Laurie Metcalfe, DVM associate with Rood & Riddle, demystifies medical issues an ex-racehorse Thoroughbred may encounter when leaving track life, and offers insights on the growing awareness of OTTBs.
Q: What is an osselet and how significant is it to the future career of an ex-racehorse?
A: An “osselet” refers to the thickening/bony reaction that occurs at the joint capsule attachment of the fetlock, and usually results from trauma/wear and tear of racing. They represent strain and micro-tearing of this attachment of the fetlock/ankle joint to the cannon bone which, over time, creates firm, bony lumps. Acutely, these can be painful, making the horse very sore. However, over time, with no other issues associated, most do well and many horses are unaffected in careers not as strenuous as racing. Many times “osselets” are more of a cosmetic problem for owners than functional problem for the horse. The problem lies in that because this injury results from trauma and strain, many are accompanied by other problems such as bone chips and arthritis. I always suggest a full lameness exam +/- radiographs to determine the extent and significance of the condition.
Q: Bowed tendons also tend to give potential buyers pause. What advice would you give a buyer when considering a horse with this issue?
A: A bowed tendon refers to strain or damage to the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) which runs down the very back of each cannon bone. When damaged or inflamed, edema and soft tissue swelling is produced creating the classic curved profile we have come to know as a “bow”. I would tell a potential buyer that each horse is an individual case, and without a full history you owe it to yourself to have a full lameness exam performed as well as a diagnostic ultrasound. Many of these bows are old and inactive, just not asthetically pleasing, and the horse can do well at a lower athletic level than racing. However, a portion of them will have a lesion, or tear, making the prognosis for eventual soundness poorer. Others merely have some edema and just need some time off before embarking on a new career path. The only way to truly evaluate this is with a baseline ultrasound by your veterinarian- it will be money well spent.
Q: If a horse is a “bleeder” does that have ramifications for future careers?
A: A “bleeder” by definition is a horse affected by exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH) and refers to bleeding in the lungs caused by rupture of pulmonary capillaries as a result of strenuous exercise. This is evidenced, if severe enough, by blood running from the nostrils post-racing, or if not as severe can be diagnosed by endoscopy of the trachea. The severity of the horse’s condition combined with the type of career desired will dictate their potential on an individual basis. The key is that it is a condition induced by very strenuous exercise- an extremely affected racehorse going on to the dressage ring may not have a problem, as exercise is not commonly exhaustive. However, an eventer or polo pony may have issues. The condition can be controlled with medications such as furosemide (Lasix) but for most this is not practical and may not even be allowed in many disciplines. Each case is individual, however many horses only bleed after racing and do very well without incident in alternative careers.
Q: What do you consider to be the most important tests in a pre-purchase veterinary exam and why?
A: Number one for me is a complete, thorough physical exam. I feel it is the most undervalued diagnostic tool available to us as veterinarians and can be loaded with valuable information. Everyone is always extremely concerned with the lameness exams and flexion tests. While very important, it may not matter where the horse is sore if it has a heart condition limiting exercise or a recurrent airway obstruction (“heaves”) preventing him from ever taking a deep breath. The PPE must look at the whole horse- I have been told that you don’t ever miss things because you don’t know, you miss them because you didn’t look- I try to remember this during my physical examinations. Also important while performing a physical exam is that it is an opportunity to judge a horse’s personality, behavior and how they are responding to me. If it takes me 10 minutes to get a look at the teeth, chances are you may have trouble getting a bit easily into that mouth. No one will care about his lameness if you can’t get any tack on.
Q: Can you offer any pointers for judging a jog or watching a horse walk in hand?
A: I always tell people to use all of their senses- look and listen. Watch the head for obvious things like a “head-bob”. “Down on the sound” is a phrase many people use. A horse’s head is extremely heavy. When they are sore on one limb or another, they attempt to take this weight off of the affected limb to ease the load. As a result, when this limb is weight bearing in front, the head will go up. When the good limb is weight bearing, the head will go down. It sounds obvious but concentration is required to determine which leg is sore, especially when this can be very subtle. In addition, use your ears as well as your eyes. Horses will land harder and louder on a sound limb than a sore one- especially helpful when they are shod. Also watch their ears and facial expression- if they are uncomfortable or painful, many horses will demonstrate this in their body language.
Q: What are some best practices for letting down a racehorse once he or she moves to a new home?
A: One of the most important things is establishing a routine. All creatures crave routine, even without realizing it, and it is particularly important with these animals early on. Their day was undoubtedly like clockwork at the racetrack and it is what most are accustomed to. Feed at the same time daily, turnout in the same paddock, use the same stall. I usually tell people to back off the high concentrate feeds to start- they don’t have the same high energy demands like they did racing and therefore will not require as many calories. Get a buddy for them if amenable to it- another horse, a donkey, even a goat- many horses adjust better with a companion. Make sure the horse is thoroughly examined by a veterinarian prior to any turnout to ensure there are not injuries requiring stall rest. If healthy, being turned out to “just be a horse” for a while will help many settle down, however their personality and behavior must dictate this decision. When all else fails, some horses do well with a 30 day tranquilizer to ease the transition, but as with all drugs there are potential side effects, so ideally they can do this drug-free.
Q: If an ex-racehorse doesn’t gain weight, or exhibits other signs he or she is failing to thrive, what are some of the options the owner should consider?
A: As a veterinarian, I would start by ruling out any physiological issues. Poorly maintained teeth are a frequent cause of weight loss. Have the horse’s teeth checked for sharp points, oral ulcers or other dentition problems. Many of these horses arrive with no history, and some will have never experienced a float- this can significantly affect how they utilize their food. Other physical issues include gastric ulcers. Horses affected by ulcers don’t have to appear “stressed” to have problems. Having your veterinarian use an endoscope to look in the stomach is a definitive diagnosis, however frequently cost prohibitive.
Many people choose to just treat these horses with anti-ulcer medication such as omeprazole (gastrogard/ulcergard) or ranitidine (zantac) and have positive results. Heart conditions can also affect weight gain as well as a large parasite burden. With any failure to thrive case, I would have your horse thoroughly examined by your veterinarian and include bloodwork and a fecal analysis. If the horse checks out physically, there could be environmental changes required, such as improving inadequate pasture or feed quality. Each case is individual, and should be treated accordingly.
Q: Rood & Riddle recently created an award for achievements for sport horse off-track-Thoroughbreds. Please describe the award and the reason it was created.
A: The Thoroughbred Sport Horse of the Year Award was the idea of Dr. Tom Riddle who has worked predominantly with thoroughbreds throughout his career. He wanted to call attention to the second career potential of this athletic breed and honor their successes in equine sports outside of racing. It is his hope that this award will encourage people to retrain thoroughbreds after their racing careers have ended and decrease the number of unwanted horses in the US. In April 2010, Rood and Riddle partnered with the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) to establish this annual award. Courageous Comet was recently awarded the first annual Rood and Riddle Sport Horse of the Year Award for his 2009 season at the TOBA National Awards Dinner September 10, 2010. A perpetual grand prize trophy will be displayed at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital. The divisional honors will be presented at the USEF’s annual Silver Stirrup Awards Banquet in January 2011.
Q: Do you think awareness of the unwanted horse is growing within the Thoroughbred industry and the larger equine world?
A: I think awareness is definitely growing. This topic has been in the media recently with controversy over legislation regarding slaughterhouses, and is a very emotionally charged issue for many. Many more rescue and equine welfare organizations exist all over the country today than ever before in history. A number of these groups have programs concentrating on retraining these horses for new careers and do an excellent job of adopting out. There are stalls at each Kentucky racetrack where owners or trainers can anonymously donate an unwanted horse with no questions asked. In many show horse venues, there are now classes and incentives for thoroughbreds/ex-racehorses.
Unfortunately, these are all small hills in what remains a mountain of a problem. Money is limited, and resources don’t even begin to cover a fraction of these horses. We need to start to try to reduce the number of unwanted horses by continuing to raise awareness and help owners realize that they have a responsibility. One goal is to increase education enough that many horses will be donated before catastrophic injury forces retirement to give them optimal potential in a new career. It is much more straightforward to find a home for a horse with strong athletic potential than one that has sustained career ending injury and will never be ridden. Much progress has been made in the plight of the unwanted horse, however our goals are nowhere near achieved.
Q: What is the biggest success story you can cite of a racehorse or ex-racehorse?
A: The biggest success story for me is very personal, in that it is my own 30 year old gelding, “Cool Under Fire” AKA “Elliot”. Elliot (known as Sportin Aron in his racing days) was an utter failure as a racehorse, starting over 10 times in 3 or 4 years, retiring with no wins and best place finish being second to last in one glorious start. He retired from racing and quickly climbed to the top of the horse show world, showing, and winning, at AA level in Large Jr. Hunter and Owner/Hunter divisions. He showed under 3 different owners everywhere from Palm Beach to Lake Placid to the Capital Challenge and did everything ever asked of him. Elliot showed up until 2002 and was retired at the age of 22.
Eventually, he was donated to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation at Blackburn Correctional facility here in Lexington, where his personality quickly made him a favorite among the inmates. I first met El as an intern, when I frequently treated him for choke (he has an esophageal stricture) and allergies (constantly breaking out in hives).
Naturally, I too adored him and, knowing that due to his age and high maintenance veterinary issues he was lower on the adoptability list, he came home with me. That was five years ago, and he is enjoying being pampered with his 26 year old Arabian soulmate, Dandilion. He is a gentle giant with children, but will still give an experienced rider a run for their money, and I can’t imagine life without him.