A true athlete spends most of their time exercising so they can condition and strengthen in order to excel in their chosen discipline. “Fit horses are competition ready,” says Champion Equine’s owner, Paul Roy, who has developed a conditioning program based on science, biomechanics and proven results.
“A dedicated equestrian spends time to ensure their horse is fit in order to improve performance and reduce the potential for injury.” Paul Roy has quickly become one of Western Canada’s foremost experts, and stands as a leader in the athletic equine conditioning and rehabilitation industry. Roy has had a passion for helping horses as far back as he can remember. This passion drove him to complete a double major in human health care/equine studies as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Physiology which has become his company’s main focus.
It’s not uncommon to see Paul in the Equine Centre from dawn ‘til dusk, especially taking time to educate a new generation of horse owners while researching the benefits of the overall horse’s health and conditioning in relation to performance.
From a “Conditioning for Performance” Point of View
“There has been a great deal of discussion about the importance of “conditioning for performance” since the recent rule changes were finalized in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association” says Paul. “Barrel racers’ horses are now subject to random drug testing at all pro rodeos,” (WPRA Report, 2013).
What does this mean to the barrel racing industry? One of the questions circulating is “If I’m not giving drugs to enhance performance, why am I restricted to give my horse pain relievers?”
Many competitors put on thousands of miles with their equine partners—both in the arena and on the road—in an effort to keep their horses comfortable. Small doses of drugs are believed to alleviate minor aches and pains. Some of the criticism has been around these drugs being used as part of a competition regime giving question to an uneven playing field.
For many years now other equine events such as jumping, dressage and eventing have enforced a “no doping” policy. Forbidding analgesics or performance enhancing drugs have been strictly enforced. Governing bodies surrounding equestrian events are responsible to protect the riders, the sport, and the horses from harm. Without these governing bodies, (e.g., WPRA, Equine Canada, etc.,) there would not be equine sports and without these rules, the risk of injury and undue harm to the animals may significantly increase.
Basic Understanding of How Drugs Effect Horses
To understand the reasoning behind the rules, it helps to have an understanding of how the drugs work and the immediate, short term and long term effects these drugs have on our horses. The most common drugs used in equine practice are Anti-Inflammatory Drugs, Analgesics, Corticosteroids, and Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs).
Anti-Inflammatory Drugs and Analgesics
Anti-inflammatories are intended to relieve or reduce swelling (inflammation), not to prevent it. Analgesics are intended to relieve pain, not mask it. Often, as with the case of NSAIDs, some drugs do both. Drugs such as morphine, pentazocine (Talwin), and butorphanol are narcotic analgesics; therefore, they are subject to federal regulation and must be purchased by prescription. The effect they have on horses is unpredictable. They can produce excitation, apprehension, and increased muscular activity. They are dangerous and should not be used at any time in sport.
Although Corticosteroids are not prohibited when injected into a joint they are among the most powerful anti-inflammatory agents. The anti-inflammatory effects of cortisone derive from the ability of the drug to enter the cell and alter functions associated with the inflammatory response. However, the suppressive effects are not selective. This means cell functions associated with cellular immunity and wound healing are suppressed by cortisone. Injecting hocks is a common use of corticosteroids and even though it stops pain in the joint it can also stop the healing process; whether in the acute or post-acute stage of healing.
The problem with masking the pain more often than not is that it exacerbates the problem (makes it worse) because it’s not curing or fixing anything. It’s masking the problem which leaves a horse more susceptible to injury as it continues to work on an injured limb. It takes the pain away but it is not a cure and the joint will continue to worsen. Although cortisone has its place if the horse owner is willing to give the horse adequate rest and follow a precise exercise program, it is not the solution for “curing” lameness during the competition season.
Multiple joint injections can result in a condition called steroid arthropathy, this condition accelerates degenerative arthritis. A further risk of long-term joint injections is adrenal-insufficiency, where the adrenal gland stops producing cortisone. In this case hormones in the body recognize the artificial insertion of cortisone into the body and as a result the body stops producing it.
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
NSAIDs are the most commonly used and safest pain relievers for horses. The drugs interfere with prostaglandin synthesis (regulate the contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle tissue) and the production of undesirable inflammatory products and enzymes. However, all NSAIDs including phenylbutazone (BUTE) have a potential for toxicity when administered at high levels, for an extended period of time, or when two NSAIDs are used at the same time. The gastro-intestinal tract and kidneys are the organs which receive the most damage with ongoing use. Ulcers of the mouth, stomach and GI tract, loss of appetite, diarrhea, protein loss through the urinary tract and weight loss are all side effects.
All mammals have a pain response. When injury occurs, pain receptors from the site of injury send a signal to the brain to tell us it hurts. This signal prevents the mammal from further injury. Most mammals will quit the painful activity, but horses that are trained to do a job don’t have the choice to quit. Similar to a human over training their muscles at the gym and feeling sore the following day, if a horse is out of shape, it will exhibit similar signs of pain and soreness.
Understanding the Pain Process
Due diligence and an understanding of the pain process plus a proper diagnosis of the lameness or injury is time well spent to prevent long term problems for the equine athlete,” says Roy. Rather than rush to drugs and try to mask the pain or cover up the symptom, one should first figure out why the horse is hurting and treat the cause.
“How do we keep our equine competitors comfortable and free from pain if we can’t use these drugs? The answer to this question has always been through proper fitness,” says Roy. As human athletes can tell us, the stronger and fitter they are, the less likely they are to suffer injury or soreness. The same can be said for equine athletes. The stronger the horse is before performing, the better it’s going to feel during and after the activity and the less chance of suffering an injury.
How to Know if a Horse is Fit to Compete
“A good rule of thumb to know whether your horse is fit to compete is by trotting your horse at a comfortable pace for 20 minutes without stopping,” explains Roy. “After trotting your horse, allow the horse to cool down for 10 minutes and take his heart rate. Your horse’s heart rate should have recovered and his resting heart rate should be around 60 beats per minute. If not, your horse’s cardiovascular system is not at an adequate level and you increase the horse’s risk of injury. The horse will more likely experience soreness and performance may be compromised.”
“That short duration and high intensity work such as barrel racing, produces large amounts of lactate and H+ within the muscles which in turn reduce the bodies ph level,” he further explains. “This increase of H+ ions is referred to as acidosis. Lactic acid is the by-product of anaerobic glycolysis. Muscle pain and discomfort is the body’s inability to excrete lactic acid from the muscles efficiently. Lactic acid that is not cleared from the body thus converts to lactate with an increase in H+, in the unfit athlete. Research has proven that endurance training and resistance training, not only improves performance but more importantly makes the horse’s body more efficient at clearing lactic acid at a faster rate (increases the lactic threshold), increases the horses running velocity, greatly increases muscle mass, improves recovery following exercise and reduces the risk of injury. This increase in the lactate threshold appears to be the result of several factors, including a greater ability to clear lactate produced in the muscle and less lactate production for the same work rate.”
Indicators of Pain
“Long hours in the trailer also take its toll on horse’s muscles used for standing (Static/Isometric Action), the muscles are tense and flexed but are not moving, therefore the muscle length remains unchanged (static) or an isometric action as the joint angle does not change,” says Roy. “Trailering is not only stressful to the horse but depletes energy which inevitably affects performance. Since trailering is a necessary evil, keeping the horse as fit as possible is the best resolution.”
Roy notes to watch for “indicators that something is going on, such as the inability to back up in a straight line, tail swishing, travelling disunited, elevation of the sacrum in a turn rather than dropping on its hocks, head in the air with an inverted back during any type of speed work, predominantly using its front end to stop rather than its hind end, difficulty picking up a particular lead, bucking, humping, and shoulder dropping in a turn; all which should be addressed.”
Focus on Fitness
The professionals at Champion Equine encourage owners to focus on keeping their horses fit and strong. Roy believes that “soundness should not be managed through the use of drugs, it should be prevented through a developed fitness and training program.” Olympic athletes don’t try and manage pain; they work to enhance performance and we should do the same for our horses.