Many horses who compete at the higher levels of dressage retire from competition in their late teens — but don’t tell Turbo that. 

The 20-year-old Lusitano owned by horse trainer Katherine Abrams receives veterinary care through Equine Field Service, part of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Thanks to the diligence of his owner, riders, farrier, and veterinary care team, the aging athlete is able to compete at advanced levels. 

The dressage master

Turbo has been regularly competing at the international, or FEI, level of dressage since 2018. 

Dressage is one of the three horse sports in the Olympics, and it is considered the foundation of many other sports. In a dressage competition, competitors ride a test, which is a set of prescribed movements designed so that the judges can evaluate elements like the horse’s rhythm, impulsion, straightness, and collection. 

Abrams has been riding dressage since she was 10 years old, and she has been a horse trainer for her entire adult life. 

"These horses love their jobs. They're eager to come out when people come to the farm, they come to the gate, and they have happy demeanors. We're always looking for signs of discomfort so we can immediately treat that,” said Abrams. 

Caring for an athlete

Turbo receives all the care and services a human athlete would have: he has a personalized nutrition program and workout schedule, consistent checkups, joint injections, and acupuncture treatments, plus time off in the winter “off season” — he even has his own chiropractor. This equine athlete receives top quality veterinary care from the veterinary college. 

Lauren Trager-Burns, clinical assistant professor of equine sports medicine and rehabilitation, has worked with Turbo for several years. 

"Our sports medicine service caters to all horses, whether they're at the top of their sport like Turbo is, or if they're a lesson horse for beginner riders,” Trager-Burns said. “We are all about supporting the horse as an athlete, and just like with human athletes, prevention is key. We want to catch issues early before they become a big problem, so a big tenant of our sports medicine program is prevention.”  

Horses in the sports medicine service are screened regularly for potential issues. 

When a horse in the program comes in for a checkup, the veterinarians start by taking a thorough history of the horse, its training, and any changes in management, and they gather information on the horse’s diet. The veterinarian then makes sure that all of the horse’s body systems are functioning well, paying special attention to the heart and lungs. Then, the veterinarian assesses the musculoskeletal and neurologic systems before evaluating the horse at the walk and trot, studying the horse’s gaits for any sign of lameness, a term meaning limping or soreness. 

Several years ago, the veterinary college team treated Turbo for a suspensory injury. The suspensory ligament is a ligament in the horse’s leg, and injuries to the suspensory are often career-ending. It took Turbo two years to recover fully, but thankfully he was able to return to the work he loves.

It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child — it takes a team of professionals to keep a horse performing its best. 

"Competing in the upper levels of any equine sport, especially dressage, requires a large and available care team that's really knowledgeable,” Abrams said. “It's been amazing. When I had my first few horses in the upper levels, I didn't have that support structure, and it was a lot harder. It's been amazing to have answers all the time and to have people available who understand the importance of competitive care for the horse. We're really lucky for sure,” said Abrams. 

Farrier chiseling on a horse hoof.
Travis Burns working on Turbo at the veterinary college. Photo by Margie Christianson for Virginia Tech.

Travis Burns, chief of farrier services, echoed that sentiment. 

"You need an entire team when a horse is showing at that level, and farrier care is a part of that team. We work with a lot of the vets here, most closely with the surgery, sports medicine, and field service groups,” explained Burns. 

A farrier is a person who works with horses’ hooves professionally, performing anything from a routine hoof trim to corrective shoeing to fix a problem. Hoof health is a crucial part of a horse’s overall health—after all, a horse spends all of its time on its feet. 

Burns met Turbo several years ago when he came in with a quarter crack, a fracture in the hoof wall near the back of the hoof. After that problem was treated, Turbo became a regular customer, and now Burns sees Turbo every four to six weeks for routine hoof care. Burns is able to work around Turbo’s show schedule to ensure his hooves are in the best shape for competition.

White horse and rider during a dressage competition.
Andi Kostura riding Turbo during the Region 1 USDF Championships Finals. Photos courtesy of Liz Crawley Photography.

The road to U.S. Dressage Finals

Abrams has owned Turbo for about 12 years, and in her lesson program at Harmony Hills Equestrian Center, students learn how to ride advanced movements from experienced horses like Turbo. One such student is Andi Kostura, who rides Turbo regularly. 

"I've been riding Turbo for about three years now, and it's nice to have that relationship — we know each other pretty well, and we can anticipate things. I don't usually get nervous at shows, but at the bigger ones, it's kind of inevitable that you do. I like that I can trust Turbo in those really high-pressure environments,” said Kostura. 

Riding Turbo has allowed Kostura to check several items off on her bucket list.

"We've finished some of my rider awards — in dressage, there are medals that riders work towards, and I already had my bronze medal, but I finished my silver medal with Turbo. This year, I finished my silver freestyle award with him. He was the first horse I did Prix St. George on, which is the international level of dressage, and I got my first score towards my gold medal with him this year,” said Kostura. “Hopefully we'll get another one next year!"

Other bucket list items Kostrura and Turbo have checked off include competing at the prestigious Dressage at Devon competition and at the regional championships. After earning reserve champion at regionals, the pair qualified for U.S. Dressage Finals. 

White horse and rider during a dressage competition.
Andi Kostura riding Turbo during the US Dressage Finals. Photos courtesy of Susan J Stickle.

"Even to be middle of the pack at U.S. Finals is a huge accomplishment because this is the best of the best in the country. The quality of the horses there is just unreal,” said Kostura. 

Only three weeks before the U.S. Dressage Finals, Turbo started to show discomfort in one of his front legs, and soon he was limping even at the walk. 

"It's every horse owner's worst nightmare to come out and see their horse limping — especially if they're working towards a big show or competition. Your mind automatically thinks the worst,” said Trager-Burns. 

He was brought in to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for an evaluation, and the team used nerve blocks to pinpoint the source of the pain — it turned out that inflammation in the shoulder was causing Turbo’s pain. The injury was likely caused out in the pasture, maybe from roughhousing with other horses.

One week of rest and anti-inflammatories later, Turbo was off medication and ready to return to work, just in time for he and Kostura to finish preparing for the big competition. 

At U.S. Dressage Finals, they competed in fourth level dressage and in the freestyle. Kostura is happy with their performance in the fourth level competition, though she and Turbo didn’t end up with a ribbon. The pair also competed in the freestyle—in the freestyle competition, like in figure skating, each competitor designs their own performance. Kostura was thrilled to earn fourth place in the freestyle competition with Turbo.

Abrams, Kostura, and the rest of Turbo’s team hopes that Turbo will compete for many more years.

"He's a workaholic — he's been so much happier since he got back into work again,” said Abrams. “If he slows down, we'll slow down, but age is just a number, and he's comfortable, sound, and desperate for work and attention all the time. Why would we tell him he can't have that?" 

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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