Last weekend I was reminded yet again to never take anything for granted in the sport of endurance. I took my mare, Opal, to St Alban's NSW to do her second training ride. While the course had some steep hills, it was only 32kms instead of the usual 40km so I wasn't too worried. Opal could handle it. She was fitter than ever after the 40km she did at Mudgee three weeks earlier and doing another training ride would help prepare her for an 80km. But when I trotted her up at final vetting I heard those dreadful words no endurance rider ever wants to hear, "Sorry, you vetted out." My beautiful mare was slightly lame in her right front leg after pulling a muscle out on track. Vetting out is always a possibility. Sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take, you still vet out. Opal had straight A's for everything else, her heart rate only went up by 2 beats per minute, and she showed no signs of lameness when I was riding her. But when I trotted her up for the vets she definitely wasn't right.
So how do you deal with a vet out? First of all, you don't start arguing with the vet. The vet has a lot more experience than you do at evaluating horses and their opinion should be respected. Usually the vet will confer with another vet before making the final decision to disqualify you and it's not a decision they make lightly. Arguing with the vet is bad sportsmanship and it makes you look like a complete twit, so unless that's how you want to be remembered by vets, volunteers and fellow endurance riders I would advise against it. If you are unsure why your horse was vetted out, then by all means ask the vet for clarification in a polite and respectful manner. They will be more than happy to discuss it with you and perhaps even suggest treatment. Bear in mind though that if there is a big queue behind you the vet may not be able to stand around chatting to you for half an hour. If you want a more thorough evaluation then it's best if you organise for a vet to see your horse when you get home. Occasionally a horse might require emergency treatment on the spot and if you are seriously concerned for your horse's welfare then you should speak to a vet straight away.
After you've vetted out the most important thing is to continue monitoring your horse. What you monitor will depend on why your horse vetted out in the first place. If your horse was showing signs of dehydration then you should encourage your horse to drink and watch for signs of colic. If your horse's heart rate was extremely high then you should keep checking the heart rate and aiding your horse's recovery as best you can. If your horse vetted out due to lameness then you should inspect your horse's legs and hooves, treating any injuries you find. It's also a good idea to familiarise yourself with the signs of colic or metabolic distress. If your horse appears agitated, paws the ground, lies down, rolls repeatedly, or keeps looking at it's belly then you may have a colicking horse on your hands. It's vital that a colicking horse receives prompt veterinary attention, so if you suspect colic don't delay in calling for a vet. Better to play it safe and get a vet than risk your horse's welfare by waiting to see if it miraculously recovers on it's own.
Every vet out is a learning experience. It highlights the areas you need to focus on managing in order to improve your horse's performance. While there's not a lot you can do to prevent your horse pulling a muscle out on track, you can take steps to prevent dehydration, colic and exhaustion. Over time, you will develop a management strategy for your horse and learn how to recognise when your horse is struggling. Some horses can be very hard to read, while others will give you very clear signals. Top endurance riders know their horses inside out and can spot a problem a mile away, which is why they can travel at such fast speeds without damaging their horse. They also know know it's better to finish in 2nd place and vet through than be first across the line and vet out. There's no point running a horse into the ground for the sake of a trophy. In this sport, the horse's welfare matters more than how fast you went, and you won't win any respect (or prizes) for pushing your horse too hard. If you do vet out, the main thing is to learn from your mistakes so you don't repeat them in future.
Me and Opal crossing the river at St Alban's
Photo courtesy of Jo Arblaster