Owners Schooled on Horse Health, Care Issues

By Ron Mitchell
Owners attending the inaugural Thoroughbred Ownership Conference at Keeneland were given a tutorial in proper horse care, common health and physical problems, and what some organizations are doing to improve the quality of life for equines and those who take care of them.

During the Oct. 15 panel "Care for the Thoroughbred and Foundations," equine veterinarians Drs. Larry Bramlage and Jeff Blea explained how the day-to-day training and racing regimen not only takes a toll on horses, but also how some health and physical problems can be avoided.

Bramlage, a renowned orthopedic surgeon, said the horse's skeletal system is the most important component of an equine athlete's makeup and that marginal fractures in the bones are among the most common injuries to a horse. "Their skeletons are their most vulnerable system," he explained. "What we are worried about is wear and tear over time."

With a two-year maturation period for horses compared with the 20-year span to maturity for humans, equine athletes actually use training and racing to strengthen their bones as long as the regimen is not overdone.

"The horse actually strengthens bone with training," Bramlage said, citing what he called the "overload over-repair" effect on the bones that comes with training and racing as being positives. However, he said if the overload comes faster than the over-repair, bone damage can result.

Bramlage cited data from California racing post-mortems that showed horses with a combination of timed workouts and races totaling 35 furlongs (equivalent to about 4.4 miles) over a two-month period have a four-fold increase in injury risk when compared to a workout/racing regimen totaling 25 furlongs during the same period.

"I have no problem with a trainer who puts a horse in to run on Saturday and then puts them in to run again the next Saturday," Bramlage said of a one-week turnaround in races. "But you can't do that over and over again. That creates an overload that doesn't have time to repair."

Bramlage cited Personal Ensign, one of the all-time great racehorses, as an example of horse for which the overload/over-repair concept worked. Personal Ensign was injured after winning her first two starts, Bramlage said, and efforts were undertaken to save the daughter of Private Account as a broodmare. After surgery in which five screws were implanted in an ankle and a one-year layoff, she went on to win an Eclipse Award as champion older mare and retired undefeated in 13 starts.

"It showed the coming-of-age repair that not only saved the horse's life but were able to start getting her back into training," Bramlage said.

Bramlage said the level at which a horse competes affects the stress on its musculoskeletal system, with horses such as those participating in graded stakes not being able to race as often as those in the lower-tiered races.

"The higher level you are racing is going to be harder on the skeleton," he said.

Blea, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, provided the conference attendees with a tutorial on some of the most common procedures an equine practitioner performs at the track on a daily basis. He also outlined proper nutrition and care procedures that should be taken to ensure a horse is able to perform to its capabilities.

"Nutrition is a key component to a racehorse," Blea said. "If you boil it down to basics, number one you're feeding a horse and number two, you're feeding an athlete. Both subsets have specific requirements."

Blea said vets work closely with trainers on feeding and nutrition programs, but that he sees some excessive use of supplements by some trainers.

"You will see some trainers go the route of excessive supplements, and I say excessive because I don't believe they are necessary," he said. "When you start adding them, you'll see problems on occasion. Not all (supplements) are bad for the horse, but not all are good for the horse."

The owners also heard presentations on what is being done within the areas of health and injury research and finding alternative careers for retired horses.

"The equine research community is remarkable in its ability to keep pace with the human research community, with far less money," said Ed Bowen of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.

"This is the greatest untold welfare story," Bramlage said of what is being done with regard to equine research. "We have to spend some time and effort telling this story."

Erin Crady, of Thoroughbred Charities of America, said there are many alternative uses for Thoroughbreds once they are retired, including as therapy animals for humans.

"Thoroughbreds are some of the most versatile animals out there," Crady said. "Equine assisted therapy has been helpful for people with a wide variety of problems, and a lot of them are Thoroughbreds."

Nancy Kelly of The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation, and Stacie Clark of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, also participated in the panel.

Before the "Care for the Thoroughbred and Foundations,"  Peter Wilmott, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, praised the conference participants for taking time to learn more about the sport.

Wilmott noted that he was born about 18 miles north of Sarataga Springs, N.Y., and that his grandfather closed his factory that manufactured women's gloves when the Saratoga Race Course meet was underway.

"You have to be prepared for setbacks," Wilmott said of the ownership experience. "But it has been a tremendous experience. In balance it is a great adventure."