Serviceably Sound Horse - What Does It Mean?

McKee-Pownall Equine Services, equine lameness, is my horse able to work, how lame is my horse, aaep lameness scale, hoof care horses

By Tania Millen

Most horses aren’t simply pasture pets — they provide some sort of active service to their owners. But many horses are not totally sound, and most horse sports don’t allow lame horses to compete. Lameness generally means a horse is in pain; hence, it’s not acceptable to ride lame horses. So, what can owners and riders do?

Gerard Laverty says many horses that are less than 100 percent sound are living comfortable lives as “serviceably sound” partners. “It’s most horses that have saddles on,” he says. Laverty teaches the farrier science program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia and has his own farrier business.

“Probably no more than 10 percent of my horse clientele would be classified as sound,” says Laverty. “The remainder, if they’re in work, would be serviceably sound. By that I mean they have issues just like you and me, but those issues are not so severe that they prevent the horse from doing the job the client wishes them to do.”

It’s a common refrain.

“We have about 25 lesson horses and pretty much all of them require something to stay sound,” says Gwen Donohoe, who owns Sagehill Stables just south of Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I can only think of one or two horses that don’t have anything wrong with them at the moment.”

Donohoe works with veterinarians to assess her horse’s soundness and decide how to keep them sound.

“Every lesson horse that comes in gets x-rayed, and if we find arthritis, they get injections or put on something to maintain them,” Donohoe says.

McKee-Pownall Equine Services, equine lameness, is my horse able to work, how lame is my horse, aaep lameness scale, hoof care horses

The horse’s welfare and quality of life must always be taken into account. A day will come when he just needs to do less. Photo: iStock/AnnaElizabethPhotography

Defining Lameness

Dr. Alejandra Garza is an equine sports medicine veterinarian with McKee-Pownall Equine Services in Caledon, Ontario. “When we get called for a lameness or pre-purchase examination, the first question I ask the client is: What’s your intended use? What do you want to do with the horse?” she says. 

Garza explains that veterinarians in North America use the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ lameness scale to assess soundness. It runs from zero (sound) to five (very lame) and each number corresponds to a specific description, as follows: 

0 — Lameness not perceptible under any circumstances.

1 — Lameness is difficult to observe and is not consistently apparent, regardless of circumstances (i.e., under saddle, circling, inclines, hard surfaces).

2 — Lameness is difficult to observe at walk or when trotting in a straight line but is consistently apparent under certain circumstances (i.e., weight-carrying, circling, inclines, hard surfaces).

3 — Lameness is consistently observable at trot under all circumstances.

4 — Lameness is obvious at walk.

5 — Lameness produces minimal weight bearing in motion and/or at rest or there’s a complete inability to move.

This scale defines the degree of lameness, but whether a horse can remain serviceable depends on what the rider expects the horse to do.

Related: Teaching Children to Ride

McKee-Pownall Equine Services, equine lameness, is my horse able to work, how lame is my horse, aaep lameness scale, hoof care horses

In North America, veterinarians use the AAEP lameness scale to assess soundness, with each number on the scale from 0 to 5 corresponding to a specific description or degree of lameness. Following your veterinarian’s recommendations is key to keeping your horse serviceably sound and comfortable. Photo: Clix Photography

What is “Serviceable?”

Serviceability is defined as usefulness. A horse that is serviceably sound is generally considered useful to the owner or rider.

Garza explains that matching a rider’s current and expected level of riding and competition with the horse’s abilities, soundness and potential to stay sound, is an important aspect of determining whether a horse will be serviceably sound for a specific rider. But a horse that isn’t sound enough for one level of rider may be well-suited to a less demanding rider. For example, a horse with a grade one or grade two lameness may still be of service depending on the rider’s desires.

“A lot of old horses are on anti-inflammatories for chronic pain, especially those with arthritic conditions,” Garza says, and that allows them to be both comfortable and provide a service to their owners. “If a horse has some minor or moderate changes [in bony structures, suggesting arthritis], it may still be serviceable and suitable for some riders.”

Horses provide a vast array of services to owners and riders: from being pasture pets and going on once-a-week trail rides, to participating in regular lessons, shows, and competitions, to becoming international sporting stars in their own right.

But serviceability must consider the horse’s welfare, too.

Donohoe explains that her horses’ comfort and life happiness is imperative and it’s not acceptable for her horses to be working in pain.

“If the horses aren’t happy while they’re doing their jobs, it shows up right away,” she says. “When horses aren’t feeling great, it becomes a safety issue for people, too. They’re unhappy if they’re in pain so that’s definitely the reason for doing maintenance on them.”

Keeping Horses Serviceably Sound

Laverty says that keeping horses serviceably sound — comfortable enough so they can do the job riders want them to do — means considering the environment the horse lives in, the ground it lives on, the amount of moisture in the ground, the amount of work the horse gets, the type of work, plus the overall management.

Garda says that everyday horse maintenance starts with feeding and making sure the horse isn’t lacking any vitamins and minerals. In addition, an annual wellness exam, regular vaccinations and deworming, and ongoing farrier work are needed. She also says there’s an advantage to working with the same veterinarian because they get to know the horse as well as the rider’s ambitions.

Related: Is Your Horse Built for the Job?

McKee-Pownall Equine Services, equine lameness, is my horse able to work, how lame is my horse, aaep lameness scale, hoof care horses

A knowledgeable farrier is an essential member of your horse care team. Photo: Clix Photography

“We may have to decide that it’s time for the horse to do less,” says Garda. “If I find something different [during a lameness or wellness exam] than what the horse has had in the past, or a previous issue is progressing, maybe it’s time to take a step back or give him a break.”

Garda says many of her discussions with clients involve matching their goals with the horse’s soundness, during which she asks: “Do you want to keep pushing the horse? Because we might be reaching the point where you’re not going to get what you want out of him and it’s not fair for the horse to be in pain while you do your sport.”

Donohoe has the same mindset.

“As long as they’re comfortable doing their job and not showing any visible signs of lameness or getting too grumpy, we can keep them in the program,” she explains. “Luckily, the horses here have some options for different jobs they can do. Most of our horses can stay comfortable in our beginner lessons for a very long time. But once we can’t manage whatever the issue is, we retire them.

“Following veterinarian recommendations is the number one thing,” Donohoe says. An example is determining the timing of joint injections and receiving anti-inflammatory prescriptions. 

“I think that’s the acceptable level of maintenance,” she says. “If [injection and anti-inflammatories] are not working then maybe it’s not the right job for them anymore.”

Hoof Care is Key

“I’ve had a couple of horses come here with laminitis,” says Donohoe. “[But we could] keep them sound in the lesson program by changing their diet and with proper trimming and shoes.”

“The right shoe and the right application can make all the difference in the world,” says Laverty. “A small difference on the bottom of the hoof can make a huge difference to the comfort and performance of the horse.”

But regardless of a horse’s issues, Laverty says the length of the shoeing or trimming schedule makes a dramatic difference, particularly for horses with less than ideal conformation or those already struggling with soundness.

“Studies have shown that extending the times of the shoeing schedule by a week will increase the detrimental change in the angle and length of the hoof by a substantial amount,” Laverty explains.

“These days it’s not uncommon — especially with competition horses — to have a shoeing schedule between three and five weeks rather than six to eight weeks. Once you get beyond six weeks, most of the work a farrier is doing is just repairing the harm that’s been done by the hoof getting too long,” he says.

A knowledgeable farrier is just one person in a team of specialists needed to keep horses serviceably sound. These horses need owners to consider best practices in everyday care, veterinarian maintenance, bodywork, farrier work, and choices that support the animal’s comfort.

Not-totally-sound horses have much to offer — as school horses, regular competitors, family ranch horses and more — and they seem to make up most of the horse population. It’s incumbent on horse owners to maintain them as diligently as possible and downgrade performance demands if and when needed. For horses that may not be 100 percent sound, little things add up. But with good care from riders and owners, serviceably sound horses can live many years as happy, useful partners.

Related: Managing the Senior Performance Horse

To read more by Tania Millen on this site, click here.

Photo: Dreamstime/Donna Kilday