With His Hands, Dougie Hannum Treats The Equine Athlete

Horses move and perform better after he’s worked on them.
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Horses move and perform better after he’s worked on them.

Riders across the country are glad to see Dougie Hannum whenever he drives his car into their driveway or walks down their barn aisle at a competition. Because they know their horses are about to feel much better.

Hannum may manipulate the forelimbs to relieve shoulder pain.

Hannum may manipulate the forelimbs to relieve shoulder pain.

Hannum has been a therapist to horses at the highest levels and to horses just starting out for almost four decades, at seven Olympic Games and at competitions from New Jersey to California.

"It’s hard to really say what I do. But what we try to do is to give the horse the best opportunity to give the best performance. We try to set a horse up for his maximum performance,” said Hannum.

That means that he looks at the whole horse, not just parts of the horse. And if the horse appears to be sore in his hindquarters, Hannum tries to figure out why. In the meantime, he treats the symptoms too, with treatments like cold-laser therapy, magnetic-blanket therapy, specific pain- or inflammation-reducing topical products, and, especially, handwork and manipulation.

“Across the board, in all the disciplines, it’s body soreness that we treat—muscles and soft tissue,” he said.

“We try to teach people about a good management program for their horses so that they can help us maintain their horses as athletes,” added Hannum. “And it doesn’t really matter what level the horse is competing at. Sure, the higher the level, the higher the risk, but it all comes back to the same things. I mean, a horse is a horse.”

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The Five Keys

Basically, Hannum deals primarily with five areas of equine health:

  • The immune system
  • Muscles and skeleton
  • Front feet
  • Saddle fit
  • Teeth.

Ulcers are his primary immune system concern, because “horses don’t have the time off they used to and because we ship them such long distances.”

But he doesn’t necessarily prescribe expensive equine ulcer medications. He advises most people to feed their horses a daily diet of papaya pills, available online from one of several vitamin suppliers for $10 to $15 for 500 tablets. Most horses eat papaya pills like candy, either in their feed or even out of your hand.

Hannum also advises riders to use APF supplements to boost their horses’ immune systems and to protect them from ulcers. “You can’t heal a horse from the outside in. A horse has to be healthy from the inside,” said Hannum.

Still, he advises riders and trainers to be watchful with feed supplements. “You need to be careful when you’re feeding a lot of supplements, that one’s not washing the others out,” said Hannum. “And horses are like people—some people do better with Advil than with aspirin, and vice versa. With horses, some do better with Cosequin than with Cortaflex, and vice versa.

“It’s all about knowing your horse,” he added.

And Hannum believes that “the most important things are the front feet, the teeth and saddle fit. They’re the things I look at and deal with the most.”

The front feet are a key point on every horse because they’re the body part that hits the ground first and holds the horse up, so everything depends on them. Sore front feet will cause a horse to try to shift his weight onto his hindquarters, making his back and hamstring muscles stiff and uncomfortable. “If those feet aren’t in good shape and properly balanced, I can guarantee you’re going to get a sore back,” he said.

On the initial exam, Hannum evaluates the horse from poll to tail.

On the initial exam, Hannum evaluates the horse from poll to tail.

Proper shoeing and trimming are the key elements to foot comfort, said Hannum. If necessary, he recommends Equithane pads, because they seal to the foot (preventing thrush) and can be relatively easily removed without removing the shoe.

“To me, saddle fit is massive, because if your saddle is pinching your horse, it’s going to make him sore, and then he won’t track up, he won’t get round, and he probably won’t want to jump,” said Hannum. He prefers saddles that are stuffed with wool, because they can be relatively easily re-stuffed, and he regrets that many of today’s saddles are stuffed with foam and cannot be re-stuffed.

Hannum knows, though, that not every horse can have his own custom-made saddle and that the only choice is usually to use pads. But he warns that using more or bigger pads isn’t always the answer. If a saddle fits tight on the withers, a smaller pad may be the right choice.

“It’s like the princess and the pea—just because you have 150 mattresses on top doesn’t mean it’s better,” he said. So he advises taking the time to look at how your saddle is fitting and figure out what to do. “Use common sense,” he said.

Lack of dental care—an issue we’ve written about often at the Horse Journal—is a problem he sees surprisingly often in competition horses. Hannum estimates that 75 percent of the horses he sees have dental problems.

“And—just like with people—if their mouth hurts, something else is probably going to hurt too,” said Hannum. “Just listen to your horse—he’ll tell you.”

Bottom Line

If you ask Hannum to evaluate and work on your horse, he’ll be willing to listen to you describe what you’re feeling or what your horse’s symptoms are—but mostly because he might hear a clue to the problem. Even if you insist that you know what and where the problem is, he’s going to examine your horse in the same deliberate fashion he examines every single horse—he’s going to run his hands over him from poll to tail, on both sides of his body, to see what he feels.

And along the way you might see him wince, you might hear him let out a sigh, and you might even hear him whistle. When he does any of those, it means he’s found something, and his reaction is usually a good indication of the problem’s severity. It will also likely mean that what he’s found isn’t what you were expecting.

And then he, or his assistant, Grant Showalter, will go to work, addressing the soreness that they’ve found. What Hannum does is a combination of deep-tissue massage and chiropractic work. Using the heel of his hands, his fingertips or his knuckles, Hannum kneads sore muscles until they become loose and flexible; or he manipulates the forelimbs to relieve strain in the shoulders and withers, or the hind limbs to relieve strain in the hindquarters; or he manipulates the head to relieve soreness in the upper neck.

And sometimes, if Hannum believes that the way a saddle fits is causing the problems he’s finding, he or Showalter will evaluate how the rider’s saddles are fitting the horse. (Showalter is an experienced saddle-fitting specialist.) What they find often isn’t welcome news, although it doesn’t always mean you have to buy a new saddle.

Hannum works primarily in the eastern half of the United States. To contact him, call 610-656-9890. Showalter lives in central California and works primarily along the West Coast. To contact him, call or text 484-639-4454.

Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger.