The sport horse’s health can be compared with the health of a top-level human athlete, which requires medical care and appropriate sports training. In order to achieve his objectives, a sport horse must be in the best possible physical shape to fully exploit its potential. The implementation of good practices leading up to the horse’s physical training is an essential step, which is then followed by monitoring of its work.
How to optimise sports horse health monitoring? And how do veterinarians get involved in this process?
Different factors to observe in sport horse health
The sport horse at rest
Prior to examining the physical health of a horse in training, it is essential to put in place good practices before training. It involves different steps:
General behaviour: check that the horse is eating and drinking normally and that he has an adequate food intake. It is important to pay attention to weight loss, which is a good indicator of stress, gastric ulcers and/or overtraining. If the horse is in pain, he will show abnormal behaviour such as restlessness or laziness.
Body condition: an indicator of the quality of the horse’s ration, regular checks are essential to adapt the ration and put the horse in the best possible condition to progress. Overweight, or, on the contrary, a lack of condition can be damaging to the horse’s health in the long term.
Temperature: the first sign of a horse’s health, based on the same values as a human at rest, i.e. it should be between 37.0 and 38.5 degrees Celsius. However, it is important to consider some physiological variations that can occur with stress or climate change for example.
Heart rate: between 25 and 45 beats per minute for an adult horse at rest. It is important to check that it does not exceed 50 beats per minute at rest, which could be a sign of pain or heart disease.
Respiratory rate: the number of breaths a horse takes in and out in one minute. In a healthy horse at rest, it is between 6 and 20 breathing cycles per minute. Above this value, it could indicate that the horse is in pain or has a respiratory disease.
Mucous membranes: normally pink and moist, they can be viewed by lifting the upper lip. If the mucous membranes are dry or black in color, it may signal a health concern.
The sport horse in training
In order to monitor the sport horse’s health during training, the parameters listed above are essential: temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. However, there are some adaptations:
During training, the values for respiratory rate and heart rate will be greater than at rest. A sport horse’s heart rate can reach over 240 beats per minute during activity. If your horse is in good health, his heart rate should drop soon after activity (very fast, then slowly). The same is true for the respiratory rate, which can increase significantly during intense exercise. If your horse is in good health, it should recover reasonably fast. Within an hour of exercise, the horse’s breathing rate should return to normal.
A medical-sporting follow-up of the training can be very interesting to set up within a high-level stable for example. As for humans, exercise tolerance indicators can be used.
Focus on heart rate
Why measure it?
Monitoring an athletic horse’s heart rate can help in the detection of respiratory problems, as well as discomfort and tension. It can also allows you to follow the horse’s sports goal and create a training program tailored to him.
How to measure it?
To measure it, you need a connected sensor such as Equimetre, to be able to measure it directly during exercise to:
- Identify the physical condition of the horse before an important event.
- Know the heart rate zones reached when the horse is working, to help the rider manage training by adapting the level of effort to the horse (physical aptitude, objectives, etc.).
- Assess the quality of recovery, to evaluate the horse’s tolerance to exercise.
- Monitor any abnormalities in heart rate.
Veterinarians’ involvement in monitoring the sport horse’s health
Sports performance is the result of good physical preparation and good health. This is why veterinarians are essential in monitoring the health of sport horses. It goes through the implementation of preventive medicine:
If the horse is competing, vaccination against influenza is compulsory but it is also very important to vaccinate horses against tetanus and rhino pneumonia which are two diseases that can affect them.
The horse’s teeth tend to be worn less well and less regularly in the box, on a feed of hay and concentrates, than when the horse is out at grass.
Overbite is commonly detected, and is traditionally positioned on the outside of the upper premolars and molars and on the inside of the lower premolars and molars. These can cause injury to the horse when eating or riding by causing sores on the inside of the cheeks or on the tongue). Annual care dental treatment (tooth grinding) is recommended.
In addition, the veterinarian may do blood tests when involved in the monitoring of the sport horse. These blood test, carried out by the veterinarian as part of the monitoring of the sport horse, make it possible to assess whether the horse is in good physical condition, his tolerance to any problems previously identified and to individualise the training of each horse.
The veterinarian can also perform a locomotor examination, a respiratory endoscopy, any other imaging examination or prescribe osteopathy sessions either as a preventive measure or in case of problems. These different examinations carried out by the veterinarian as part of the follow-up of the sport horse allow to assess the horse’s physical condition, tolerance to a previously detected issue, and individualize the training of each horse.
Some common health issues in sport horses
Many diseases affect horses, some of which are more prevalent than others, such as digestive disorders, parasite diseases, respiratory diseases, orthopedic issues, dermatological problems, and so on. Fortunately, there are numerous treatments accessible for managing them.
For example, digestive disorders, which are mainly represented by colic, are now the leading cause of death in horses. Horses show various signs during colic, most of which are signs of pain (horses scratching the ground, lying down, rolling over, sweating a lot, etc.)
Horses are also vulnerable to parasitic infections, which are mostly spread by insects, particularly mosquitoes and ticks. They’re disease vectors such as piroplasmosis and Lyme disease. Fever is one of the earliest indicators of these diseases, which is why it is important to regularly take your horse’s temperature on a regular basis and to notify the veterinarian if it is too high.
Regarding respiratory diseases, the horse is very sensitive to dust and molds and can develop asthma. Therefore, it is important to consult the veterinarian in case of symptoms in order to set up an adapted medical treatment and to get advice on the horse’s environment and on the feeding methods.
Locomotor disorders lead to lameness and need the veterinarian’s intervention in order to perform a thorough examination, with tools such as EQUISYM or associated imaging (ultrasound, X-ray, MRI or scintigraphy).
These diseases are widespread, and it is critical to understand the symptoms in order to alert your veterinarian as soon as possible. Preventive measures include all the clinical examinations that help to anticipate the appearance of problems.
Monitoring the sport horse’s health allows to optimize his athletic performance and to fully exploit his potential while limiting the risk of injuries. It is an ongoing process that requires regular veterinary examinations, careful attention to diet, behavior, body condition and vital signs.
The intensity of the horse’s work, like that of high-performance human athletes, must be tailored to each individual. The rider must be able to rely on a team of professionals around him, but also on new tools to help him in this follow-up.
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Keywords: sport horse health, stress, heart disease, vaccination, preventive medicine, lactatemia.
Crédit photo @Pierre Costabadie