Time and the high cost of labor or the lack of experienced labor to work the ranch has led to changes up and down the production system.

Mechanized cattle gatherers like four-wheelers or other ATVs and pickups have replaced the horse on most ranches.

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Some ranches believe it’s their duty to keep the image of the “cowboy” alive and have kept things as they would have been a century ago on many of these historic ranches.

Other ranches cover such vast territory of rough terrain or operate in areas with marginal ground, and horseback is the most efficient way to handle the cattle. Whether it’s prowling the pastures or dragging calves to the fire, horses have played an integral role in the history of ranching.

For many working cowboys, they depend on their equine partner to get the job done, and often the horses will be fed and bedded down before the ranch hand has his supper.


“Some don’t view a working ranch horse in the same category as a racehorse or an arena horse, but they often work harder,” says Dennis Sigler, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension equine specialist.

To adequately maintain these four-legged ranch hands, it takes a team of experts to keep these hard workers at peak performance. Basic things like nutrition and hoof care to more advanced wellness experts like a chiropractor or a dentist all play a role in keeping ranch hands well-mounted.

“Integrated medicine is really important. It’s important that your veterinarian, chiropractor, farrier and dentist can all work together to help maintain a healthy horse.

A lot of what we do starts with a good farrier because the horse has to be maintained from the ground up,” says Dr. Jill Beaty, Competitive Edge, Elgin, Oklahoma.

“The vet, farrier, chiropractor and dentist need to work as a team. Every successful operation I work for has a team that takes care of their horses to ensure peak performance.

There might be a vet that specializes in lameness or a vet that specializes in reproduction, but we all work as a team to maintain that horse,” says Justin Talip, a certified equine dentist in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

Basic husbandry and horsemanship skills are also needed to make sure the horse can do its job. Top hands know the horse’s well-being starts with nutrition and health. Conditioning also plays a role in injury prevention and maintenance.

“Everybody needs to consult their vet from a general health standpoint. Make sure horses are vaccinated and de-wormed. A good feeding program is a must for these horses.

Emphasize a complete well-balanced feeding program that includes some long-stem hay and some supplemental fat because of their high caloric demand,” Sigler says.

“Some ranch horses see long layoffs and don’t have enough time to get properly conditioned before they go back to work. The cardiovascular system gets in shape quicker than the skeletal system.”

“Proper nutrition is the foundation of health and wellness for your equine partner. There are a lot of good feeds on the market that provide complete nutrition and many supplements that are good for joints, hocks and stifles,” Beaty says. “Fitness is important. Ranch horses are high-use animals.”

Good feeding programs are the first step to maintaining a sound working partner on the ranch, but feed sometimes goes to waste if proper dentistry hasn’t been performed.

“Good dentistry benefits the health of the horse because it helps digestion and feed travels more efficiently through a balanced mouth,” Talip says. “Proper feeding also helps.

Horses were designed to eat off the ground. Feed your hay on the ground and grain in a pan on the ground because the teeth line up better when the horse’s head is down.

If the head is in an awkward position eating out of a hay rack or the feed receptacle is too high, it makes it hard for the horse to process feed, which can lead to a variety of dental issues or more serious problems like colic and choke.”

Many equine partners are also individuals. Horses have different pain thresholds, which makes it difficult sometimes to rely on them when it’s time to see one of the specialists for either a check-up or timely procedures.

“Horses have different pain tolerances, and some are tough enough it takes a long time before you can see they are hurting.

For a variety of reasons, horses go longer than they should before they see a dentist, and when a horse’s mouth gets bad, it’s a lot of work to correct those problems,” Talip says. “I want to see a horse every six months if I can. From 2 ½ until 4 they are shedding molar caps and new teeth are coming in.”

“Ranch horses spend hours under saddle and perform a variety of jobs on the ranch. They should get checked for proper alignment every four to six weeks to make sure they’re comfortable and can do their job,” Beaty says.

“Vertebrae out of alignment can have an affect on the central nervous system. If there is joint pain, that horse can’t do his job. It’s important to diagnose if it’s joint pain or an injury. If it’s an injury, then consult with your veterinarian right away to get the trauma taken care of.”

Ranch hands like their hat to fit a certain way and other equipment to be ready to do the job. For some it’s vanity to wear fancy boots and spurs, for others it’s a status symbol – but for most, the hours spent in the saddle dictate comfort, and the equine partner deserves the same.

“If your horse is developing some soreness issues, it’s often because of poor saddle fit,” Sigler says. “Proper saddle fit or changing pads could correct these issues.”

“Because of the long hours, checking saddle fit is very important,” Beaty says. “Periodically check and make sure your tack and saddle fit correctly. There are a variety of pads available that can increase comfort for those long days.”

Periodic visits from these specialists could actually help solve training issues or eliminate problems before they start. Horses that are out of alignment or need dental work often become problems for their riders.

“Horses that aren’t properly aligned often pick up bad habits or develop a bad attitude because of discomfort,” Beaty says. “Other injuries can also occur because the horse is overcompensating in other areas to hide discomfort.

Bad teeth also make my job harder because it causes a lot of problems, and if it’s not corrected, those problems will keep re-occurring. If your horse has been working well and then starts to develop bad habits or a bad attitude, chances are something’s wrong and there is discomfort.”

“Young horses need their wolf teeth removed,” Sigler says. “If horses have sharp points and haven’t had their teeth done in a while, that could cause a lot of issues. Attitude is probably going to be one of them.”

“A horse’s upper molars are wider than the lower molars, so they get sharp on the outside and inside because there is nothing opposing tooth growth.

Head tossing or rearing are signs it’s time to do some dental work,” Talip says. “Young horses need their wolf teeth removed before they are introduced to the bit.

It’s very painful for the horse if this isn’t taken care of. I have a lot of clients who want that young horse to receive dental care before they are started under saddle.”

All three professionals encourage people to check credentials before hiring a specialist. Each state has different rules governing licensing and certification.

“Anybody can buy some tools on eBay and print business cards overnight,” Talip says. “It’s really important you check credentials because there are only two or three schools out that teach proper dentistry. Ask for certification or other paperwork.”

“All states have laws governing chiropractics,” Beaty says. “Don’t ever be afraid to check credentials to make sure they are up to par.”

Proper maintenance leads to a better life for equine partners. Health and well-being start with a well-maintained partner. Periodic visits from the experts will help remove any doubt when it’s time to go to work and your partner is at the top of his game.

“It’s easier to maintain health and wellness than it is to regain it. Injuries cost a lot of time and money,” Beaty says. “With proper maintenance, some of these can be avoided,”

“If those horses help you make a living, it’s a good feeling to step on that horse and know he’s properly maintained,” Talip says. “Like with most tools on the ranch used to get a job done, if they haven’t been properly maintained, you’re not going to get the job done.”  end mark

Clifford Mitchell is a freelance author based in Oklahoma.


The farrier is just one of the specialists that are needed to work as a team on horse maintenance. Photo by Krista Marchant.