Poor Performance (Ring Sour) in Horses

Key Takeaways

Owners and trainers often describe poor performance when there is either a decrease in previously achieved performance levels, or a horse is unable to reach a new, expected level of performance. 

• Each person’s definition of poor performance is slightly different, and depends on their horse, the discipline, and level of performance desired

• Symptoms of poor performance range from mild, such as uneven contact with the bit, to more serious, such as rearing or bucking

• Numerous underlying conditions can cause poor performance

• Diagnostic tests include physical examination, lameness examination, diagnostic imaging, endoscopy, and cardiac examination

• Treatment depends on the underlying condition diagnosed, and can range from physical therapy to surgical intervention

• Prognosis for depends on the condition, its severity, and its response to treatment, however most horses are able to return to previous performance levels

A Closer Look: What is Poor Performance in Horses?

Symptoms of poor performance range from mild to severe issues that prevent performance entirely. 

Mild signs of poor performance include:

• Lack of impulsion • Unwilling to bend the neck • Unwilling to accept the bit • Uneven contact in the reins

• Not tracking up behind • Late behind during flying changes • Difficulty picking up one canter lead

• Difficulty with extending or collecting the gaits • Knocking rails when jumping

More serious symptoms include:

• Refusing jumps • Reluctance or refusal to turn • Irregular rhythm to the gait

• Reluctance or refusal to sliding stop, roll back, or spin • Swapping leads behind in the canter

• Swishing tail

Horses experiencing severe symptoms show signs such as:

• Bucking or kicking out • Pinned ears • Rearing • Biting at the rider

Possible Causes

Poor performance is common in horses, with many horses experiencing at least one period of poor performance during their career. The underlying causes of poor performance vary widely, however most are related to lameness issues. Thorough investigation by a veterinarian helps identify the underlying problem and ensures prompt and effective treatment. In most cases, horses return to their previous level of performance successfully.

Risk Factors

Most causes of poor performance fall under one of the following categories:

• Musculoskeletal, such as mild lameness • Respiratory,, such as inflammatory airway disease

• Gastrointestinal, such as gastric ulcers • Cardiovascular,such as atrial fibrillation

• Neurologic, such as equine protozoal myeloencephalopathy

• External factors such as poor riding, poor management, or lack of talent in the horse

These conditions can also occur in combination.

Testing and Diagnosis

A thorough physical examination is the first step in diagnosing poor performance. Many veterinarians also watch the horse performing the desired activity, to evaluate:

• Saddle fit, including any slipping during riding • Behavior during saddling and mounting

• Behavior during warm-up and regular work • Behavior and recovery after exercise

Depending on the examination findings, specialized examinations may be required, such as:

• Lameness examination • Neurologic function examination • Respiratory examination

• Endoscopy to examine the gastrointestinal tract • Oral examination to assess for dental abnormalities

• Cardiac examination through ultrasound or ECG

These specialized examinations help pinpoint a particular organ system that is contributing to the horse’s behavior. To specifically identify an underlying cause, further testing is required, such as:

• Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or ultrasound • Specialized imaging, such as bone scans or CT scans

• Dynamic endoscopy • Dynamic ECG

Treatment trials with anti-inflammatory medications are also a practical diagnostic tool, particularly for horses where no obvious cause of pain is identified. If poor performance resolves when the horse is treated, then a painful condition is confirmed, although the location of pain is still unknown. If poor performance continues, then the symptoms may be behavioral, or related to the horse’s management, training regime, or lack of inherent talent. 

Treatment depends on the underlying condition diagnosed, and varies widely. Similarly, the prognosis for resolving symptoms of poor performance varies. Treatments include:

• Anti-inflammatory medications • Joint injections or other joint health-supporting medications

• Gastrointestinal protectant medications • Inhaled medications • Physical therapy • Surgical intervention

Similar symptoms

Exercise intolerance can show similar signs as poor performance. In exercise intolerance, the horse is willing to complete the task, but is physically unable to withstand exercise due to an underlying condition. Horses with poor performance typically can complete the task, but are unwilling to due to pain, discomfort, or behavioral reasons.

Associated Symptoms

Other symptoms commonly seen in association with poor performance include:

• Biting or pinning ears when girthing up • Discomfort during farriery

• “Ring sour” or poor attitude only when in the typical working environment

• Discomfort during grooming • Coughing during exercise • Stiffness • Lameness

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