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Health Issues of Barrel Racing Horses
Full Circle Equine Services veterinarians manned a booth all weekend at the Safe Harbor Battle in the Saddle, August 1-3, 2014 at the Show Place Arena, Memphis, TN. Competitors could meet Kakki Wright and her two new veterinary associates and have their horses checked out for muscle, tendon, joint or other performance-related issues. Sarah Cates, DVM and Ellen Yungmeyer, DVM were available for consultation, temporary diagnosis of areas of concern on the horse, and demonstrated the new Pegasus Laser Therapy treatment.
Ellen Yungmeyer explained, “At Battle in the Saddle, we offered free screenings with our thermography camera. This is a fun tool to get a general screening of where a horse has inflammation, based on where on their body ‘looks hot’ on the camera image. (However, as we explained to many clients, this technology isn't perfectly accurate. We only use this information as a complement to a thorough physical exam, spinal and limb palpation, and lameness exam.) If a horse had a known problem area, if we elicited a response to palpation of a certain area, or a new area lit up on the camera, we offered laser therapy and the Game Ready icing system as treatments to get the horses feeling better before their next run.”
Laser Therapy uses a beam of laser light to deeply penetrate the tissue, where it is absorbed by the cells and initiates a chemical change that reduces pain, reduces swelling, reduces inflammation, and speeds healing. It can be used in treating tendon and suspensory ligament injuries, joint disease, osteoarthritis, and aids in wound healing, for examples. Class IV Laser Therapy can also be used to activate acupuncture points to treat a wide range of skin problems. Maintaining a healthy, balanced, pain-free horse is a key element in successful performance – whatever the riding discipline.
Ellen continued, “Laser therapy works by increasing blood flow and, therefore, speeding healing and alleviating pain in the area that is treated. Cold therapy, such as the Game Ready system, is very important for cooling down inflammation after acute injuries, and can be helpful before and after hard work.
“The areas we treated on many of these horses were hocks, hind suspensory ligaments, and backs.
“After talking to people about some of the issues their horses were having, several of them followed up with us in the weeks after the event to address some of these issues with lameness exams. We really enjoyed talking to everyone at the event and look forward to helping meet their horse needs in the future!”
The Full Circle Equine veterinarians were asked several questions about the various issues that performance horses, particularly barrel racing horses, might have. Following are their answers.
What are the common problems that barrel racers and other Western performance horses face?
Western performance horses are true athletes. Whether they’re barrel racing, cutting, or reining, they tend to start at a young age and work hard for the duration of their careers. The way they use themselves - with fast stops and starts, incredible hind end flexion and impulsion, and sharp turns – makes them predisposed to certain acute injuries, as well as chronic “wear and tear” conditions.
What kinds of soft tissue injuries occur in these horses?
Suspensory ligament injuries are fairly common in all equine athletes, including western performance horses. Like any other tendon or ligament, acute tears can occur. However, a condition we are recognizing more and more frequently is chronic desmitis, which is a gradual stretching and inflammation, causing the ligament to swell within its compartment and cause chronic pain. It can occur in any limb, but often occurs in both hind legs. This can be difficult to tell apart from hock arthritis, and can also be difficult to treat. These horses are also prone to soft tissue injuries of the stifle and the small ligaments and tendons around the navicular bone, coffin joint, and within the hoof capsule.
How are soft tissue injuries treated?
Almost all of these injuries require traditional treatments such as rest, cold therapy, and anti-inflammatories, but in the last few years, we have seen the development of several new treatment modalities to improve healing and alleviate pain in equine soft tissues. Regenerative medicine, such as stem cells, IRAP, and PRP, have been hugely popular, but more research is needed to determine how to best utilize them. Shock wave and laser therapy are also very helpful tools to keep a horse in work in the face of a mild or chronic injury.
What are the joint problems that commonly occur in Western performance horses?
A large percentage of these horses develop osteoarthritis of the hock joints. Some also have issues with their coffin joints in the forelimbs. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease that results in breakdown of the cartilage and poor quality of the fluid that lubricates joints. We also see the occasional arthritic carpus (knee) or fetlock as the result of an injury or bone chip.
How do you treat these joint conditions?
The good news about osteoarthritis is that we have many ways to manage it and slow its progression. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as “bute” and banamine are great for temporary relief of arthritis. There are countless oral joint supplements on the market, and these may be worthwhile as a preventative measure in young horses. However, since neutraceutical products are not regulated by the FDA or any other governing body, there is huge variation in the quality and efficacy of the products on the market.
Another issue is that horse’s digestive tracts do not absorb these compounds well, so depending on the formulation, the supplements you feed may end up in the manure pile. To avoid these issues, we recommend that clients buy products from companies that have had their products tested for safety and efficacy by independent firms. Many veterinarians feel that the best “bangs for your buck” are the injectable joint support products such as AdequanÒand LegendÒ. These are excellent products to improve the viscosity of joint fluid, and in the case of AdequanÒ, actually reverse some of the cartilage damage. The other advantage of these products is that they treat every joint in the body. That makes them ideal for older horses that have multiple problem areas.
Finally, individual joints can be treated with injections of anti-inflammatories and Hyaluronic acid. Joint injections are more invasive and expensive than the other therapies we’ve discussed, but they are the most effective way to deliver potent medication to a specific joint. Depending on the degree of damage to the joint and how many times it has been injected previously, these injections may help a horse stay comfortable for 6-12 months before they need to be repeated.
Quarter Horses are notorious for Navicular disease, right?
Unfortunately, that is true. We are now using the terms “navicular syndrome” or “caudal heel pain,” because since the advent of MRI, we’ve realized that a variety of problems in the navicular apparatus can cause symptoms that we used to call navicular disease. These structures include the navicular bone, the deep digital flexor tendon, the navicular bursa, the impar ligament, and the suspensory ligament of the navicular bone. Treatment will depend on which structure the pain is coming from, but in general this is a manageable condition. Corrective shoeing, rest, and in some cases, joint injections can help many of these horses stay in work for years after their diagnosis.
How do you diagnose these problems?
During a lameness exam, we watch the horse move and perform flexion tests to determine where his problem areas are. We also use a thorough physical exam and limb/spine palpation to hone in on areas that may be inflamed or sore. Nerve blocks help us confirm these findings, and exact diagnoses are often made by radiographs or ultrasound. Many performance or training issues are due to subtle lamenesses that can be detected during a lameness exam. Also, we are now performing “Soundness exams” on performance horses to screen for any early issues. Regardless of the exact cause of the lameness, catching it early gives the horse a better chance of a quick, complete recovery.
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