Mastering a Vet Gate – Top Tips from Bella Fricker

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This article is aimed at riders thinking of upping the distance next season and have never done a vet gate before. The most important thing to realised is that the aim is to present your horse to vetting as soon as possible after you have completed your first loop as the clock does not stop until you have vetted. Once you’ve passed the vetting you go into a hold, usually 30mins for GERs but it can be 40mins and this is where both you and your horse can take it easy and have a bit of a rest. However, this is not possible without careful planning and preparation for this phase and I would strongly suggest you try this at home first i.e. going out for two rides one after the other, factoring in a 30min break where you can try out a few of thing you need to do in a vet gate which I will now explain.

RUGS As always in Britain the weather can be unpredictable but it’s fairly guaranteed that if you’re going to be trying your first gated ride as some of the earlier rides in the season or even the very later ones then it’s going to be relatively cold! My number one necessity in a vet gate is having adequate rugs, particularly in the colder parts of the season. As you know yourself, if you’ve exercised and sweated and then stop you will begin to feel the cold much more quickly, this is exemplified for a wet horse! I would recommend clipping you horse, even if it is only a bib because ‘every little helps’. Horses tend to dry much more quickly when they are clipped and my moto is that if your horse is too warm you can always take a rug off, it’s much harder to warm the horse up after it has got cold. The danger of allowing your horse to get cold is that he will waste valuable energy keeping warm (as if the ride wasn’t hard enough) and he could possibly get stiff. So definitely monitor your horses’ temperature whilst you’re in the hold.  Don’t underestimate a cloud and the effect of the temperature on your horse, or a slight breeze can create a chill. My top picks for rugs are wicking rugs because you can layer these up and not make the horse sweat. I also like a rug with a neck cover because I don’t see why the neck should be excluded as a major muscle group that you don’t want to get cold! Most importantly – don’t forget the hamstrings!! If you’re horse is standing there with a rug that is too small or even one that fits but the wind is just blowing up through his back legs that’s not particularly helpful either! You will often see my horses with a rug on, and another rug just over the back end draping down near to the hocks! It looks odd and you may be thinking, she just needs to pull that rug up, but it’s intentional! In the summer it can be a different story but I’d still advise to have several rugs as options just in case! Lightweight waterproofs or waterproof sheets are ideal vet gate box rugs because you can use them in summer as a wind break and shower protector but also in winter as an additional layer on top. I have at least two waterproofs with me at any one time, because often once the rug is wet it’s also cold and it’s nice to be able to put a dry one on for a second vet gate or at the end.

FEED It’s important to make sure that you bring all the same feed that you would normally be feeding at home. A vet gate is not the ideal environment or situation to suddenly be introducing something different. The exception to this rule would be if you horse is absolutely not eating or drinking a thing that you have to offer it or if in fact you’ve forgotten your feed so you’re borrowing from a friend! I’m also a bit cautious about letting my horse gorge out on too much grass on the principle that you want to try to keep the digestive system as happy as possible and that means keeping the same fibres and feeds that he’s used to. Also its fair to say that some venues, particularly in the summer, have very little grass to speak of so it’s best not to rely on this as your sole provider of fibre in a vet gate – just in case! Always bring your hay/haylage from home when you can for the reasons explained above. The small pack haylage bales are brilliant for taking away to rides, particularly if your taking more than one horse or staying overnight because they are very compact thus leaving more space in the vehicle/trailer for other essential kit. If you don’t normally feed haylage I would suggest that you could safely introduce this into your horse diet perhaps 2-3 weeks pre-ride and this would help not only with space but also with further hydration as it has a higher moisture content than hay but also offering a higher nutrient quality than some hay. For a fussy feeder haylage might be even more attractive, especially if you’ve only introduced it a few weeks before, as the novelty of it might be a good enticement. In terms of hard feed, as a general rule I allow my horse to eat as much chaff/alfalfa/chop/fibre/fibre mash as he wants. If you’re horse is a very keen eater then maybe take a tighter rein on this as you don’t want him to gorge out and not be able to move out of the vet gate for being weighed down! As I’m not a nutritionist I haven’t formed an opinion on feeding concentrates in the vet gate to a firm enough level in which I feel confident to succinctly say whether or not to feed them. I’ve competed many different horses for many different owners who all have different vet gate feeding regimes. The only principle I would stick to is unlimited fibre and perhaps a little concentrate if that is what you normally feed. With regards to supplementation there’s also a lot of contention about whether to give your horse energy syringes/electrolyte syringes. Once again, I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not 100% sure on the answer. I feed my horses Xtrolyte Blue everyday, ensuring they at least start the ride on optimum levels – we all know horses cannot store salt, they will excrete excesses. Equally we also all know just how much a horse will sweat during a ride, particularly when the distances are increased. If you can get an electrolyte supplement into the vet gate feed then I think this is a stress free and easy way to do it that is certainly not going to do any harm to your horse. However, fussy feeders are once again a bit more tricky and I would suggest an electrolyte syringe would be a good choice if you don’t think they will eat it in their feed. The energy syringes come into their own on really hard rides, very long rides etc. and always keep them as a backup in the vet gate box. Ideally you want to be able to get your horse round the course without these, it’s part of getting them fit, but you never know what the ride might throw at you and I’m certainly not adverse to using them when they’re needed! The final thing you may want to consider is having a good supply of carrots and apples in the vet gate. Some people say that these have too much sugar, but the water content and subsequent benefits far outweigh this in my opinion.

EQUIPMENT Your standard crewing/end of ride equipment needs to be in your vet gate. As already said, the idea is to vet as quickly as possible in a vet gate so having everything laid out before hand in an organised fashion can save heaps of time. You’ll need buckets of water, sweat scrapers, sponges, a hoof pick and either a HR monitor or stethoscope as a minimum. Jugs, sloshes, small buckets are ideal for pouring a lot of water on quickly. In the cooler months a sponge will probably do the job because you’re horses’ HR should drop of much more quickly in the cold. If you horse isn’t used to a lot of water being thrown at him from all directions then a sponge is probably preferable too because otherwise you may just excite him or worry him which won’t help to bring his HR down. I prefer to use an electronic HR monitor but a lot of people prefer to use a stethoscope, use whichever is easiest for you. My top tip is to tie your hoof pick to your HR monitor then you can’t forget to pick your horses feet out! It’s so easy to forget when you’re rushing and trying to get everything else done too. Remember if your horses’ HR is too high you are always allowed to represent but if your horse is lame because he has a stone in his hoof then this is the end of the ride. Its takes all of 15secs to just check your horses feet! Don’t miss this important step out! Unless of course your horse is padded, in which case you’d like to think that you wouldn’t have to check and probably 99.99999% of the time pads are brilliant, but there can be the odd very sharp stone of flint which pierces a pad and you may need to deal with this before you vet!

I’m quite a big fan of really cooling off the legs in vet gates too, especially if the horse has been wearing brushing boots. Ice boots are a really good investment and there are lots on the market for different price ranges. If your horse will stand in a bucket of ice water then that’s great but a lot of horses won’t and I like that you can walk your horse whilst wearing the cool boots. The best ones I’ve found are called Cold One as you can put them in the freezer. They have the freezable gel inside which stays malleable. At rides I keep then in the cool box and I can just keep putting them in and out with no problems. Some people use massage pads in a vet gate too but as I haven’t got one myself I can’t say whether or not they’re particularly useful. I’ve heard they’re really good at relaxing the horse but I think someone rubbing the horses back will be just as, if not more, useful in terms of keeping the blood flow going to key muscle groups. Other things to have in the vet gate include at least a chair or something for the rider to sit on. The hold is a rest for you just as much as it is for the horse. Similarly with the rugs, you might need a few extra layers in the hold in case you get cold sitting around. Make sure you go to the toilet in the hold, if you don’t need to go then this is a sure sign that you are dehydrated so drink more water!!! The best foods to eat human-wise in a vet gate are carbohydrate things such as pretzels and rice cakes, cereal bars etc. Bananas are also a firm favourite widely known to be able to power a 90min workout! I drink copious amounts of water and also a couple of Torq energy gels – if I’m feeling tired. These are miracle workers I guarantee!

WHAT TO DO I’ve talked quite a lot about all the things you need to make sure you have in a vet gate but not a lot about what to do. In an ideal world you need at least one crew person to make a vet gate a viable proposition. There are people that seem to manage to do an 80km on their own which whilst admirable must be completely exhausting and I really do not like the idea that there is no back up person should the horse/rider need serious help during the day. Depending on the number of crew you have in the vet gate does affect how you work a vet gate somewhat. The key thing is to plan out which person is doing what job. There’s no point clambering over one another and getting in each other’s way when trying to untack/cool/present to vet. The main jobs to be done are – getting the vet gate card from the timekeeper, taking the saddle off, taking martingale/breastplate off (if worn), taking boots off (if worn), taking bridle piece off if you plan to vet in just a headcollar and then cooling the horse, potentially putting a rug over the back end/whole body for vetting, taking HR and picking out feet and then actually presenting to vet. Once you’ve vetted the next thing to do is hand your horse over to your crew and make sure you get some time to rest as well. Your crew will hopefully have got the feed and hay/haylage out ready for the horse and will be able to stand with the horse. Make sure that there is no sweat/dirt left anywhere that may rub the horse so either sponge this off or let it dry and then brush it off. Clean numnahs, girths, boots should be lined up and ready for the next loop. Bridles should be wiped over so there is no dried sweat and if you are reusing any equipment you should also give this a clean to make sure it is ready to be used again. Taking the horse for meanders around the venue are good idea to keep him moving and if your crew can master walking along with haylage in a bucket that’s even better!

CONCLUSION In summary, practice makes perfect and if you can try out all of these things at home first and see what works for you and your horse then you’ll be able to master your own vet gate. The beauty of endurance is that it allows for so many different techniques and approaches so what works for me might not work for you. I hope I’ve at least given you some ideas about what you can do to improve the vet gate experience for your horse and also some encouragement that it’s not really that difficult!