The Thoroughbred race horse and the racing industry as a whole has been an area of keen interest to me, dating back to my days in veterinary college. As students, we would see these unique patients on a daily basis and assist in therapy. I would also spend much of my off-time, at the local race tracks in Ohio, in the backstretch, to get a different view point and learn as much as I could. Given my current location, we do not have TB racing in our state, but yet, I still work with them on an almost daily basis through rehabilitation and consultations, with a quick trip here and there to tracks outside of my state. Through our research and consultations, along with reading as much as I can my hands on, I begin to make connections to what we are doing now, as compared to 20-30+ years ago. Could these differences or changes be creating the rise in lameness, poor performance and EIPH (bleeders)? If so, could management of these factors help us to reduce those problems and maybe enhance performance on a whole new level?
The Thoroughbred and Unique Issues
The Thoroughbred race horse is a unique animal, being pushed often beyond capabilities at such as young age. Our incidence in catastropic breakdowns is on the rise and leads to a high number of horses being euthanized, destined to slaughter or living a life in pain with a rescue group. There is also a tremendous rise in tendon injuries, sore feet, joint pain, bleeders (EIPH) and overall poor performance. What is causing these numbers to rise? Is it poor breeding or dilution of gene pools, as some would say? Is it the change in track conditions with more artificial surfaces being introduced on some tracks? Or are we just pushing these horses beyond their capabilities? Really, the answer is that it is not any ‘one’ thing, but a combination of many.
Over the past years, I have had the privilege of working with many great TB horses coming off of the track. Some have career ending injuries, in which case our focus was to mange that condition and improve quality of life. In others, we had ongoing joint, tendon or foot pain that reduced the capacity to perform. After working with these patients, you begin to gain a feel for patterns and circumstances that may be contributing. When we modify these factors, the end result is much better. Patients are returned to active racing in a short period of time, despite the injury being perceived as career-ending. In others, they are retrained for a new career, but yet doing quite well considering. Either way, most came in with what was perceived as a career-ending condition, but left actively working. This was not done through the use of a hot-walker, exercise pool, solar-blankets or lights, shock-wave therapy, stem cell injections or the use of medications. Success was achieved in most by looking at the body, understanding what is going on physiologically, why it is happening, then making every attempt to reverse or alter those pathways. It is like taking an engine that is not performing well and realizing it is the quality of fuel going in, which is creating the problem.
Here are my observations:
- The diet has changed in most equine disciplines, racing included, over the past 45 years. We have gone from feeding whole foods and grains, to using commercial and highly processed feeds.
- Inflammation is rampant and contributes to a host of problems.
- The level of training has also changed, more focusing on short-term speed, rather than duration and stamina.
- Conditioning has also changed, not pushing those horses close to their maximum performance in routine training exercises.
- Foot health is a major problem contributing to a host of lameness concerns.
- Ongoing stress in that animal, from mutiple origins, is contributing heavily to lameness, gastrointestinal conditions, poor performance and even bleeding.
Let’s look at few key points and assess their potential impact.
Diet and Nutrition:
This is a huge area of interest to me as it impacts the entire body, health and soundness. It can be your best friend and ally or it can be your worst enemy, even when you think what you are doing is correct. Looking back 45 years ago, to the early 1970’s, we see that most of those horses were fed whole grains, usually oats, with barley and bran mashes. In some cases, the trainers would incorporate a sweet feed into the regimen, which when compared to today’s commercialized feeds, is still likely more ‘whole food’ in comparison. As we move later in time, around 1978, we begin to see that highly processed feeds begin to become more commonplace and used in the industry. What’s the big deal, one may ask? Despite those commercial feeds having a label with all sorts of nutrients noted, they are not real food, they are processed foods. The nutrients are altered, synthetically added in most cases, which is a far cry from the natural nutrients found in real food. One cannot take a vitamin C tablet and believe they are getting the whole benefits of an orange. Today’s feeds are highly processed and the more we process a food, the more nutrient value is lost and in reality, the higher the glycemic index, which then potentially alters insulin and sugar regulation in the body…fueling inflammation. If a person’s health is dire, we don’t advise them to eat more processed food, we advise them to eat more ‘whole foods’, which provide way more nutrient value to the body. This should be the same with a horse and health or performance is not altered by a bag of processed feed. I have discussed this in another article on commercial feeds.
The other area of concern when it comes to the diet, is the amount of grain we are feeding. In the day’s of Secretariat, it was noted in his groom’s journal that he was fed 2 quarts of whole grains about 3-4 times per day. Why is this important? When it comes to the horse, they are not huge grain consumers. They like grain, but too much is not a good thing. We are falsely led to believe that grain is needed in high volume to enhance energy and performance. While grains are high in carbohydrates for energy, this does not mean they need large amounts. In reality, based on whole oats and their natural starch levels, anything over 2 lbs in feed volume, leads to overdrift of carbohydrates into the hindgut. We don’t want that. Carbohydrates are meant to be digested and absorbed mainly in the foregut. When they drift over to the hindgut, problems develop because now we have provided a fuel source for certain bacteria. Those populations shift, the microbiome changes, and problems develop. In the end, we have acidosis, inflammatory patterns, immune system dysfunction and even reduced performance. Due to the inflammation, we have changes in circulation, digestion and nutrient absorption, and overall tissue health. This then equates to increased foot soreness, poor foot health, weakened tendons, joints that are stressed and painful and even changes in behavior due to ulcers. Bleeding or EIPH then become more of a problem, secondary to inflammatory changes and acidosis. Performance is also impacted on many levels.
Looking at all of this, we have to question whether if our current feeding regimen is helping us and them or hurting them? Could it be contributing to a host of problems? I think the answer to this is ‘yes’, but the solution is not as simple as changing a diet, in most, due to the level of damage. For some, it can help immensely, while in others we need to manage it further. I don’t think the answer is a commercial feed, no matter what that salesperson or nutritionist tells you. Plain and simple, any move away from whole foods is a move in the wrong direction. We just have to look at basic human research to see this is true. An Olympic human athlete does not acquire their main diet through processed foods or foods with fortified nutrients. They use whole foods and a logical approach to diet. We can do the same in horses, which can impact outcomes dramatically on many levels.
Inflammation & Stress:
We have encountered OTTB’s with a mulitude of injuries, but the three most common problems were sore feet, tendon injuries and sore joints. The connector with all of these problems is inflammation, which we typically think refers to pain, but the problem goes much deeper. Inflammation is not just involved in the perception of pain, but is a cellular process, and a damaging one when not controlled. When we have pain, we have inflammation present, but even when pain is not present or detectable clinically, we often still have inflammation. If we have a horse that is not performing well, or has an ongoing injury or even sore foot or feet…we have inflammation.
This inflammatory process is fueled by many events or contributors with the two big ones being; stress and diet.
The diet, as discussed above, has changed dramatically with a much higher use of processed feeds. I don’t believe these feeds are natural, nor do they provide the nutrients that the body really desires. The diet can either create or reduce inflammation, dependent on how it is used. If we have a horse on a high load of processed feeds, we are often creating inflammation in that animal, like fuel to a fire. In many cases, that processed feed is not digested well as compared to whole foods and nutrients are not properly utilized, nor provided. If we do not digest properly or we create imbalance in the gut, then we are adding to the problem. If we are not providing proper nutrient provisions for the body, we are contributing to inflammation.
Stress is inherent in almost every racing Thoroughbred and this is clearly evident by the high use of ulcer medications and also undesirable behavior patterns such as weaving, cribbing and even pawing. These are vices created to release stress and are brought on by stress. Just by stalling that animal 23 hours out of the day, creates stress. Think of how you would respond to being locked in your bedroom for 23 hours out of the day, just looking out a window, but yet having the internal energy to move a mountain. Problems would develop. When we combine the stress of confinement, the diet, and also that associated with training, we contribute to the inflammatory problem. Thus, we have more ulcers, more foot problems and injuries that fail to heal properly or respond to therapy. Stress is a real problem and leads to a host of hormonal changes in the body, which are not necessarily healthy in nature.
By managing the diet and reducing stress, we can reduce the inflammatory pathways in that animal. Considering though, the nature of the industry, with ongoing confinement and other practices, we likely cannot control it 100% and desire additional help.
This is where, in addition to a clean, wholesome diet, we implement herbs with proven efficacy to modify the stress and inflammatory pathways. This is key in most and what has assisted us to enhanced recoveries in many patients, returning them to a higher level of competition than prior. There are of course, many other factors that are problem areas in the racing horse. We have concerns regarding hoof health and foot soreness. Bleeding and use of Lasix and other medications. However, despite these being problems, many are tied back into the stress, diet and inflammatory pathways mentioned above. When we address those three adequately, often the other perceived problems become more in check, more manageable.
When we look at all of the problems facing the racing Thoroughbred in today’s times, it can be overwhelming. If we step back and see it for what it is, the process is rather quite simple. It abides by the simple law of ’cause and effect’. When we change or alter the ’cause’ we change the ‘effect’. Despite most of the issues facing the rehabilitation patients we have aided over the years, over 80% of them have returned to full racing or competition in another discipline. In most, they are functioning at a higher level and in some, competition times are dramatically reduced by an average of 0.05 seconds. That equates to higher performance and stamina.
The Thoroughbred is an amazing animal with a tremenous amount of history behind them. I believe that if we look to our past, and apply current research and experience, their future health and performance can be dramatically enhanced. Often, this is done for a fraction of the costs associated with current therapy regimens and has a longer-lasting effect when implemented daily.
In future articles, we will look at the impact of hoof health and bleeding (EIPH) on the industry, along with what options may be available for better management.
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Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M., CVCH, CHN