What could be happening when your horse isn’t giving 100 per cent? DR CAROLINE SPELTA and DR HANNAH HOMES have some clues.
When our equine athletes fail to perform as expected, or suddenly develop quirky behaviours that affect their performance, it is worth talking to your veterinarian about what could be going wrong. As with all finely tuned machines, the problem could be with one or a number of systems.
Most commonly, horses can be ‘scratchy’, not stretching out well, have a lack of impulsion, or are obviously lame. Lameness examinations are a useful tool for veterinarians to assess which limb or limbs are affected, and to identify the limb or area that is causing the altered gait.
According to Adam and Stashak’s Lameness in Horses, the objectives of a lameness examination are to:
- Determine if the horse is lame
- Identify which limb/s are involved
- Identify the site/s of the problem
- Identify the specific cause of the problem
- Decide on an appropriate treatment
- Provide a prognosis for recovery.
It is important for your vet to first collect a thorough history. Different conditions are more likely to affect certain types of horses. For example, the injuries that most frequently occur in a racehorse will differ from those that are common to a show jumper or a cutting horse. In a competition scenario, to ensure the health and safety of all equine athletes, horses are scratched or eliminated if they are showing signs of lameness.
Before assessing the horse in movement, a visual exam is usually performed. This is when your veterinarian will look for areas of swelling, muscle symmetry and/or asymmetry, conformation, posture, and weight distribution. Areas that are suspect can be palpated and manipulated to gain further information.
Lameness examinations are mostly performed at the trot gait. However, if the horse is obviously lame at the walk, there is usually no reason for them to be trotted up. There are many different surfaces a horse can be examined on, each providing different diagnostic benefits. Usually, a hard surface is best to perform a lameness examination as it can sometimes exacerbate a more subtle lameness, while also allowing the examiner to listen for a difference in the sound of foot placement. Generally, the unsound foot will make a softer sound as the horse is likely to place less weight on a sore limb.
Based on what is seen in the examination, the veterinarian can then decide on the most appropriate diagnostic tools to use in order to achieve a more conclusive diagnosis. These methods can include nerve blocks, radiographs, and ultrasounds. Once the cause of lameness has been identified, then an appropriate treatment plan and exercise program can be devised. Often, if available, a farrier, physiotherapist and/or other adjunct therapist will be involved in the treatment.
Other causes of poor performance include gastric ulcers, and heart and/or lung conditions. Ulcers are no longer an aliment found only in racehorses. They are also commonly diagnosed in sports horses, cow horses, and even ridden-once-a-month Pony Club ponies.
Gastric ulcers can cause a horse to be a fussy eater, be prone to bouts of colic, become girthy, or refuse to stretch out or work at high intensities for longer periods. The best way to diagnose gastric ulcerations is with a gastroscopy. To optimise visibility an empty stomach is preferable, so these procedures are usually carried out after the horse has been fasted for 12 hours.
Ulcers are graded based on their location and severity, and both these factors impact on the length of treatment necessary. There are several management strategies which can be implemented to help decrease treatment requirements and the need for repeat treatment cycles. Simple things such as feeding before working; keeping to routines; feeding good quality, higher protein diets if possible; and managing the horse’s stress especially around competition and traveling, all help to decrease the reoccurrence of ulcers and the duration of treatment required should they occur.
Any respiratory disease will decrease your horse’s performance. Young horses in their first race preparation or in training for their futurity year will be exposed to new horses and viruses while having only limited immunity. These diseases tend to be short lived but can cause lost training days and decreased performance during competition.
Equine asthma is also common in Australia, not always as the barn-associated winter disease usually prevalent in the northern hemisphere. Horses that travel, are housed in taped yards at dusty grounds, or compete in dusty arenas are also prone to it. Equine asthma is diagnosed based on the findings of an endoscopic examination and cytological analysis of broncho-alveolar lavage fluid. Treatment includes inhaled asthma medications and management strategies to decrease the horse’s trigger factors.
Equine exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH), commonly known as ‘bleeders’, is another disease generally thought to be associated with racehorses, but it is also often seen in rodeo horses, especially barrel racers.
EIPH can occur in conjunction with equine asthma and a heart condition know as atrial fibrillation, and it is important to rule out these other ailments as part of the process of managing EIPH. A complete respiratory work up and general examination will identify any comorbidities and your veterinarian will be able to devise a more comprehensive approach to treat or manage them all.
Cardiac disease is not a common cause for poor performance in horses who are not competing in high intensity disciplines. That said, it can occur and if present can be a serious risk to both the horse and rider. Sudden weakness, stumbling, unexplained falling, or a dramatic decrease in performance or recovery may indicate a more serious cardiac condition and a veterinary examination is warranted.
As the rider or trainer, you will know your horse best, and will be in tune with subtle changes in effort, willingness, and performance. Many of the conditions mentioned in this article are easier to successfully treat and manage early in the disease process, and if identified at their onset can often be prevented from getting worse. If you do notice any changes in your horse’s performance, it is always worth talking to your veterinarian about your concerns. Keeping our equines happy and healthy so they can work and play for longer should always be our top priority.
Visit Apiam Animal Health to learn more about their range of services.