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What Is “Serviceably Sound”?

You’ve likely heard the term, but what does it mean? A veterinarian—who’s also an event rider—explains.

Galloping horse"Serviceably sound": It's a term commonly applied to horses, yet it can raise a lot of questions. After all, isn't soundness a black-or-white concept? Either a horse is or he isn't?

Not necessarily. For many horses, there's a large gray zone in which workload influences soundness. As veterinarian for two-time Olympic gold-medal event rider Phillip Dutton, and as an eventer myself, I've seen lots of horses that had soundness issues at the upper levels remain serviceably sound at the lower ones. In fact, such a horse can prove an ideal schoolmaster for you, should you be new to the sport and desire to be competitive or gain confidence at Novice or Training Level.

In this article, I'll demystify this "soundness" term for you. I'll tell you what it means, why it's used, and how it could affect your buying decision when shopping for a horse. I'll also help you sort through some health issues that can kick a horse into the "serviceably sound" category, and what you might expect in the way of management and cost to maintain him.

What's in a Word?
You know what the word "sound" means when applied to horses. Tack on the adverb "serviceably" and you have this definition: The horse is sound for the service intended by the owner or rider. By sound, I mean the horse is comfortable: He's not going lame from performing his job (barring accident or acute injury).


Wait a second, you say. That seems like the definition for plain old soundness! Yes . . . but serviceability varies from horse to horse, performance level to performance level. Galloping speeds in eventing strongly influence the soundness of many horses. For instance, at Novice level, we're talking a cross-country galloping pace of 350 meters per minute (mpm). That speed is attainable for a large number of horses. At the Advanced level, the galloping pace shoots to 570 mpm. That's a fairly impressive increase—more than 60 percent. (If you've ever galloped at Advanced speeds, you'll know what I mean!)

Most soft-tissue, supporting-leg injuries in horses, such as a bowed tendon or suspensory desmitis (inflammation of the suspensory ligament), are brought out at the higher levels' greater speeds. Speed is what can lead to tissue tearing.

That's why the eventing world can be visualized as a pyramid. The pyramid's base is widest at the bottom, representing the introductory levels of the sport, Novice and Training, where the speeds and jumps are lowest—and, as a result, attainability is the highest. The pyramid narrows as it rises, as the higher levels bring with them higher speeds and higher jumps. From a purely physical standpoint, far fewer horses can sustain the soundness necessary to compete here than at the lower levels.

The same can be said of the show ring. Many horses that jump in the 3-foot divisions can do so because it  doesn't require the step and scope of the 4-foot divisions. Ditto with dressage: Far more horses can participate at Training Level than at Grand Prix.

That's where the term "serviceably sound" comes into play. There are a lot of horses that may have had a supporting-leg injury or orthopedic wear and tear in a previous career, such as racing or high-level eventing. When that injury heals to its maximum point, such a horse may not remain serviceable for the upper levels. However, he may be serviceable—and consequently very useful—for the lower ones: Speeds are slower. Scope at the jumps is less demanding. Courses are shorter—there's less pounding. The horse may be competing beneath his talent level, but it's a level at which he can remain comfortable.

Shopping for "Serviceably Sound"
How do you know if a serviceably sound horse is right for you? If you and your trainer think he meets two key criteria—he suits you mentally and physically, and he has the athletic ability to perform the job safely—plus he's currently performing the job you have in mind for him. That's right: I strongly suggest you select for a horse that's already eventing at your current level (or above)—AND is staying sound doing it.

For instance, say you find a thirteen-year-old, ex-Intermediate/Advanced horse that has been going around Training Level courses for two years. The fact that he has been and is currently doing exactly what you'll be asking him to do is an enormous endorsement to me as a veterinarian. That's what we call "soundness history," and it tells you a lot about the horse.

Let's say someone tells you, "This horse did three two-stars and never had a soundness problem. Once he moved up to Advanced, though, we started having a little trouble maintaining comfort in his hocks, and one fetlock started acting up." Such a horse could be extremely appropriate and require little health management at lower levels. He'll be working well under his serviceable-soundness suitability.

The horse you take the greatest risk on is the beautiful-moving, talented, super-athletic four-year-old that's never evented. Whether that horse can move up the ranks remains to be seen. His body and mind have yet to be tested.

Naturally, you'll put any horse you choose through a thorough prepurchase exam with an experienced performance-horse veterinarian. This will help uncover any insidious problems that could ultimately tank an athletic career; it also nets you the veterinarian's opinion on pre-existing conditions that could ultimately affect the horse's serviceability.

Here's my input on a sampling of physical issues you might encounter. (For information on others you may run across, consult your veterinarian.)

Soundness Factors

When taking serviceable soundness into account while horse-shopping, be sure to consider these two additional factors:

1. The horse's feet. Some horses have better feet than others. Regardless of your level of competition, I suggest you select for a horse with good feet. Hooves can deteriorate between competitions in an environment that's either too wet or too dry. Having a horse with good feet that are tolerant of less-than-ideal conditions makes your management job simpler. Plus, well-conformed feet can act as appropriate shock absorbers, reducing concussion and some of the further-up-the-leg injuries discussed in this article.

Look for high-quality horn with a wall thickness that holds a nail well. Choose a horse with strong heels that don't under-run or roll in. You're looking for a strong posterior base of support, with heels underneath the body, rather than slanted forward with excessive toe growth.

2. Conformation. This is a tricky one. Your friends may hammer on you to select a horse with close-to-ideal conformation. However, many horses deviate from what we consider "ideal" and do the job perfectly well. To me, overall balance is more key: Do all parts of the horse look as if they blend together? Or does he look as if he's made up of spare pieces? With proper balance you're more likely to get athletic ability—and soundness.

Balance is what enables so many different horses to event. I find it absolutely fascinating that we see such an enormous variety of types and breeds in our sport: from what we call a "ponified" (draught-y) horse to a very Thoroughbred type. All of them can compete, at some level, very competently. I love that about eventing.

Posted in Health, Hoof Care, Horse Care, Illnesses & Injuries, Lameness | | Leave a comment

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