It’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Full of nervous excitement (human and horse usually!), dressed up and turned out to the nines, and with your groom/parents/boyfriend there with the camera, you have just trotted-up on the first day of a three day event, when the commentator announces the dreaded words: ‘number 134 has been referred to the holding box’. Whether you compete in many 3DEs each season, or whether this is your first ever trip up the trot-up strip, no-one enjoys being sent to the holding box. In fact even the vet probably doesn’t want to be there!
You have been sent for further examination because the Ground Jury have detected an irregularity with the way the horse trots. Sometimes this is just that the horse has a rather unusual action. It may be obvious to you that it isn’t a problem, but the GJ are probably seeing the horse for the first time, and after seeing 50 or so ‘normal’ horses, anything out of the ordinary tends to stand out. Other times the horse isn’t actually presented well enough for the GJ to make an assessment. This includes horses which mess around or canter when they should be trotting, horses which have their neck and shoulder curled around the handler (which makes the off-side front leg look suspect), and horses which aren’t trotted straight. Other times there is an actual lameness and it needs to be assessed whether this presents a welfare barrier to the horse continuing in the competition. Spectators often make remarks about horses passing which don’t look sound, however the GJ aren’t looking for a 100% sound horse such as you would want at a vetting. The criteria is ‘fit to compete’. If you are surprised about a horse being passed on the final day, it may well have a minor issue or irregularity of movement which was seen, assessed and noted at the first inspection and which has remained unchanged on the final day.
What to expect:
Firstly there isn’t usually a ‘box’ as such, it’s just a turn of phrase. Usually you are directed to a secluded area nearby where the vet can perform a closer examination of your horse. The procedure doesn’t really vary from the first horse inspection to that on the final day, but the assessment of any problems found does vary a little and the questions you are asked will.
The vet will want to know if you are aware of any problems, when the horse was last shod, if he’s done another 3DE recently and whether he was held then and how old he is. If it’s the horse inspection on the final day you will probably be asked about your XC run too – did the horse finish well, did he knock any fences, were you aware of any heat or soreness in the legs the previous evening, were there any nicks or wounds. The vet will then perform a thorough examination by eye and by palpation of the horse’s back and limbs. Feet will be picked up and hoof testers applied where possible (sometimes these horses are wired to the moon and to do so would be to take one’s life into one’s hands – a fairly well-known horse tried to take the author’s head off in the holding box recently!). Passive joint flexions are usually done, but the dynamic flexion tests that most of you are familiar with from vettings are not allowed to be carried out. Many event horses have a variety of lumps and swellings on their legs and it is important to know which are longstanding and unchanged, and which might be new.
The holding-box vet will then want to see the horse trot, and may give some recommendations to the handler if the actual method of trotting has been the problem. Based on this they will then recommend to the competitor whether it might be prudent to withdraw. A tactical retreat often saves more face than being ‘spun’!
If the competitor chooses to re-present then the holding-box vet will discuss their findings in private with the GJ. The horse will be slotted back in to trot-up again for the GJ’s decision as soon as possible. It is the Ground Jury who have the final say, although they take into account the findings (or lack of) of the holding-box vet.
You can help yourself by being polite and answering all questions truthfully and to the best of your knowledge. Being aggressive or difficult (and believe me, it does happen!) will not endear you to the people who get to decide whether you stay in the competition. It will not hurt your chances if you mention that the horse had a knock, or lost a shoe on the XC and had to be reshod. Rather, it may well help as it gives the vet an explanation for any unlevelness. A lameness of unknown cause will always be more of a worry and more of a risk for continuation in the competition. I did feel sorry for a competitor we recently had in the holding box with a horse who was very obviously stiff on a hindleg. The rider swore blind that nothing had happened to cause it, however I later found out that his horse had been kicked the previous evening when being hand-grazed by a groom, and she hadn’t been brave enough to tell him!
In summary, try to understand the process, try not to panic, be polite, and answer any questions as honestly and fully as you can. The whole process is all about safeguarding the welfare of the horses in the competition, and none of us can argue that that isn’t a good thing.