Maximizing horse power
Are non-human athletes vulnerable to the same ailments as are their human counterparts? UCalgary researchers study such factors as performance stress, cardiovascular health and gastric ulcers in performance horses.
When Sarah Moss was just a little girl, her mom would hold her up in the saddle and she's been riding horses ever since. The Calgary rider, who jumps 1 metre 45, has competed internationally and at Calgary’s Spruce Meadows international ring.
“Once you get into owning a horse and the higher you jump, the more expensive everything becomes,” says Moss. While show jumping is one of the most expensive sports in the world, there’s also a huge emotional investment. Moss loves her horse, Stella. I’m very attached to her,” she says. “I don’t let anyone else ride her because I’m afraid they’ll ruin her. I’m very protective, kind of like a grizzly bear over her cubs.”
Stella gets acupuncture treatments, massages, chiropractic and dental care to keep her in top form. “The health of your horse is very, very important,” says Moss. “You have to take really good care of them and you can’t push them past their fitness and nutrition level because you can kill them that way.”
Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine are studying show jumping horses like Stella, as well as barrel racing and chuckwagon horses, to better understand a variety of issues – heart, breathing issues and gastric ulcers – that affect the health and performance of these amazing athletes.
“I’ve been around horses all my life, I grew up with them,” says Chris Peterson, a fourth-year UCalgary veterinary medicine student in the equine speciality. “I feel like with the university I am seeing the most current things happening in the equine world.”
UCalgary is very well situated for important veterinary research in part because of other areas of the university that are doing cutting-edge work, such as the Human Performance Laboratory, McCaig Institute and Cumming School of Medicine. “There are a lot of outstanding, world-renowned researchers outside of the vet school involved in biomedical research,” says Dr. Mike Scott, a long-time senior veterinarian at Moore Equine in Calgary, who has joined UCalgary as an associate professor of equine surgery. “The opportunity for collaboration is huge.”
Gastric ulcers in show jumping horses
While there has been much research into gastric ulcers in thoroughbred and standard-bred race horses across North America, Dr. Sarah Pedersen is the first to look at the prevalence of digestive tract disturbances in North American show jumping horses.
Pedersen, a veterinarian who graduated from UCalgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, is doing a Performance Horse Health Fellowship at TD Equine Veterinary Group in Calgary, a practice that serves the local show jumping community. “What Sarah is researching is a common problem that clinicians regularly encounter in performance horses,” says Dr. Dan French, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine of TD Equine, a practice that works with many performance horses competing at Spruce Meadows. “What she’s investigating in her project helps clinicians decide how we manage and treat sport horses.”
Pedersen performed gastroscopies on 89 Warmblood show jumping horses, from 14 different barns, to understand the prevalence of two types of ulcers – squamous in the top part of the stomach and glandular in the bottom.
When a horse has an ulcer, it may show a lot of “non-specific” signs, including a decrease in performance. “Sometimes their hair coat won’t look very good, they’re struggling to keep weight on, they’re sensitive when brushed,” says Pedersen. “Another concern could be a change of barn or change of environment. Some horses get really stressed when they travel to competitions. All of those can be warning signs.”
"Sometimes their hair coat won’t look very good, they’re struggling to keep weight on, they’re sensitive when brushed . . . "
The only sure way to know whether your horse has ulcers is to have a veterinarian perform a gastroscopy. But owners don’t always want to do that because they must fast their horse for a minimum of 12 hours, which can be a problem for an actively competing equine athlete.
“We wanted to give people a number, a per cent of horses that may or may not be suffering from ulcers in the barn, because some people may choose to give either a preventative dose of medication or treatment trial with medication to see if helps their horse,” says Pedersen. “We wanted people to have some numbers to make that decision.”
Results found 72 per cent of the horses had glandular ulcers – half of those were serious – and 40 per cent had squamous ulcers. A third of the horses had both squamous and glandular ulcers. The horses were at higher risk for ulcers if they exercised six or seven days a week and received hay only once per day.
“We’re wondering if either there’s a genetic component or if there’s actually something to do with the job the horse does and the type of exercise,” says Pedersen. “We’re trying to answer that question in the lab now.”
Things to remember
- If you’re concerned your horse may have a gastric ulcer, talk to your veterinarian. Every horse is an individual and requires an individual plan.
- To prevent ulcers, feed your horse hay frequently (more than once a day) and give your horse access to pasture.
- Avoiding stress may help to reduce risk of ulcers. Try to keep the horse’s regular routine and watch to see whether they’re being bullied by a paddock mate or subject to other stressors.
- If you don’t want to get a gastroscopy, you may choose to do a treatment trial or put your horse on medication for periods of stress, such as travel to and from a competition.
Heart and lung health in horses
Since arriving in Calgary a decade ago, Dr. Renaud Léguillette, DVM, has run clinical trials and field studies to find better treatment for horses with heaves (a lung disease equivalent to asthma) or inflammatory airway disease (IAD), and now focuses on understanding the exercise physiology of show jumpers and chuckwagon horses.
“There are lots of questions and lots of things we want to test,” says Léguillette, an associate professor at UCalgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, the Calgary Chair in Equine Sports Medicine, and equine internal medicine specialist at Moore Equine in Balzac.
In a study of barrel racing horses, he found they can bleed from the lungs while competing. “We found that 45 per cent do have some blood in their trachea (their windpipe) after racing, so they do bleed from the lungs,” Léguillette says. “You can use some drugs to prevent it, but they have other effects on the horse.” Now that he has determined the prevalence and severity of bleeders in barrel racing, he’s researching how to improve and manage treatment for the horses. “We are trying some new drugs. We are trying to address the problem.”
Léguillette looked at the heart health of horses that speed around the track hauling chuckwagons at the Calgary Stampede. Results of close to 500 electrocardiograms show they are “doing very well,” he says. “There is some arrhythmia and abnormalities collectively in some horses, but nothing really to be worried about in terms of cardiac problems when they race.” This ongoing research is the largest study to look at heart health of chuckwagon horses.
In another area of research, Léguillette found that a certain blood test can detect very minor cardiac muscle damage in a horse before it becomes a real problem. “It is quite important,” he says. “It will allow us to detect horses that have a cardiac problem before they race so you can decide to take the risk or not. And if there is some damage to the heart, you can follow that and make sure the horse fully recovers before he goes back racing.”
Erin Shields, who is working with Léguillette in the assay research, is doing a combined masters degree at UCalgary and a residency in sports medicine and rehabilitation at Moore Equine. “I work with clients every day and it’s of extreme interest to them that we understand from the grassroots up what the issues are,” she says. “The heart assay research is the first time there’s been collaboration with Calgary Laboratory Services and the Cumming School of Medicine. That is a very important link because it has opened up many doors to a lot of expertise.”
Things to remember:
- Owners often don’t even know their horse is bleeding from the lungs because you don’t see blood coming out of the nose. It only slows them down when bleeding is severe.
- Cardiac problems in horses often go undetected and aren’t apparent to owners until the problem is serious. Early detection is key.
- Do not ignore any coughing from your horses. It is the tip of the iceberg indicating probable lung inflammation, which is very frequent and often a management problem.
- Avoid round hay bales. Lung inflammation is more than twice as likely to occur in horses that use round hay bales, likely because they inhale a lot of dust and mould.
- We now have a good, sensitive test to detect cardiac muscle damage in horses.
- We are developing new technology to assess the fitness of horse athletes in the field.
Linda Atkinson was referred to Léguillette after her mare had breathing issues “out of nowhere.” The horse’s larynx was infected, compromising her ability to breathe. Léguillette performed laser surgery and removed vocal folds and as much tissue as possible. “Not only did he save the mare, he educated me as to his research and shared his incredible enthusiasm,” says Atkinson. “I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to support the research being done in Calgary. I can only hope others will come forward to partner with UCVM to make our horses healthier, safer and allow them the ability to perform at the top of their discipline – a gift in itself.”
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ABOUT OUR EXPERTS
Dr. Mike Scott, DVM, is an associate professor of equine surgery in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. He is focused on equine research related to performance horse health. His primary areas of interest are orthopedics, arthroscopy, diagnostic imaging, lameness diagnosis, and sports medicine. Find a list of his academic papers here.
Dr. Renaud Léguillette, DVM, is an associate professor of equine internal medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary and Calgary Chair in Equine Sports Medicine. His research areas include inflammatory lung diseases and equine sports medicine with a focus on cardio-respiratory physiology. His academic papers can be accessed here.
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