’t comfortable out in the field on his own. Because of that, he isn’t turned out a lot. “Any injury I have had with him has been from turnout,” Symansky says. Although he’s settled over the years, “everyone makes fun of him because he’s the one that’s always on the lookout. The other horses are with the grooms grazing, and he’s just standing there in the middle of the field with his head straight up in the air, will not touch a blade of grass, heart beating out of his chest.”
DAILY ROUTINE: In the morning, Donner has breakfast and then goes outside to move around. At his home in Middleburg, he has a small turnout attached to his stall so he can walk outside, and in Ocala, during the winter months, he has a very small round pen where he can stretch his legs without the ability to pick up too much speed. He is also hand-grazed often because he doesn’t get grass in turnout.
At home, he is ridden once a day, but at competitions that increases because he is fitter and has less opportunity to get outside. He typically wears a magnetic blanket before working, and sometimes Symansky and her team use the SpectraVET™ therapeutic laser to reduce inflammation.
After that, Donner, who has very sensitive skin, immediately gets a bath because he is allergic to his own sweat. In fact, when he travels, they coat him in baby powder or silver cream to wick up his sweat or else he’ll break out in hives. Many horse owners frown upon bathing horses too often because it takes away their natural oils, but for Donner, it’s just a necessity.
In terms of his training program, he jumps twice a week during the competition season. Once is over cavalletti, rails or small jumps for general rideability. “You can really do a lot of preparation for your coursework without ever jumping over 2 feet,” Symansky says. The second jump school of the week is over a bit bigger fences to work on his shape over the fences, but he jumps fewer fences to reduce the wear and tear on his legs. “As they get older, it’s figuring out ways to keep working on [the technique] without taxing their body so much,” Symansky adds.
When it comes to conditioning work, Donner’s program also differs from the typical event horse because he has such a longstanding base level of fitness. Leading up to a competition, Symansky doesn’t typically do a full conditioning day more than once a week. She utilizes terrain and hills that she is very familiar with, but she does most of his fitness work in the ring, walking him under saddle since he doesn’t hack quietly.
NUTRITION: Because Donner is such a high-stress horse, his nutrition is geared toward keeping his stomach as healthy as possible. “If they are not happy in the stomach, it is so hard to keep them going at this level,” Symansky says. He’s been on a senior feed for years, as she finds that it’s easier on the stomach and more palatable. He currently eats ProElite feed and is fed four times a day, getting breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late meal. He also gets alfalfa hay cubes before every meal to help coat his stomach and Gastrogard omeprazole paste—both to prevent ulcers, which is especially important since he doesn’t spend his day continually grazing. For supplements, he is on EquiOtic, a daily supplement that has live bacteria to promote his hindgut health, and he gets MagRestore, a magnesium supplement from Performance Equine Nutrition to optimize his muscle health. “I find that he isn’t as tight through his body with a daily magnesium supplement,” Symansky says.
OTHER CARE: Donner’s feet tend to be an area of weakness, so a farrier does his feet monthly. Donner wears heart-bar shoes with slight wedge pads, which Symansky and her team first tried when they noticed he was mounding his shavings in his stall to relieve pressure on his feet. He trains daily in the bar shoes, but they aren’t very grippy, so he must be switched into regular shoes to run cross country. In the off season, they try to give his feet a break to promote as much growth as possible by keeping him in the same kind of shoe.
Donner also receives a variety of other therapies. Symansky likes to ice him using whirlpool boots after a jump or a gallop session, but she has to be careful about it with his poor-quality feet. She also utilizes massage therapy and chiropractic work. Symansky says that he has also benefitted from functional electrical stimulation (FES), which has been shown to improve muscle function in horses. In FES therapy, electrodes attached to the horse’s body apply small electrical pulses to muscles. Symansky says it is helpful in waking up muscle sets, for example, when a horse is weak in the topline. Additionally, Donner receives the systemic joint therapy products Adequan and Legend.
MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Team, 2018 World Equestrian Games • Team gold medal, 2017 Great Meadow CICO*** and Nations Cup (and second individually) • Traveling alternate, 2016 Olympics • Team bronze medal, 2015 Aachen CICO*** • First, 2014 Bromont CIC*** • USEF Reserve Champion, 2013 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** • Best Conditioned, Best Turned Out and Highest Placed OTTB, 2013 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** • Team gold medal, 2011 Pan American Games
This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Practical Horseman.