Equine Health and the Importance of the Off-Season
As Championship Meets across the UK heralds the nearing conclusion of competition season, thoughts are turning to equine care during the rest period.
From his years in equine practice and his own bout with cancer at only 36, Dr. Thomas Schell, (DVM, DABVP, CVCH, board certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in Equine Practice) shares some thoughts on:
- the effect of stress in the life of equine athletes,
- the different typical approaches to equine recovery, and
- how managing inflammation and nutrition can enhance the recovery process.
The effect of stress in the life of an equine athlete
“Equine health and soundness are critical for the competition athlete. It is something that many struggle with during the competitive season, which then often translates into the off-season with hopes of full recovery.
In many cases, the time off does allow for repair, just due to the fact of reduced stress, but for others, the problems persist. There may be more that can be done to further enhance the body and accelerate the recovery process, during that much needed time off.
The off-season is a time of rest and recovery. For most, this time comes during the fall and winter, however, some equine athletes tend to get more time off than others. The shear mental and physical stress can be overwhelming for most horses, but again, dependent on the level of their competition and frequency.
When we add into the equation transportation, often at large distances, this further compounds the problem. Thus, the time off becomes even more important, and all efforts should be made to enhance that recovery process.
Stress is what we are contending with in the daily life of our equine athletes. This stress is both mental and physical, impacting all facets of health.
On a mental level, stress creates
- confusion for some,
- a lack of proper focus and
- even contributes to gastric ulcers and GI upset.
On a physical level, stress contributes to
- joint dysfunction,
- tendon and ligament compromise,
- sore and tight muscles,
- sore backs, and
- painful feet.
These are all contributors we are looking to resolve during the down time of the off-season.
Typical approaches to equine recovery
For many horse owners, the off-season means a period of down time for both the horse and the rider. Typically, many owners will remove shoes during this period and allow for more time out on pasture, allowing that horse to just be a horse.
These two approaches are very good and beneficial to the body, as they allow the feet to expand or ‘breathe’ and encourages the horse themselves to just burn off some steam and get back into a proper state of mind. It is really no different than us, as people, taking a vacation, kicking off our work shoes and relaxing on a beach, taking a deep breath. It is good for the mind, body, and spirit.
This approach is beneficial for any equine athlete but depending on the level of damage to the body during the competitive season, a higher level of support may be needed. In those particular cases, it may mean that the off-season is the time that the owner pursues further diagnostics on a specific injury or maybe they make attempts at more involved therapy options.
These options may include
- focused trimming or shoeing,
- persistent shock wave therapy,
- rehabilitation therapies or even
- specific injections such as stem cells or platelet rich plasma.
Again, these therapies may be beneficial and aid those athletes, but we cannot forget that in order for those options to fully work, the body must be healthy and responsive. Just like trying to bring back a plant that may be wilted and dry, we must pay strict attention to the soil which provides the ultimate support.
Inflammation & nutrition in the off-season
Many horses are contending with ongoing injury and even health related issues during the competitive season, often covered up with medications and injections. Lameness associated conditions are likely the biggest problems, which includes joint dysfunction and soft tissue injuries such as tendons, ligaments and sore muscles.
In others we have respiratory conditions like inflammatory airway disease (IAD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and allergies, which are impacting performance. For some others, we have ongoing foot issues and balance problems, including sore soles, bruises, repeat abscesses or sore heels.
Now, all of these conditions take time to mend properly, and I think that is one of our biggest mistakes, being too hasty. We need to allow for that time, as time is what created most of them, but we also need to remember to fuel that body to support recovery.
Looking back over the patients we have helped during their recoveries, I think that two critical areas stick out to me:
- Inflammation management
These two aspects, when coupled with traditional time off at pasture and stress reduction, can make all of the difference regarding level of recovery.
The stress, mental and physical, that the equine athlete is undergoing during the season not only contributes heavily to the inflammatory response, but also drains the body of vitality. Nutrient demand is increased, often far beyond what the traditional diet provides. These two factors, if not addressed, can be the rate limiting steps to recovery and how far you go.
I am a huge advocate of a clean diet, full of whole grains and high-quality hays. In my years being a veterinarian, I have made the observation that nothing heals or provides for the body like whole foods. This approach provides twice the results of any synthetic based vitamin/mineral supplement, hands down. We just don’t give it the credit it deserves.
Inflammation is another critical aspect that most only touch the surface of in their off-season protocols. This cellular process is so deeply involved in every aspect of equine health and lameness.
We have horses with allergies during the competitive season that may be addressed then, but in the off-season, all efforts are tossed to the side. Ongoing joint, tendon and foot issues are no different, often being ‘managed’ during the competitive season, but left to mend on their own during down times.
The off-season is the most critical time for intervention and a proper approach can work wonders. The body is given a period of time off, so demands are lower, stress is lower, and cells are much more responsive to mending.
All of our approaches to heal and mend the body depend on the body being receptive and in a state of healing.
If the body is not provided for nutrition wise or there is a high level of persistent inflammation, our injections, special shoes and other therapies will not get a foot hold. It is vital to provide for that body, and if we do it properly, the body will mend. If we succeed in our efforts, then we won’t be left hoping that recovery takes place, but instead know that it will.”